On Picking My Brain

Yesterday an email popped in from a guy named Ryan who wanted to see if I had 20 minutes to talk to him over the phone about memoir writing. I immediately shot back: Do you mean you want advice or you’re interviewing me for your article? “It’s an article for Publisher’s Weekly,” he said, “You’ll be quoted.” I apologized, I said, “Sorry, I was about to jump down your throat.”

He called me an hour later and said, “You must get lots of emails from strangers about your books and stuff.” “I used to get emails about my books,” I said, “Now I get emails asking what I can do for them, how they can “get” things I have.” I said this in a joking manner, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized it was true.

I’ve been getting hit up a lot for advice lately. In the past two weeks I’ve received more emails from strangers than ever; what’s in the air right now? These emails are not about my books like they used to be, but more of, How can I emulate your career path, what do I do. I am getting these emails at a time when I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I’m teaching memoir here, personal essay here, doing my own book edits, teaching at Catapult story here, taught a teen workshop, and doing freelance stuff and one-on one editing with writers like this one.  I am working furiously to keep up with my students’ work, my lectures, my own writing, my health. So when I am working on my students’ essays, and an email pops in asking me for advice, it aggravates me, because I want my time to go to the people who are paying for it.

I’m trying to figure out why this getting hit up for advice sometimes makes me cranky, and I’ve come up with a few reasons. One is that, many of the people are living more well-off than I am. Why do you want to imitate ME? I get it—I have books out. But if I told you the way I “got to where I am” (which is, HA, where? Sitting at my desk, still? Working at my dad’s store, still? Babysitting, still?) I don’t know if these people would want to try it. Last week I received an email from 2 girls from California who are living in a loft in Williamsburg writing a movie all summer. (I would kill to have that set up, but the grass is always greener, right?) The girls wanted to ask me how I “got” what I did, so here it is:

  1. I lived home from age twenty-four to twenty-six so I could write. This meant I had nothing. Not money, not a car, not a partner, not a bank account, not my own apartment, not my own groceries. I lived at home again shortly when I was twenty-eight. This meant I felt lazy and lame; a failure.

2. I moved a lot, leaving me unsettled and poor and exhausted and lonely, but widening my “literary community” since I lived back and forth on both coasts for a few years.

3. I took emotional risks. Big ones. I promoted and pushed my own work which you can only do in the way I did if you are young and naive enough. I gave myself permission to be a writer.

4. I chose writing over relationships.

5. I chose writing over going out.

6. I chose writing over sleeping in.

7. I chose writing over living in New York City.

8. I chose writing over finding a day job that would lend me security or benefits.

9. I chose writing over having health and dental insurance. (I’m on Medicaid now.)

10. Since I chose no other career path or back up plan or degree, I became married to writing. Since I became married to writing, my work got out there more. Since my work got out there more, I got more opportunities. The more opportunities I got, the more opportunities I got.

11. I didn’t go to college.

12. So obviously, I didn’t get an MFA.

13. I put out a book of essays without making a cent on it.

Here are some things I didn’t get:

I’ve never been accepted to a residency. I paid $300 to go the one at Martha’s Vineyard in May.

I’ve never won a contest that paid anything. I’ve never won an award.

I did win $150 from Word Riot.

Do you see what I mean? This is not exactly the “path” most people want to follow. My path is like, move home and make no money. Write for free. Have no back up plan. 

It’s not linear and it has no tips or tricks. The “trick” was that I literally spent eight hours a day at my desk. I remember vividly one night my friends threw rocks at my window telling me to come out to the bars, and I ignored them. (This is not to say I didn’t spend my twenties in bars–I did, but when I was devoted to a book/essay, I was devoted.)

The 2 girls said that they wanted to ‘pick my brain’. What exactly do you mean? I asked them, I’m pretty spread thin these days, I said. They wanted to take me for coffee, they said they felt ‘stuck’ in their writing projects. They wanted to know about my trajectory. They said if I didn’t have time for coffee, would i talk to them on the phone?

When they called, I told them I had 15 minutes. They put me on speaker phone. They had 2 questions, one was “So, like, how did you get on VICE?” and another was, “How did you get literary representation?” (Mind you, these girls aren’t in the lit world, they are in the film world, something I totally cannot speak to, so I’m not sure how i could help them if I wanted to.)

Well, I GOT on VICE because the editor solicited me after I wrote hundreds of unpaid pieces over the last nine years, and I got an agent when she read an essay I wrote for the anthology Goodbye To All That and contacted me. And I GOT into that anthology because the editor of it saw something else (unpaid) that I wrote on The Rumpus. I got on VICE after writing for free for a decade. I GOT on VICE after the editor Jennifer Schaffer and I spent three months of intense edits as I wrote about my beautiful dead friend. (Are we having fun yet?!)

Imagine if I’d asked them questions back like: How did you GET a loft in Williamsburg?

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 12.50.56 PM

I just clicked on my PUBLICATIONS page and counted them. 30 of them were published unpaid. 10 were paid.

I know this post might sound bitchy and bitter. But I want to say that when you work your ass off and are still eating canned tuna, and pasta a boyfriend left at your apartment a year and a half ago, the phrase, “How did you get” can feel really grating on your ears.

I recognize ambition in my students. I had it too. I was telling my mother the other day that I looked back on my old emails when I took Memoir 1 in NYC, the same class I am now teaching. Seven years ago, my teacher Katie Dykstra was the only woman writer in her thirties (she was the nonfiction editor at Guernica) that I knew. I was twenty-one. I wrote her incessant emails:

Hi Katie, the assignment was to write about our mom, right?

Hi Katie! Is it okay if I bring in my essay on recycled paper?

Hey Katie, what day do I hand in my pages again?

Hi Katie, can you give me recommendations on places to send my work?

Sorry to bother you Katie, but could you send me that piece you mentioned in class, Literary Laryngitis?

Hey Katie, I have a book coming out and just wanted to thank you!

Hi Katie, do you know any reading series I could read at?

Hi Katie, I’d love to submit something I wrote to you at Guernica. Can I send it over?

Katie was my only resource. I had 0 resources so i took it upon myself to seek them out. I took more classes, therefore met more people. I made friends. I wrote. I read.

***

Another email I got the other day: “My friend took Litreactor class with you and says you’re really nice and approachable, so I wanted to ask you for some advice.”

“Usually I AM nice and approachable!” I told her. “But I’ve been receiving a lot of these requests while I’m swamped reading my students’ essays and doing things I’m being paid for. But I’ll answer your questions really quickly.”

1. Many of the small presses don’t have open submissions- how do I get them to read my work?

CC: No idea. Send anyway? Follow on Twitter and brazenly ask? Find the publisher’s email and send the book anyway? 

2. How did you deal with negative criticism once your work was out (like The Mercury review of LGLA)?

CC:  I don’t know. It’s funny and interesting. Builds character. 

3. What is the editing process like once your manuscript has been submitted? Do publishers often change a ton?

CC: Always different! Depends on your book and you and your publisher. No answer to this I’m sure it always varies. 

4. This is a weird, personal question, but how did your family react to how personal your writing is? I know Chelsea Hodson has a rule with her dad that he can’t read anything she publishes, and I’m curious to know if you’ve had to place any similar sort of restrictions on people close to you.

CC: I’m tight with my family so was never a huge issue. I have lots of support from them so I felt safe enough to write LGLA, I guess. It will always be unnerving, but this is how I’ve chosen to live my life, so I have to deal with that.  No restrictors. That seems unfair. If i’m publicly writing books, I can’t decide who reads them. It’s a surrender of control.

  ***

The family question is getting particularly hard to answer. It’s depends on your family, and unless I know your family story, I don’t know what you should do in that regard. I only know what I should do.

***

When I was twenty-three, my parents helped me pay to have 5 one-on-one sessions with the author Melissa Febos. I met her for coffee first at News Bar near Union Square. I will never forget she emailed me afterwards, “Chloe I know this is awkward–talking about money always is!—but the meeting we had today has to be paid for as well.”

I wasn’t old enough to be mortified, but that anecdote hangs over me now. She simply couldn’t meet young authors for coffee for an hour for free. Now, I get it. Looking back, I thought she was rich, because she had a book out. She lived in Bushwick. I also thought she was way older than me: but now I see she was only 29 to my 22. (I am now 29.)

I’ve been bribed with many coffees lately. I can buy my own coffee! I want to say.

Here’s an excerpt From Emily Gould’s “How Much My Novel Cost Me”:

During that $7,000 year I also routinely read from my work in front of crowds of people, spoke on panels and at colleges, and got hit up for advice by young people who were interested in emulating my career path, whose coffee I usually ended up buying after they made a halfhearted feint toward their tote bag–purses. I felt some weird obligation to them and to anyone else who might be paying attention to pretend that I wasn’t poor. Keeping up appearances, of course, only made me poorer. I’m not sure what the point of admitting all this might be, because I know that anyone who experiences a career peak in his mid-twenties will likely make the same mistakes I did, and it’s not even clear to me that they were all mistakes, unless writing a book is always a mistake, which in some sense it must be. 

This post is making me sound like someone I am not. if you know me, and many of you reading this kind of do, you know I am generous as hell. I adore my students and give them my heart. I spend the week before each memoir class trying to pick out something we can read that will make them laugh, feel good, learn. I lie on my couch with their essays and my red le pen. Any of my Litreactor students will tell you I truly enjoy helping them place their essays, (in and out of class) and emailing with them and sending them towards the right editor if I know one. I constantly bother people telling them, “You should submit to this!” I also am generous to people who are not my students and would love to meet them for coffee, when I can. I guess I just want people to be more aware of the phrase “how did you get” because usually the person didn’t “get’ anything and while they respond to your email of how they “got” what they “got” it’s taking away from them “getting it, girl.” I got what I got because I sit here in yoga pants and acne all day working my ass off. This is not to say I am not grateful and flattered. I am. But there’s something about it that makes me feel defensive, and used, and dirty.

I watched an interview with Amy Schumer the other night. I related to lots of what she was saying: she loves other women comics, she champions them, etc. It was really nice and authentic and then this girl ruined it during the Q & A when she stood up and told Amy to Google her comedy and then made a comment like,

“And you know, you just said you love mentoring young girls so…..hit me up.”

EW. EW. EW.

I was deeply embarrassed for her. Mentorships should work naturally. They should be special. You do not ask a celebrity to be your mentor. This is called having basic social skills.

it is insulting to ask writers how they GOT on VICE, or The Rumpus, because it implies they knew someone there, not because their work is good. I got in The Rumpus and Salon because I went to their websites and followed the submitting directions. The secret to writing and publishing, it turns out, is writing and publishing. Mostly writing.

This is not to say I haven’t had some good luck! But I had the “luck” because I was doing the work. Some things I’ve done have been wonderful: I’ve been flown places and done readings in eccentric and glamorous places I never thought I would. Cheryl Strayed blurbed my first book—–because I had written it. Elizabeth Ellen bought my next book because I had written it. CoffeeHouse bought my next book because I had written it. There are zero shortcuts to writing.

I don’t want this post to be solely negative so here are some things I did do that helped me along my way:

1. I emailed authors when I was moved by their books or pieces I read online.

2. I said ‘yes’ every time I was asked to do a reading

3. I emailed hosts of readings and asked if I could read at their series (before LGLA was even out.)

4. I asked for jobs. At Litreactor, at Catapult, at Gotham, at libraries.

5. I treated writing as a job. I still wake up every single morning and head to my desk first thing.

6. I submitted my work.

7. I knew when not to submit my work (sometimes.)

8. I studied what other writers were doing and where they were publishing and sent my work to those places.

9. I got off Facebook two years ago, which has helped me to keep my head down and do my work without seeking attention all day, every day. (I use Twitter for that. : )

10. I support dozens of other writers and they support me in return. Support is not, “How did you get” support is based on mutual admiration.

The girls who I spoke to on speaker phone told me I could come hang out with them in Brooklyn anytime and listen to records. I think they wanted more from me than I could give. I think I disappointed them. But they disappointed me, too.

And if someone wants a VICE contact, they should just email me and ask. Also it’s on their website.

I’d rather have someone email me and ask me directly for an editor’s name, then flatter me just to make connections.

When you say, “How did you get” it sounds like you’re asking for a shortcut. It sounds like you’re saying, “Why you and not me?”

When I was 22 I emailed Ryan O’Connell for the editor’s name at the New York Times Townies column. He told me he couldn’t give it, because he was solicited. (So I found the editor’s name on my own: Honor Jones. I sent her my essay which she accepted, and then changed her mind–a quick heartbreak for me.)

I’m 99.9% sure, without looking back into my email, that I phrased my question to Ryan, “How did you get on Townies? How did you get in the New York Times?”

CC

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88 thoughts on “On Picking My Brain

  1. Hi, Chloe,

    This was, in spite of your worry about being negative, very inspirational. And I have to second #1 there: Email authors whose books move you. As a struggling writer myself, it’s the non-financial feedback that sometimes means the most, and I have made it a point to let authors know they they’re connecting. I always get a positive response.

    Keep speaking with your unique voice.

    Best,
    Roger

  2. Hi, Chloe,

    In spite of your worry this is too negative, it was inspirational as always. And I second your #1 there: email authors whose books moved you. As a struggling writer myself, I understand sometimes the non-financial feedback means the most. I always make it a point to reach out to writers and have always gotten positive appreciative feedback.

    What goes around eventually comes around. Congratulations on graduating from “someone who wrote some books” to “someone who can help me.” I guess 🙂

    Keep up the good fight, I love your voice,

    Roger

  3. I was just thinking about when they asked you about being “stuck” and how you did what you did.. at your reading in Denver back in January when I asked you about writer’s block and you told me you didn’t think it existed, it literally changed my writing life because I realized you were right. I think that statement just embodies the whole “I DID it, and that’s what I did, you just do it” mentality you were describing, of being married to the work. People want shortcuts, they want clear cut paths. And the only path to take is to just do it, trial and error, and be persistent. I love that you are so honest about your hard work. It reminds me of the post you made a while back about success and money, too.

    Also, I don’t think you lack ambition. Day jobs are stupid, but necessary. I think you are ambitious about your art. It’s clear, because your list of how you “got” where you are involves sacrifices a lot of people aren’t willing to make.

    1. I don’t lack ambition! I have a surplus of it–that’s why it shocked me to see that journal entry.

      It’s pretentious to say writer’s block doesn’t exist, but it works for me! And you too, sounds like.

  4. So much YES about this whole piece! Thank you for writing it! I’m not even published and I get asked by family or friends how to write, because they all know I do it. Which is nice, but I don’t know how to give advice on a thing like that. From now on, I will just link them to this!

  5. Wow. Thank you so much for posting this. I’m a designer in NYC and I worked my ass off to be where I am. While I empathize with students and aspiring young designers who frequently email me with requests to meet for coffee (always coffee!!) I really dread taking time out of my very busy schedule and have started turning them down. I always feel slightly guilty, but I don’t think I should. I am where I am because I worked hard. Period. My only advise is: work hard. All day and every day. And also, probably, don’t ever ask anyone out for coffee to “pick their brain.”

  6. “I moved a lot, leaving me unsettled and poor and exhausted and lonely, but widening my “literary community” since I lived back and forth on both coasts for a few years.” I relate to this so well. I’m still a brainpick-er and not a brainpick-ee. I’m just about to set out picking people’s brains so I’m glad I read this.

  7. I guess that is a writer, i was told you are one if you simply write but that is probally wrong, i guess your livin the dream girl, go you😄

  8. I am so glad I stumbled on this post today. When I was in school, my teachers assumed I would become a writer. I had top marks, I won school awards, I read my fiction and poetry at parent’s evening to enthusiastic applause. I even won local and national competitions. But if my teachers were waiting for my novel to come out, they’ve had (and will have) a very long wait. I do not have the dedication that you have. I have not put in the hard work into writing that you have. My path has taken a different direction. So I would never imagine that I could have, or could deserve, what you have. Being an author will remain a pleasant daydream, and I will watch on in admiration for those who have talent and perseverance and who have made their success.

  9. Ah, the work/love-it/hate-it ethic trajectory! That’s a hard one to learn. Essays such as this one go a long way towards getting that message across. As an editor for a local weekly that pays next to nothing for contributions, I can’t get away with easy platitudes. It was good to read your thoughts.

  10. There are any amount of books on the market By known writers that tell people how they. Did it and how to write. Reading them is entertaining and interesting, but they don’t tell the reader how it’s done, only how the individual writer did it.

  11. The perks and downs of writing. Thank you for sharing this blog. I felt sad at most part like how you start it. Until I get the point on “how do you get it” or latter part. How embarrassing to be ask those questions. As if everything can be bought on store. But writing requires time to hone the craft.

    I find writing interesting and about what you shared today. I never knew how much it cost, like it cost you your boyfriend, health etc,. But thank you we ‘caught’ something today from this post. Thank you for the learning.

  12. Reblogged this on and commented:
    There is no shortcut in life. We just have to work hard. Totally agree with Chloe.

  13. I am always inspired when others self-reflect. The manic world we live in. Trying to prove our self – worth is challenging! I have my mind maps and I still cannot pick or deliver a style. Wonderfully written.

  14. What an inspiring post. So many people just see the success and not the hard work behind the finished product. I admire your grit and determination.

  15. How informative your post is! Writing is already a hard work, and sticking to it for a decade or so is a sacrifice! Those open-hearted words inspire!

  16. I am laughing and thinking that I have been a brainpicker a time or two..everytime I take an interest in something new. I recently started a “writeriffic” course through my library (after buying a website and publishing a funny, informal blog for friends for the past 6 months.)… Thanks for telling me what NOT to do as I explore the adventures of writing!

  17. Honestly I am not familiar with your works, and I think I too would be peeved if people were doing the same. How about you write a small book based on the question you’ve been asked? That way people get to pay you (by buying the book) for your opinions. In the event that they need more assistance, you can save these questions and write another small book..

  18. Each writer has their own trajectory, when it comes to getting their work noticed. What has worked wonderfully for me, would lead other writers to their own destruction.

  19. Great read, thank you. I’ve been a complete “How did you get” girl while trying to find my career path — thanks so much for the perspective, and behalf of us who didn’t know better SORRY! 🙂

  20. Ahhhhh… My career is just beginning. I have gone through all the flaming hoops as well. But they are of a different variety.

    I feel you! I get the same questions, the same interest level from people (however, I have to deal with some people who want to take it to a really creepy leve). All the information that we can give, or the advice we can give has and will always the same: Put in the work! Sacrifice a lot. Stick to the path. Always strive to be better. Aim high and reach for the stars!

    What more can you tell a person who wants to do what you do? We can not hold their hands while they go through the process. and it very much is a process. We can only tell them to work hard.

    Though it is frustrating and aggravating, you have made me feel a little less alone in this battle today.

    ((hugs))

    Thnks

  21. The lightbulb finally went off in my head awhile back that if I wanted to accomplish then I’d have to stop sitting on my arse doing nothing and instead, sit down on my arse and write. Thanks for the great post!

  22. honesty, at long last. Thank you, I enjoyed this read. Although I don’t write, same goes for other lines of work, too. I am through with freeloaders, too

  23. I don’t know you, but I admire you for writing this piece. Honest and punctual. Dare I say, I feel a smidgen of my writing perspective has improved just by reading your piece. Well done getting to where you “got” 🙂 Keep going!

  24. Free coffee? People asking for advice because they consider you to be successful? Doesn’t seem too bad, but maybe that’s just me. But in all honesty, I think it’s flattering that people want your advice. It’s your choice whether to give it or not, but the truth of the matter is that it’s still a positive thing. But, all in all, interesting post.

    PS. Even if I was living in the White House I would still continue eating canned tuna. Beats caviar any day.

  25. Thanks Chloe, this was great!

    I feel ya on this high-class problem; the fact that it is an HCP makes it even more stressful. I KNOW I’m in such a lovely place, where people shower me with the sweetest comments and deem me worthy of their time. That said, I have multiple small heart attacks every week when I say no after no after no to coffees, collaborations, and a myriad of other asks. Ironic, as the tagline for my business is “Helping people live a Life of Yes.” 🙂

    I’ve learned sometimes living a life of yes means saying no.
    For all the reasons you state.

    Canned Responses and an FAQ page on my website have been sanity savers for me.

    One of my Cheese Its (what I call those in my network) just did a Guest Blog post for me yesterday on this topic. I liked some of the suggestions he proposes for how to deal with this question: http://macncheeseproductions.com/guest-post-responding-to-the-can-i-pick-your-brain-question/

    Added your article to the comments section!
    Good luck with future endeavors.

  26. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I agree that having someone asking to pick your brain is a positive thing as this means you are successful in their side of the fence but on your side it means hard work which means you can’t be positive all the time as there are struggles on this. I am a newbie blogger (I don’t consider myself a writer) and I don’t consider myself a talented one as yourself and I don’t see this as a job for me (It won’t hurt if and a big if I earn something from this lol 🙂 I have gone through different jobs and writer or not, it pays to do your share of hard work but of course it would be great if you have mentors too. But writers especially those who considered it a job should earn too and this post helps those would be writers and on the same career path to realize that it is not always easy and to understand someone who may not always be able to let their brain be picked up 🙂 I’m more of a reader than a writer so in this case, thank you for letting me pick up your brain for free through your blogs. I wish you more success in your writing career 😛

    P.S. Please consider me a brain-picker as I will be following your bogs lol 😛

  27. Oh, wow. This is a great post because it really puts things in perspective. It’s not easy tto get into writing, and damn, now I really realise it. It takes a huge deal of motivation, drive and a lot of risk taking to get where you are. You deserve it! Thank you, as the previous person says, for publishing these blogs so we can ‘pick your brain’

  28. I’m only writing for fun and don’t really have plans for making a career out of it. In all honesty I really don’t think I’m great at it anyway. But I write what I know about and what I know about is being a goofy Dad and annoying the hell out of my superhumanly (is that even a word?) patient wife.

    Anyway, my point was supposed to be that even as an amateur, peddling my stuff to popular social media so I can spread the word and get the odd laugh – it’s easy to overlook what it must be like for the bigger fish to have all of these little minnows nibbling at them for scraps. Flooding inboxes with requests for short-cuts and leg-ups.

    It must be exhausting.

    I really enjoyed this.

  29. Writer’s either end up lonely, starving, ego-maniacal, off-balance, or crazy. All five in my case. It’s good to see that the dream is still alive. It’s also good to see from the other side. Perspective is the mirror and telescope needed to become a succesful writer. You have given me new perspective. Thank you.

  30. This inspired a little fear in me because I have never put in so much effort into my writing. I do want to get published, but from what you’ve said, it needs to be a tunnel vision/single minded sort of pursuit, and I’ve been only casual about it.

    Good for you, though. Bit of an eye opener. :p

  31. …..and here we all thought you would point us to the fairy dust. Talk about crushing my dreams. (not) Great, Honest, eye opening post for all of us.

  32. You nailed it. I understand why this would be frustrating, because it both smacks of entitlement, (they deserve what you have) and undermines the work required for you to attain it. It’s like people who want to be fit and thin, but without a healthy diet or exercising. Thank you for the reminder that success in writing, as with other pursuits, is typically the result of hard work.

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