Been Writing for Years? You Still Have A Lot to Learn

Many of you already know my writing history.

Awful poetry at the age of 5.

A part-time gig at a weekly newspaper at the age of 19.

Writing sex toy reviews by the age of 22.

And now, at the age of 31, I’ve created content for online magazines, alternative newspapers, both regional and national print magazines, and a slew of blogs.

Not too shabby.

What I’ve always wanted, however, is to write a book. A book that garners interest from traditional publishers, and that eventually ends up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or McNally Jackson or the Trident Bookstore/Cafe.

Up until recently, however, I didn’t do a damn thing about it.

A year or so ago, however, I co-authored an ebook with sex counselor Ian Kerner. And after that sold surprisingly well, he asked me to ghostwrite an ebook for another client. Once I’d completed those two projects, it occurred to me: I just wrote two books. Maybe this whole long-form thing isn’t entirely out of the question.

So in the late summer / early fall, I began working on a book proposal and, at the end of November, I began querying agents. And then, almost immediately, I received a handful of responses from agents who were actually interested in seeing the full proposal.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the rejections I subsequently received were both kind and constructive, and I filed their comments away in the back of my mind for future use. But it was my most recent rejection that rang especially true. What this brilliant agent told me was that my proposal was pretty solid… but my sample chapters were where it all fell apart. I was long on narrative and short on scene, making my chapters seem pretty flimsy. It touched upon something I had already suspected.

In Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara wrote that “overly fluent writers, those to whom words come fast, have trouble going deep in their writing.”

It was true. I’d been spending so much time writing service pieces and listicles that I just didn’t know what it took to build a scene in a long-form book.

So though I’d read it only a year before, I read Lara’s book again, in its entirety. (It’s all about writing personal essays and memoirs, and has an entire chapter on scene-writing.) I also simultaneously read a memoir (Claire Dederer’s Poser), so I could pay extra attention to how other writers built scene and arc and character. Now, I’m ready for a massive rewrite (followed by a bit more slash and burn from my writing partner).

I’m not a terrible writer. Even though I began questioning my ability to write this book, and bemoaning the fact that I’d squandered my chances with several agents, I know there are areas in which I absolutely shine.

But even when you’ve been writing for years, there’s something new to learn, or something old and valuable to revisit.

Which aspects of writing do you feel you still have a lot to learn about?

Related: Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?, How to Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal, Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Has the Editing Process Crushed Your Soul?, Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

Why It’s Totally Cool If My Kids Skip College

I have a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, despite myself.

I mean, there was never a question I would go to college. After all, it never occurred to me that any other path was available.

But I started out studying journalism at the College of New Jersey. I became disenchanted and discouraged by my choice of major. I fell into a depression after both the death of my grandmother and the end of an abusive relationship. I dropped out of college with the certainty that I didn’t need it to be a writer.

Which was true, but I wasn’t sure how to go about making money. I ended up in a crappy retail job, at which I lasted for two months. Is this all I’m capable of without a degree? I asked myself, horrified. It wasn’t, but I didn’t know that. I ended up at Emerson.

After graduating, I was lucky enough to get a job within two months (though not in my field). I was miserable there, and felt relief when I was laid off after six months. A year later, I had my feet planted firmly within the publishing industry. Finally. I was content… for awhile. But I soon realized I had no interest in working my way up the corporate ladder. I wanted to create. I wanted to be my own boss.

And so I made my circuitous way to the here and now, where I’m a happy, and pretty well-balanced, business owner. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people out there who has ended up making money in the field they studied in college. But I could have gotten here quicker. I could have gotten here without incurring debt. I just didn’t know.

Last weekend, I toted my copy of Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires to my yoga/cooking retreat up in VT, where I devoured it during the free time I had between yoga and cooking classes. As I read, I found myself giving a silent hells yeah as Ellsberg gave voice to something I had always felt when it comes to academia.

“Despite sixteen years or more of schooling,” he writes, “most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school, whether you go to college or not.” He goes on to describe a scene that’s decidedly familiar these days:

“We now live in an age when it is likely that the person pouring you your coffee at the cafe in the morning has spent four years studying literature, or even business and marketing, in a degree-granting institution. That person is likely to be carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and more in credit card debt accrued in college, for the privilege of having studied to pour you your coffee with such literary and business acumen.”

I thought of my time on unemployment. A full year. I thought of how humiliated I had been to stoop to temp work, handing out food samples at donut shops and supermarkets. I thought of how my life might have been different if I’d aimed for entrepreneurship rather than employment. But the possibility had never occurred to me. That only came later.

Ellsberg goes on to advocate self-education over academia — a pursuit I’ve come to advocate heavily in the past five or so years –providing readers with a resource-heavy curriculum in the areas of networking, marketing, sales, and entrepreneurship. At the end, he describes the “education bubble,” exploring further why a single-minded reliance on academia may cause the bubble to eventually burst.

At the end, I’m both inspired and introspective. I feel validated. I think to myself: College and the corporate ladder aren’t the only options. and my future children will know that, and will be supported in whichever path they choose.

I enjoyed my time at Emerson. I developed as a person, and met people there who are still incredibly important to me.

But did college hold me back? Would I be even more successful now if I’d gotten an earlier start on the entrepreneurial path?

I’ve learned more in the past five years than I ever learned in the previous 26. This much is true.

What will you tell your children?

Related: Forget Grad School. Is Your B.A. Worth It?, Coffee Break: Home Ec for Entrepreneurs, Passive/Aggressive: Finding Work as a Freelancer