I'm not a rich and successful novelist. I only play one in the overly active
corners of my imagination. I don't have an MFA. I didn't study creative writing or journalism or major in English at an acclaimed university. I've just always wanted to be a writer. Through some interesting channels, I've arrived in the world of piecing together an income through forming sentences and paragraphs and sometimes a decent story or two.
Throughout my ever-evolving and sometimes reckless process I've learned that there is not one flawlessly paved, straight and narrow avenue leading to a successful writing career. The roads (if one can even find them) are often bumpy and steep, laden with messy oil spills and potholes with drop-offs on either side. And sure, there are more clear and precise academic approaches to mastering the craft, providing aspiring writers with fine tuned instruments of navigation and magic letters to attach after names on business cards and resumes. I've heard that valuable contact information for mentors and publishers and agents are found there as well. But for many lacking the mystical compass provided by most MFA programs, we hop and run and skid and teeter from one writers conference to the next, from community-offered workshops and on to literary events and back to piles of Poets & Writers. We stay up late, slouching and tossing back scotch; scouring websites and how-to books in hopes of discovering the formula to making it in the massive, often-overwhelming and competitive world of writing and publishing and selling our words.
I know these things to be true. I am a writer. I contribute to newspapers and magazines and literary journals and am working on a book. Getting to where I am (which is about ¼ of the way to where I'd like to be) has been anything but easy. I slip on those oil spills. I frequently trip, falling face first into potholes. And I started late. I did things backwards: First kids, then college— a social work career, then newspapers. So how is it I set out and managed to come to a place of loving (and also sometimes hating) my life as a writer?
I will tell you how. Here.
Aside from the volumes of poorly written little girl poetry I scribbled out on lined paper as a youngster, most of my writing was conducted in classrooms where there was little room for creativity. As an adult, I started small and foolishly worked alone hunched over my computer in a corner of my cluttered bedroom. I typed out op-ed pieces for a local progressive newsletter/paper and moved on to writing for and making zines.
I spent well over a decade parenting and working as an activist and a social worker and found my writing focusing on these parts of my experience in the world. Then a series of life-changing incidents led me to what some call an epiphany. Others may call it a nervous breakdown but I prefer to leave the labels off of this time in my life and instead remember it as a cloud of something nudging me away from what I thought I should be doing and into the direction of what I needed to be doing. I left my job, ended a relationship and started writing. I haven't stopped.
In an attempt to sort out my life during this big direction-changing period, I first signed up for a series of small, four-week workshops taught in someone's living room. We met weekly and I wrote and wrote with my ballpoint pen until my fingers formed blisters. Next, I enrolled in journalism and art classes at my local community college and at the ripe old age of thirty-four, a few years after finishing graduate school, I began an internship at my local alt-weekly paper, which led to a year or so for freelancing gigs. I began by writing short news and event listings until I received a few feature assignments. I built a decent collection of very odd and interesting clips, including an invaluable article about Cuddle Parties, which landed me both my staff job at the paper where I am now employed and my column at McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
I also perused learning fairs, book fairs and the flyers pinned across bookstore and cafe bulletin boards in search of groups, more classes and how-to guides that I hoped would open a big glorious door into the writing world.
And I read. I read like a wild and starved creature until my eyes could no longer follow words on a page.
And one glorious night, while hoarding the free wine at a newspaper party where I freelanced, I met a brilliant writer, Leilani Clark. We moaned about rejection letters and beamed about writers we both loved and drank as much free wine as we could before the restaurant staff ushered us out into the brisk November evening. Within a few short months, Leilani and I created our own writing workshop series and started editing a zine together under the name Petals and Bones. We couldn't stop writing. We lived and breathed it and had to find a channel through which to continue. And we wanted everyone writing, as well. We (or at least I) wanted to swim in a sea of words and everything literary.
After establishing our workshops and zine, I began attending writers’ conferences. Writers conferences are another excellent place to connect with other writers, hone your craft and learn about literary journals and other places to publish your writing. Sure, sometimes faculty at these conferences can be arrogant assholes, primarily concerned with how their luscious locks of hair look or with attracting the attention of young, impressionable girls, but mostly the writers at these conferences are incredibly helpful, supportive and encouraging people. They were once unpublished, aspiring novelists, too. Most of them remember that and offer all sorts of constructive advice about how to improve your writing.
Aside from sifting the self-obsessed from the generous to find an appropriate mentor, conferences can be overwhelming in other ways. The amount of information absorbed often causes over stimulation-induced writers’ freak-out, complete with blurred vision, low blood sugar and shortness of breath. To get the most of these events, it is important to check any sense of ego at the door when preparing to have work critiqued. It can be quite brutal having our sentences (born of our innermost longings, fears, desires) dissected and examined by a room full of relative strangers. Especially for nonfiction writers. Brutal, I tell you.
Remember when I mentioned that the solo-writing was foolish? I want to revisit this and state that in my experience, writing without a community of writers to support and encourage us and to read our work and to offer valuable feedback, we're just writing to ourselves. This, of course, is fine. But I feel that we'll just write the same sappy love poem or feminist political rant over and over again without someone honest and kind to help us see the flaws or places for improvement within our work. I mean, have you ever worked on a piece of writing for so long that you start seeing double and the words melt and swirl across the page and you start feeling dizzy like that one time in college when you took didn’t eat for two days and couldn't feel your hands and stared at that periodic table of elements poster for six hours thinking it was a map to your grandma's house? This is why we need fresh eyes for our work.
We also need to get out of the house. All of that time alone might be good at a silent meditation retreat following a week visiting the in-laws but it is not always good for writers. When completely cut off from human contact and psychically attached to my computer for too long, my shoulders and neck ache and I often have to beat back an urge to gnaw on my hands and arms. I know Bukowski said “Isolation is the gift,” but Bukowski was a bit nutty. Yes, spending evenings alone and typing our sweet little souls out can be invigorating and productive. Writers’ residencies in which all contact with the outside world is severed for days or weeks at a time prove fruitful for many. We still need to get out once in a while and meet other writers at places like readings and book signings and rainy night writers’ socials at dark pubs in Oakland. Seriously. At least once a month, get out of the house and hobnob. You'll learn things. You'll make important connections. You'll make new friends. They will be so important to you. It will help your writing.
Aside from my dinners and pub trips with my extended literary posse, I also have two writers groups I make an effort to connect with. One of these groups meets semi-regularly and we workshop each other’s stories and drink wine. Another is less formal and consists of a loose-knit group of about 10-15 of us, roughly. We have dinner together, attend each other’s readings and book signings and workshops and go on outings like spending a few days in an old Mendocino Coast roadhouse, working on linked short story projects. This group of novelists, beer writers, journalists, editors, flash-fiction writers, poets, songwriters, children's book publishers, screenplay writers and literary event organizers has been a lifesaver for me. As a stereotypical crazy-pants writer, I have turned to them again and again with big sad tears and big jumps of joy and again and again they have turned back and reminded me why I continue to do what I do.
If you're anything like me, this group of people will be crucial to how your writing develops and improves. And how you'll maintain a connection to your sanity. There will be nights when you pound your fists, clean the refrigerator instead of meeting a deadline, go out salsa dancing with some cute guy you met on the bus or succumb to horrible writers OCD and dissect a perfectly good story so many times it ends up looking like a Strip Scrabble game gone wrong. You need these people to get through the psychosis that is quite common among writers.
And above all else, just write. Find friends and strangers to help you to write better. Then write some more. Share it. Listen. Laugh and cry. Spend time with your people. Write more. This is how. I am telling you, this is how.
is a displaced social worker, mother, world traveler and activist turned writer and wannabe Anthropologist. Burlison is a staff writer at The Pacific Sun in Marin County, CA, a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for the The Los Angeles Review. She also leads writing workshops and co-edits a zine at Petals and Bones, and is currently working on her first book.