Tuesday, March 13, 2012

766. The Rockstar Method to Becoming a Writer

I shared this with our students at the most recent Veterans Writing Project seminar at George Washington University. Just curious what you, dear reader, think :-)

P.S. We, the Veterans Writing Project, were on D.C. Public Radio -- check it out!


Dario DiBattista

In 2006, after not sleeping or eating much for two weeks, a couple cases of Red Bull down, I finished the first draft of my memoir. Awesome, I thought. Ready for literary glory. But what to do next?

How did many pages of writing (I learned these were called manuscripts) get edited and made into books? I checked out from my local library a book called Writer’s Marketplace and learned about agents, and the publishing biz, and why I needed an agent. I pitched about twenty agents forthwith. Nothing. I received a lot of form letters (Dear Author, Thanks for submitting… The industry is subjective… Maybe somewhere else will like your work…) which I mistakenly overanalyzed. There was nothing really to take away from them.

Dejected, I took to the internet to meet and talk with other writers, share with them my writing, and I very shortly kept feeling more and more of the same. You’re twenty-three, why are you writing a memoir? I don’t think this scene works at all; you should start over. You need to get to the action quicker. Sorry, Devil Dog, you’re story is about as interesting as a subprime mortgage. The last comment came from a very successful Marine author, whom I will leave unnamed.

My heart hurt. I stopped. The industry sucked and no one appreciated my brilliance – no one ever would.

Maybe my case sounds familiar to you. It’s probably something we all went through at some point. After a lifetime of writing shitty poetry and reading prolifically, for some reason we decided to take writing seriously for the first time, only to realize how hard of a pursuit it really is.

And then I had it – I had the epiphany. I decided to become a rock star.

To explain, let me take one of my favorite bands growing up, Phish. I’ll use Phish, because like many of my favorite artists, directors, painters, etc., Phish, like me, never were or would be concerned with creating a commercial quality of art; instead, they’ve only ever been concerned about the evolution of sound and pushing the boundaries of their artistic medium. To compare them to writers, they’ve been more like Cormac McCarthy than that chick who wrote Twilight.

The band members of Phish all had, what most will objectively agree, a significant amount of talent and skill. Trey Anastasio’s solos are often included in the 100 Best Lists of All Time. Jon Fishman created a new standard for jam and jazz drumming, which influenced a whole new generation of percussionists. And the bass player and pianist, Mike Gordon and Page McConnell, are definitely 99th percentile musicians. They could easily be candidates for advanced degrees in performance at the best music university programs in America. They’ve sold millions of albums and played in front audiences of 100,000 or more (made especially more notable, because this was at music festivals performed at by them alone).

But of course that wasn’t where they started. Their first show was in a college cafeteria in front of a bunch of disinterested college kids at the University of Vermont. Then, they played somewhat regularly at a local club in front of twenty people or less for the first year or so that they played together. Nothing great seemed on the horizon for them.

But they had the passion. They had the drive. They found that, more than anything, they just couldn’t live without music, and that passion became a commitment to each other. They moved in with each other and practiced hours and hours a day. They learned to be musicians, for real.

I could go on, but I think you’re beginning to understand my point. Although we would all love for it to happen, nothing great happens for any artist right away. We all struggle. Look up the history of your favorite writer, band, or director. They’ve all paid their dues, and worked to very hard to get where they wanted to be.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, I would say, first, commit. You are a writer. You just spent 16 hours on a beautiful freaking weekend to learn about story and telling stories. What’re you, nuts? Yes, to some extent, all of us writers are. Go with it. Say you want to be the next Hemingway, and don’t shy from that goal. Seriously. Do you think Phish said they want to play college dorms and shitty bars? No, they wanted to be rock stars. And they were.

Your possible path:

Start a blog. Think of this as your practice pad. Make a goal to write one post a week about anything on your mind. Think about stories that have been bouncing around in your sleep, current events, daily annoyances, a beautiful sunset you saw, your ex-girlfriend, anything. Write about that. Once a week. Great musicians play their scales and other warm-ups before they perform or compose their great works. You’ll find, the more you write, the more confident you become with your craft. Continually push yourself and challenge yourself. Remember technique.

Join a writer’s group. Pick a group of your favorite friends, maybe some of your new friends here. Keep in touch. Work on something very seriously and consistently for a month, and then submit them to each other. A good friend will tell you what you don’t want to hear. It’s important that you’re honest with each other. Phish’s drummer and bass player often argued about whether the kick drum should be full or half-swung on a song they performed a hundred times before. They were always striving to help each other improve.

Read your writing. Once your writing is good to go, there are, no doubt, plenty of open mics in your area where you can share your work with the world. Think of these as your cafeteria shows. These are necessary before you can sellout college amphitheaters like David Sedaris. Pay your dues. Be proud to do it.

Submit. Start small. I published first with a small online travel website, and then used that clip to pitch a Washington Post blog, who later, because they were thrilled with my work, invited me to write an op-ed which probably was read by a million people or more. But none of that happened without 700 blogs that I wrote for practice, several writers groups and classroom workshops, etc. The clip that most attracted my literary agent, by the way – that first one. Sometimes writing just needs a home. It doesn’t have to be a mansion. Just a place where it can be seen.

Remember, Phish played tiny bars, which became clubs, which became regional theaters, and finally festivals of thousands of adoring fans. It took a very long time. I’m pretty sure, if you were to ask them, if none if it worked out, would they still play music, they’d still say yes. This is a writer’s life :-)

All content ©Dario DiBattista 2012. All posts are for display purposes only and not to be considered published.