Do you dream of being a famous author? Well, of course you do! But what happens when your novel gets rejected, or you never hear back from the editors of that literary magazine? Kerri Majors, author of This Is Not a Writing Manual and editor and founder of the online literary magazine YARN, has, like all writers, hit some bumps along the way. She’s stopped by Figment to share her advice on what to do when you’re going through one of those rough patches, how to make the writing world work for you, and how to be a “writer” rather than a “novelist.”
When I was fifteen years old and dreaming of becoming a novelist, I never imagined that at 37, I would be publishing a nonfiction book, running a YA literary magazine, teaching writing online and putting it all under the career title of “writer.” Even without the prize of a published novel, I am most definitely that—a writer—even though two-thirds (some weeks it’s more!) of what I’m doing in front of my computer is not working on my novel.
In my writing memoir, This Is Not a Writing Manual, I wrote that having an expanded definition of what it means to be “a writer” has really helped me as I’ve gotten older and the rejections of my novels and stories have piled up. Had I not expanded my definition of “a writer” to include more than being “a published novelist” I would probably have quit by now.
I want to expand on that idea a little more here. A lot of writers—and I was one of them for a long time—think about dividing their time in terms of “Writing” and “Everything Else.” That kind of compartmentalizing is essential in one important way: It helps us carve out the crucial hours in our weekly planners to get our writing done. But in most other ways related to our financial and mental health, it can be debilitating.
When I get down on myself for my track record in novel writing (which, for the record, is four completely written novels, two of which have been put on the market and haven’t sold), I like to think of Laura Munson, who says quite plainly in her best-selling memoir, This is Not the Story You Think It Is, that she has written fourteen unpublished novels. And yet, those unpublished novels didn’t hold her back from changing gears and delving into nonfiction with the deservedly lauded “Modern Love” essay that scored her the book deal. Munson didn’t let her cherished, long-held idea of herself as a novelist stand in the way of her becoming a writer—a writer who, at this point at least, is best known for her nonfiction.
Like Munson, the best thing I’ve done for my writing career was to press pause on the novel writing and focus on another project altogether: I started YARN, the YA literary journal I launched with a small staff of like-minded writer-friends, in 2009. I had been kicking around the idea of starting a YA literary journal for about a year after discovering that an online YA journal that would publish teen and adult writers side by side didn’t exist. In other words, there were no YA literary journals that would publish me.
So YARN grew out of a need I saw as a writer, but it became much more than that: It has become a locus of reinvention. I see new possibilities for YA writing every time I read and edit submissions, which has been like embarking on a mini-MFA in YA. And it’s inspired me to branch out and write more nonfiction. I blog for YARN, a form of communication that’s immediate and surprisingly satisfying, and I’ve also written a memoir that I hope will help the kind of young reader-writers who bravely submit their work to YARN and, like I do still, dream of becoming novelists someday.
YARN also showed me that I love this side of publishing. It’s discouraging to be a writer getting rejected or criticized most of the time. But as an editor, I’m constantly rewarding writers who are doing great work. This gets my happy endorphins working, which gets me thinking more positively about the whole business of being a writer.
Teaching writing, which I’ve done for more than a decade, since graduate school, provides me with a similar loop of positive and productive thinking about writing, which in turn helps me do the actual work of writing, and I’m thrilled that I’m getting to experiment with new forms of teaching writing online these days.
There are many possible ways for writers to use their skills and (re-)inspire their craft if they keep their eyes and hearts open to unconventional ideas and opportunities—and if they are willing pause their writing to pursue them. It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing for your writing is not to do it for a while and take a short detour on the long road of the writing life. You never know what you might discover about yourself, and your craft, along the way.