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The Real Key to Becoming a Successful Writer
Meritocracy is a myth
David Brooks, successful writer
This piece first ran in the much-lamented Pacific Standard some years back. Thus the reference to Rowling, who of course I would now not mention without pointing out that she’s a repulsive bigot. Even if it’s slightly dated on those grounds, though, I think it still holds up in general.
How do you become a successful writer? Successful writers offer predictable advice. "Perseverance is absolutely essential," J.K. Rowling says. "Read a lot and write a lot," Stephen King advises. "Write what you know," Rowling adds. "Perseverance," Ta-Nehisi Coates reiterates. Work hard, hone your craft, don't be discouraged by rejection, believe in yourself. Whether or not you are a successful writer depends on you: your dedication, your resilience, your personal qualities. Writing, as described by successful writers, is a meritocracy. It's a profession in which quality, talent, and most of all grit are rewarded.
It's understandable that very successful writers would see writing as a meritocracy. When you work hard to reach a goal, you naturally attribute any success to the hard work. Yet, many talented people toil a lifetime, and never become J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. On the other hand, some folks like, say, George Will or Maureen Dowd, churn out vacuous piffle with no particular craft or insight, and yet are showered with cushy sinecures and prestigious bylines.
The truth is that in writing, as in any profession, merit is only related to success tangentially, if at all. I'm not a hugely well-known writer, so I'm not the sort of person who generally gets asked for writing advice by eager young up-and-comers. But as a mid-level freelance content generator, with some decent bylines and no real chance at that NYT column in the sky, I do have some thoughts about how how you (yes you!) can become a successful writer.
Become really famous doing something else first.
In writing, as in all things, who you are is more important than what you do. If you're a widely recognized politician or actor, it's relatively easy to parley that into a writing career. Fox newscaster Bill O'Reilly has "written" a series of best-selling boilerplate history books with cowriter/ghostwriter Martin Dugard. They leap off the shelves despite indifferent prose and the recent sexual assault allegations against O'Reilly.
Much less repulsively, Angelina Jolie has written a number of Times op-eds about everything from refugee policy to mastectomies. Jolie's columns are thoughtful, informative, and well-written. But lots of people can write thoughtful, informative op-eds. Jolie was selected not because she had persevered as a writer more than any of her competitors had persevered, but because wildly famous actors who want to pen op-eds for the New York Times get to pen op-eds for the New York Times.
Have strong connections in the publishing industry.
If you can't be somebody important, the next best thing you can do as an aspiring writer is to know someone important. The smartest thing that John Podhoretz ever did was to be born to conservative journalist superstars Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter—both writers at Commentary, the magazine John now edits. Screenwriter and director Nora Ephron was the daughter of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, both of whom were also screenwriters. Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, is also a successful horror writer.
This isn't to say that Hill or Ephron are bad writers. But, again, lots of people are hard-working and talented. To be successful, you need a little something extra. Being born into the right family will do it.
Virginia Woolf pointed out that no woman could have written Shakespeare's plays, because in the age of Shakespeare, women faced huge barriers to becoming writers. Shakespeare might have had a sister " as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was." But where William was taught some Latin and Greek at school, his sister Judith would have been barred from education. She wouldn't have been allowed to act on the stage. If she had conceived a child out of wedlock—as William did—her life would have been ruined. Rather than becoming a great writer, Woolf says, Judith would have " killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle."
There's more support for women writers now, but there isn't equal support. Other marginalized people face greater barriers to success too. A 2015 study found that 80% of the children's book industry is white. That means that white people are more likely to have parents or relatives in the children's book industry to help them gain a toehold. It means, given the extensive segregation of American society, that white people are more likely to have friends and acquaintances in the children's book industry that can help them. And it means that book pitches by and about POC are likely to be met with more skepticism and resistance. In fact, the same study found that only 14 percent of children's book in the US had a black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main character.
Personally, I was able to pursue my own writing career, in large part because I'm married, and my wife has a full time job. That meant we had health insurance, so I was able to take a risk and quit my job to try freelancing. At the time I did that, gay marriage was still illegal in most of the country. Being heterosexual gave me career choices as a writer that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
And, of course, having the money to get an expensive education, and network with the right people, is a huge boon to a writer. David Brooks came from an intellectual family which sent him to the University of Chicago. He wrote a satirical piece about William Buckley, who was visiting the school. Buckley offered him an internship at National Review which launched his career as a conservative commentator. If he'd been unable to afford University of Chicago tuition, he wouldn't be sneering at liberal elites in the NYT today.
Luck, by its nature, is unpredictable and unanalyzable. The right agent may happen to read your proposal at the right time. You could start writing for a small magazine that unexpectedly catches fire. Someone, somewhere is going to become a successful writer. Even if you aren't famous and don't have the right relatives, it might be you.
This is, broadly, the argument for focusing on work and craft, rather than on fame and privilege. You can't control who your parents are or your gender or sexuality. Thinking about your disadvantages can make you despair. Why not look at what you can control? Do the work as if it will be enough, and maybe it will.
The problem is that meritocracy isn't just a program for maximizing effort. It's an excuse for the status quo. If the best writers always meet with the most success, then we don't need to think about the inequities of the insurance market, or question whether children's book publishing choices are racist, or ask why the New York Times has more regular columnists named "David" than it has regular columnists who are black women.
Lots of extremely talented writers work very hard and have little to show. That's not because they didn't persevere as unflinchingly as David Brooks. It's not because they weren't as dedicated to their craft as Bill O'Reilly. It's because success in writing often has little to do with perseverance or dedication. The best writers don't always win. The world isn't always, or even regularly, just. So yes, work hard, write what you know, learn to handle rejection. But if you don't succeed, remember that meritocracy is a myth. Which means that not infrequently, you can do everything right and still fail.
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