|THE Bible for Writers|
|Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon|
There's a whole lot of books out there about making a career out of writing, but somehow, at least for me, they leave things out--the things you really want to know. Like how to go on book tour. How to make a pre-publication checklist. The things writers don't talk about that we all want to know--and they come straight from many famous writers' mouths, too. Who else but Poets & Writers editors Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon would provide such an absolute BIBLE to all things writerly?
I cannot thank both of you enough!
This book is absolutely incredible in scope. How did you go about deciding what would go in, and even more important, where it would go?
Thanks so much, Caroline! In many ways we have been working on this book for nearly twenty-five years, beginning all the way back when we started working at Poets & Writers. (Mary started at P&W in 1996, leaving in 2013, when she was editorial director; Kevin started in 1999, and continues on as editor in chief.) In those years we wrote, read, and edited a great many articles, essays, and interviews by some of the greatest minds in the literary, publishing, and bookselling communities all across the country and around the world. Even before we started working on the book in earnest, our editor, Jofie Ferrari-Adler at Avid Reader Press, was very clear about wanting this book to be, as the title suggests, a complete guide—meaning that no topic was too small, or too large, to be addressed. There was a great freedom in that permission to widen the lens as much as possible. Of course it was also a little intimidating: How to encompass something as big as the life of the writer and do it justice in one book?
Very early on, we hit upon one thing we wanted to keep in the forefront of our minds while writing: We wanted this book to be human, to have a pulse, a heart. While the business of building a sustainable writing career requires hard work, dedication, and careful thinking, writers also have emotions and insecurities and other responsibilities—to others and to themselves. Too often authors of resource books can lose sight of the fact that real human beings are the ones who will be trying to execute the advice and guidance in those pages. So we wanted to always keep that in mind. It became our lodestar. And, of course, it matched perfectly the tone and guiding principles of coverage in Poets & Writers Magazine. As far as organizing the material, we wanted to offer one version of chronological order, from inspiration to craft to education to first steps in publishing to book deals to publicity and promotion, so that readers could follow a trajectory, from inspiration to publication and beyond. We also included a section of shorter chapters that look at the world of writing through the lens of some big-picture, real-life subjects such as time, happiness, money, respect, family, and so on. That section is positioned right in the middle, which just made sense to us. Again: writers are real people with real lives, and this section anchored that theme right in the middle.
What’s so fantastic about the book is the mix. Not only is there a wealth of practical advice, but I really appreciated the personal advice from writers, too and on subject after subject. Coming from Poets & Writers, you must have had an avalanche of material to choose from. How on earth did you sift through it? What was that process like?
Well, we were pretty familiar with the subjects we were covering, having had roles in helping to generate so much of it over the years. From the beginning, we decided we wanted this to be original material—not a best-of anthology of previously published articles—though we did take a few sidebars and lists that had appeared in print and updated them for the book. So we avoided getting too hung up in poring over twenty or thirty years of magazine issues and instead started from scratch, turning back to magazine pieces to glean advice only when it naturally occurred to us to do so. Since we have dedicated our working lives to providing advice and resources to writers, we internalized a lot, and working on the book was a wonderful way of laying it all out there again. As far as sifting through material though, there was one chapter that involved a pretty crazy process. For chapter 4, “One Hundred Notes on Craft,” we spent weeks revisiting craft books, reading many new ones, and recalling marginalia from our writing notebooks and other craft essays to compile a huge collection of wisdom from writers about their art. That was a lot of fun, but then we had to organize it into a chapter that not only made sense but would be something that writers would actually want to read. So we typed up all those quotes about craft, cut them up into separate little ribbons of paper, and spent an intense day and night arranging and rearranging them on our dining room table. Once we got them into an order that felt right, we set to work writing connective tissue for each one—linking one to another using historical or cultural context that ended up revealing so many interesting similarities and commonalities, as well as points of departure, among a hundred writers who wrote about their craft over the past 150 years.
I also love that the book is a kind of inspiring journey, with a deeply professional perspective. But what other book also looks at the very personal business of writing, including how to manage time and grapple with happiness and family, which are all deeply important to any writer who needs to succeed. “A successful writer is an informed writer.” Can you talk about that please?
As we mentioned earlier, striking that balance of professional and personal was deeply important to us, so hitting on the idea of a section wherein we could look at some of these somewhat existential topics, such as Writing and Happiness and Writing and Time, felt very freeing, and opened up our thinking about the life of the writer in important ways.
As for that phrase we return to again and again—“A successful writer is an informed writer”—that is something that has always guided us through decisions about coverage in the magazine. This belief that there is no one way to go about being a writer. So much depends on your expectations, what you hope to gain, and how you define success for yourself. Once you figure that out, it’s a matter of figuring out how things can be done, how things typically work, and then making decisions about whether you want to follow those well-worn paths or cut your own. There is no wrong way to write, to create, to publish. But there are systems in place—writing programs, writing contests, literary magazines, book publishers, literary agents, and so on—that writers don’t necessarily need to be a part of, but we think it’s important to know how they work so you can make those decisions for yourself.
The great thing about this book is that there are actions to take, especially since, too often, writers are paralyzed and don’t know what to do. For example in 100 Notes on Craft, a writer could take any one of the suggestions and put it to use! Twenty-one questions to ask if you want to pursue an MFA was brilliant. There were so many positive things to do, including writing a letter or tweet to an author you admire, which builds community. Which brings me to the word “sustainable” in your subhead. A sustainable writing career is what everyone wants and what many writers fear they cannot have. What’s the most important thing you would say to them?
We sprinkled fifty Action Items throughout the book for this very reason—to give writers some suggestions for things they can do, some big and some small, that will keep them moving forward as writers. While it’s true that the financial reality for the majority of writers can be challenging—this isn’t an easy way to make a living—there are ways to lead a creative life while building a sustainable career as a writer who works in academia, or in the publishing industry, or in the nonprofit sector, or stitches together freelance or technical writing gigs, or something else entirely. We don’t just mean “sustainable” in financial terms; we’re also interested in how to incorporate the writing life into all the other aspects of life, including one’s emotional life, family, and relationships. Again, establishing and managing one’s expectations is fundamental; the most important thing is to keep writing.
I want to thank you for having a chapter on surviving success and failure. (You ask the question: Did selling lots of paintings make Mark Rothko happy?” And by asking that, it diverts that whole notion of success to the work, to doing what feeds you without always hanging it on whether or not you made the NYT Bestseller list. I think that’s important because careers are not a straight line up or down—there are many valleys, I think. What do you think is the most important way that writers can measure success?
Much as we’d like to, we can’t take credit for that Rothko line: That was Anthony Doerr, who Kevin had the great fortune of getting to know during a week at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska, a couple years ago. But this notion of success is a fascinating one, as it’s different for every writer, and as we learned from writers like Jonathan Lethem, it’s a moving target. As he mentions in the chapter “Surviving Success and Failure,” he no longer has to worry about whether his work will be published, but that doesn’t mean he lives in a constant state of Success. When you think about it, failure is forever—it’s always there in front of you, but there is a way to learn from it, and that is yet another way of measuring success: how you respond to failure. In the end, if you believe in what you’re writing, and it continues to challenge you in creative, productive ways, that seems to us a good way to measure success.
How do you see the writing community changing in the next decade? And how can writers prepare for it.
We are seeing a slight ebb in the numbers of MFA programs, so that’s an interesting development that we’ll be keeping an eye on, and I think related to that is the expansion of online spaces that inspire and bring together writers. And of course that is taking on an entirely unexpected and important dimension during these strange times.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
It is what’s on the minds of the majority of the earth’s human population: coronavirus. Our lives, all of our lives, have changed in ways that we have no way of comprehending just yet. The only certainty is that the world’s writers will absorb, digest, reflect, and make sense of whatever new reality awaits us, and that fact gives us no small amount of hope. In the meantime, we are turning to literature to provide nourishment for the heart and the mind.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You should have asked what we think about your efforts during this pandemic, such as A Mighty Blaze, to give a much-needed signal boost to authors whose book launches and promotional efforts have been overshadowed by the crisis. And we would have answered: You are an angel. Thank you!