“What did you wish you knew before publishing your first book or story.” Well, I was going to say, I wish I’d known how long it would take to sell my first work of fiction.
But then I thought about that and realized, no, if I’d known how long, I might have quit before I ever started.
Some years back I was teaching a workshop at a conference where Justin Cronin was the guest speaker. Cronin, like me, was a U of Iowa grad, and he talked about how, at the end of his graduate studies, with an MFA now all but secured, he had a moment of abject terror as he realized he was suddenly going to be cast out of academia. No more workshop, no more writing classes. That part of the story always reminds me of Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in Ghostbusters where Ackroyd explains to Murray that, really, he doesn’t want to be kicked out of academia and into the real world because out there in the real world they expect results.
In a panic, Justin Cronin said that he ran to his advisor who was also the head of the workshop. I think at that time it would have been Pat Conroy. And he explained his situation, his terror, and asked, “What should I do?”
Conroy replied, “Write for ten years.”
Cronin said it was the best advice anyone ever gave him. He left Iowa and then labored away as much as he could out there in the real world, always writing, always thinking about writing–about his story, its shape, its characters, its impact. And almost ten years later exactly, he sold his first novel.
I teach writing classes–everyone from high school students up through retirees. And nobody I tell that story to likes to hear it. The high school kids want it right now. And guess what, so do the fifty-year-olds. They want to be published today. This minute. This is understandable. But it’s not reality. Not remotely.
Sure, there’s always going to be somebody who is the overnight success, and people will always point to her and say, “See? It could happen!” True. It could. But for every one of those, there are five gazillion people working away, thinking about writing, about their stories, their characters.
So, in a sense, I kind of wish someone had said to me what Conroy said to Cronin. Because what that really says is, “Embrace the process. Love the writing itself for itself. If you publish it, well that’s good, too. But don’t make that your goal. Make telling the best story in the world your goal–the best you know how to write. And from that learn how to write the next one better. And so on, until you write something so good you can’t believe it.” Maybe your first story will be golden. Maybe not. Don’t worry about that so much that you forget this is a craft to which you’re choosing to apprentice yourself, because you love it. It’s easy to forget that while you’re chasing the big dollar sign. Now and then, remember to remind yourself why you write.
Your answer should be, because you have to.
Gregory Frost is the bestselling author of Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet, Fitcher's Brides, and the short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories. His latest short fiction can be found in the anthologies Full Moon City, The Beastly Bride, and Cthulhu Reigns. He'll be reading one of those stories on Tuesday, May 4th at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan Street, in New York City at around 7:30. Drop by if you're in the neighborhood. His web site is www.gregoryfrost.com
This blog post originally appeared on The Liars Club.