Would We Lie To You?: A Very Special Kind of Insanity

by Kevin O'Kelly

Since my enrollment in the Grub Street Nonfiction Career Lab I've been privileged to hear magazine editors, publishers and writers talk about their work, and heard their advice on how to begin establishing myself as a writer.

Typically those are the classes that, more than any other kind, make my heart sink.

Afterwards I think, so you want to be a writer: someone who works very hard in an already overcrowded line of work. The odds against publication are high, and against making more than a pittance even higher.

Didn't think this through, did you, O'Kelly?

Well, it's complicated. It's about more than publication or money. The bottom line is writing is part of who I am. When I write and it goes really well I am ridiculously, pointlessly happy. It's as if I've finally scratched some psychological itch that's been bugging me for days. When I'm writing and it's working out (a state of affairs I can by no means take for granted) all the pieces of me fit together in a way they don't at other times.

Nevertheless writing is agonizing. It's difficult. It's easy to put off. Because in spite of the very good things that writing does for me, it's something that society and common sense would tell me is a waste of time. Absolutely nuts. What are the odds, after all, of getting published in The New Yorker or Ploughshares?

But as I've indicated above, that's not really the point (at least not for me). But with all the other claims on your time (job, social life, basic life-maintenance activities), how do you find time to do it? How do you summon up the will to do it?

First, let's address the odds of getting published. The seemingly impossible odds that make you despair and want to chuck it all: if you give up without even trying, you're guaranteeing you won't get published. Grub instructor and author Michelle Seaton has some advice on the topic here.

Second, get a support group. An audience. Find some inmates to join you in the asylum. I have a writing group. We've been meeting for eight years now. I don't know what I would do without them. But I do know what I wouldn't have been doing: writing. Now in addition to my writing group, I've got my teachers and classmates in the Nonfiction Career Lab. And you know what? They're great.

Third, write on some kind of regular basis. Even if you think what you're writing is awful. Even if you think your ideas are terrible. Even if starting out it's just a page every other day. Because you never know what someone else might find interesting. Because you never know what you might discover. Because you need to write. Because a brick is a very small thing, but with enough of them you can build a house. Those every-other-day pages are your bricks.

To recap: You're going to write just like you do everything else in life. You start before you're ready (because you never will be). You do it with help from other people. And you do it step by step, usually a little more slowly than you'd like.

That's just how it works.


Kevin O'Kelly's writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, the literary journal Alligator Juniper and the American Bar Association magazine Experience. He is frequently seen with his laptop in local coffee shops, trying not to bang his head on the table.

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