Advice for Young Writers
These remarks were delivered by William Shunn as the keynote address at the awards ceremony for the New York City Region of the Scholastic Writing Awards of 2004, Long Island City High School, Queens, April 27, 2004.
There's a time-honored tradition in writing, whether it be a science fiction story, a newspaper article, or a brief speech, that you open with an attention-grabbing sentence that will keep the audience reading or listening.
I'm going to break with that tradition this evening. My opening line will be this:
"Run while you still can! Stop listening! Get out! Go!"
Well. I don't see anyone leaving. All right, I guess that means you're going to have hear to the rest of my remarks. And that's good, because they're directed at young writers who are too stubborn and driven to get out when other people tell them to.
I've been given that same advice many times, but most memorably at the age of seventeen, on my first day of class at the Clarion Writing Workshop at Michigan State University, an intensive, six-week summer program in science fiction writing. The advice wasn't directed at me alone, but to all dozen and a half of us students. The man telling us we should quit was the legendary writer, critic, and teacher Algis Budrys. He didn't use quite the same words I just have, but his intent was the same. What he said was, to paraphrase:
"If you are at all temperamentally suited to do any kind of work other than writing, do it. Give up this dream now. It is hard, hard work, the most difficult work you could possibly choose. It will grind your fingers down to bloody nubs. It will break your back and break your heart. If you're in it for the money, or for the fame, you're in the wrong business. Those things are available, yes, but it's a crap shoot. The only reason to be in this business is because you love the work with all your heart, because you have a voice and something to say, and if you're not able to say it you may as well lie down and die. So if that's not you, get out now while you still can. There's the door."
That was sobering to hear. But I didn't listen to A.J. Or at least, I didn't take the way out that he advised. And I've never regretted that for a minute.
I decided early that I wanted to be a writer. I was six. In my first-grade class in a Los Angeles public school, approximately at the end of the Cretaceous period, my teacher Miss Saunders held a Halloween short story contest. We all wrote one, she read them aloud, and the class voted on the scariest.
Most of the kids wrote fun little scary stories about witches and pumpkins and trick-or-treating at happy haunted houses. I wrote a story about a little boy who goes out to play in his back yard and gets killed by venomous snakes.
When Miss Saunders read my story to the class, two little girls started to cry. That was the coolest thing ever. My story took first place, for which I won an eraser shaped like an owl and a yellow folder to keep my story in. I loved my prizes, but I won something else even better that daythe realization that writing was what I wanted to do with my life.
My parents and teachers were all very good at encouraging me in my ambition as I grew up, all but for one thing, which brings me to the second most important piece of advice I have for youyou having ignored my first piece of advice and all. This one is best expressed by telling you what my humanities teacher Mrs. Beattie said to me when I was a junior in high school. "Bill, you have so much talent for writing." she said. "You could be a great writer someday. Why do you want to waste your time writing science fiction?"
Mrs. Beattie was a great teacher. She was genuinely concerned about me and had my best interests at heart. My parents felt the same way, and sometimes didn't approve of me reading science fiction, let alone writing it. But none of them could see into my heart and mind to understand why it was that science fiction was the perfect, and maybe the only, vehicle for saying the things about our world that I wanted to say.
In your lives many peoplepeople you respect and lovewill have firm ideas about how you should pursue and practice your art. No insult to them, but they often don't know what they're talking about. They're doing their best for you, but some of their advice is going to be misguided, and some will be flat wrong. Part of finding your voice as a writer or artist is learning what advice to ignore.
At the time, I couldn't articulate for Mrs. Beattie why it was that I wrote science fiction as opposed to anything elseat least, not in a way that convinced her. It wasn't until ten years later that I had an answer that I felt was satisfactory, when my first professional short story was published. I bought a copy of the magazine for Mrs. Beattie, and I took it over to her house. On the title page of my story I had written a note to her: "This is why I write science fiction."
And you know what? She was proud.
Which brings me to my next piece of advice, which is for you to try to understand why it is that you work in the particular field that you've chosen, whether that's poetry or personal essays or romance fiction or journalism. Learn about the history of your field, how it developed and why it exists. Why is it that anyone chooses to work in your field? What is it that you can say in your discipline, through your craft, that you can't say in any other way?
One of my very favorite writers, Robert Silverberg, explained our genre this way: "Science fiction is supposed to be about the future, but in fact it has always been deeply rooted in the present, and its nature changes as our perception of the present-day world changes." I myself have developed my own way of looking at my field's purpose: "Great literature can inspire a person to become something better. Great science fiction can inspire the human race to become something better."
Do you have a sense yet of the history and purpose of your field? If not, find it. Every art form is an ongoing conversation, a response to and sometimes a repudiation of what has come before. But it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Don't despise what has come before, or think you can ignore it and be able to create something completely new. Jackson Pollack's paint-spatter techniques may have looked as if they came out of nowhere (or maybe to you they look as if anyone could duplicate them), but he would not have been able to achieve something so revolutionary if he didn't have a thorough grounding and mastery of the techniques that had come before. Dedicate yourself to learning all you can about your field.
Also read what's being published now in your field. But don't succumb to an error that's all too common in science fiction, which is to read only the kind of thing you write. Read and study widely outside your field as well. Read science books, nature books, history, philosophy. Read contemporary fiction. Read the classics. Don't let your art and craft become inbred and stultified. There's a world of knowledge out there that will enrich your work if you let it. Keep learning even after you're out of school, because frankly that's when learning is most fun.
Finally, one last piece of advice: Reach big. You can produce great work, but it won't happen by accident. It will happen because you strove to create something bigger and more important than your current ability allows. It's only then that you'll really begin to grow as an artist.
Another of my favorite writers, James Morrow, said this, and it's applicable, I believe, to all art forms: "Ever since my formal schooling ended, I've grown increasingly convinced that among the beginning writer's most precious prerogatives is the right to make a fool of himself. The neophyte should not only be encouraged to write about the small things he knows; he should also be encouraged to write about the large things he can envision."
These are just a few of the lessons I've learned in my thirty years of trying to become a better writer. Whether anything I've just related is true or even useful to youthat's up to you to decide.