How to Live the Writing Life

March 25, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, the two most recent editors of Poets & Writers, want you to know how to be a writer. That means understanding every step of the process, not just when to pick up the pen (or put it down) or open up the laptop (or close it shut). Their new book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, includes tips on finding and entering writing contests, applying for and taking writing retreats, navigating the seas of self-publishing, finding an agent and working with an editor, and building a sustainable career.

Larimer said that the duo “tried to balance practical, no-nonsense tips and insights from successful authors and publishing professionals with a decidedly more human, humane, and emotional approach to the writing life.” Their hope, Adler said, was that the book would “reflect the hearts and souls of the writers we’ve worked with and come to deeply admire over the past two decades as much as their boundless creativity and bright intellect.”

The effort, according to some of the biggest names in writing and publishing, paid off, with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae calling the book a “teeming compendium” and Riverhead Books associate publisher and director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin adding, in a blurb for a book published by a rival company, that she found the book “lucid, lively, [and] enormously helpful.”

To help distill some of their knowledge for the masses, The Millions asked Gannon and Latimer to round up six pieces of advice from the book they found both representative and particularly helpful. Here are six shortened selections they sent us:

Read literary magazines—and subscribe to them, too.

This seems like a no-brainer, but not all writers take the time to do it. Reading literary magazines not only demonstrates good literary citizenship, but it also provides essential information about the field and the chance to discover the work of writers you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can take note of where your favorite authors are publishing their work, hone in on particular magazines’ missions and aesthetics, and support the very magazines you hope to be published in one day. And as writer Yuka Igarashi says, “A literary magazine puts a writer in conversation with other writers and, depending on the magazine, with a community, with a lineage or tradition.” — chosen by Mary Gannon

Write a fan letter to an author.

All writers, even the most established, need a little love. And you’d be surprised to know how meaningful receiving a fan letter can be to a writer. Plus, carving out the time to think through and articulate why a book or piece of writing moves you, what you found important, and possibly even transformative, gives you a gift as well—the opportunity to understand what you value most and why. This clarity can inform your own writing practice in significant ways. —chosen by Mary Gannon

You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer.

Pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing has become a well-travelled path toward becoming a published writer, but it’s not the only path and it can be expensive. (If you do choose to pursue an MFA, we highly recommend researching programs that offer full funding.) What the MFA provides—the time and environment for refining your craft with like-minded people—can be achieved through other means. Think writing conferences, writing groups, and DIY retreats. Talk to any agent or editor, in New York City or elsewhere, and they’ll all say the same thing. If given a choice between a mediocre manuscript from a writer with an MFA and a remarkable one from a writer who never even went to college, they will always choose the best writing. —chosen by Mary Gannon

Don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing.

Too often we hear the advice that all writers really need to do is force themselves to sit there and write. As Mary Heaton Vorse purportedly said to Sinclair Lewis over a century ago: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat on the pants to the seat of the chair.” While it’s true that nothing was ever written without a significant amount of time spent, you know, writing, you shouldn’t feel a constant sense of guilt if you’re not in that chair writing at every available moment of every day. Some authors talk about how they’re able to plant themselves in the writing chair on a strict schedule, which can be inspiring, but it can also give beginning writers the impression that everyone works that way. Or that everyone should want to work that way. So, in the book we wanted to guard against the assumption that if you don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule you must not want it enough, that you must not be serious about writing if you aren’t dedicating a set number of hours to the act of writing. This is nonsense. It ignores the reality for many of us—the reality that is composed of varying levels, degrees, and amounts of responsibility, of inequality, of privilege, of access. Your level of passion and commitment to writing is not commensurate with the number of hours per day that you write. Being a writer is about more than just writing. There’s a reason we refer to it as “the writing life.” An important part of being a writer is living—and truly living is ensuring that you’re not chained to a desk staring at a computer at the expense of lived experience (which will, of course, inform and enliven your writing). —chosen by Kevin Larimer

Be proud of yourself.

Too often, especially for writers, pride can sound like a bad word. Many of us downplay our contributions and accomplishments, forgetting to take a moment to feel proud of what we’re doing on the page. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, in a family where modesty was held up as a kind of unspoken principle, I can find it difficult, even under the sheen of social media, to take time for the good, healthy, valuable feelings of accomplishment that come after a long writing or editing project is finally complete. We wanted to make sure that our book included some reminders to writers to take a moment and give yourself permission to brag a bit. Don’t automatically dismiss what you’re doing if someone brings up your writing over dinner or in casual conversation. You’re a writer; you’ve written something unique. And there are millions of people out there who cannot say that. It’s a special thing you’re doing, unique to you. Go ahead, be proud of yourself! —chosen by Kevin Larimer

Feel your post-publication feelings.

Honestly, this is something we were able to write about only after our own book was well on its way to being published, and we added it as the last chapter because the feelings we were writing about were so strong. Not a lot of writers talk about it, at least not publicly, because unless you’ve been through the process yourself, you likely wouldn’t know to ask an author about it. And so many writers hold publication as a top marker of success; it makes sense that authors wouldn’t want to be perceived as complaining about how emotionally difficult it can be. Plus, it’s kind of personal. It can be a little embarrassing when your eyes well up with tears when you hit send on the final manuscript to your editor. There are so many emotions—joy, relief, excitement, and happiness, yes, but also fear, sadness, exhaustion; heck, maybe you’re feeling a little let down after the rush leading up to deadline. All of these things are normal. So don’t be embarrassed of your feelings. You’re engaged in something really big. This work involves every part of you, and there are highs and lows at every step. We want to remind writers to feel it all, and use every piece of it to fuel and empower your next writing project. —chosen by Kevin Larimer

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is senior news and digital editor at Publishers Weekly and a founding editor of The Dot and Line, a web publication of animation journalism. His work has been published by Vulture, Polygon, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.