Advice to College Graduates Contemplating the Writing Life
May 1, 2017 § 178 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
Make lattes at the bookstore café or bag groceries at the Stop ‘n’ Shop. Give the job some muscle and love, but not every moment of your writing time. Or find a position that taps your talent in exchange for a sizable salary. Eat well. Drink well. Don’t think of this as a right or wrong choice, but you’ll soon enough learn what you hunger for.
Or, like me, pack a bag and move to Japan where you can write through the night in your lonely apartment with Hemingway novels scattered across a blonde straw floor. An eager student will teach you the word for rising sun, Asahi, which, in turn, you will whisper to your lover at dawn, the one who fills, then breaks, your heart, leaving you alone again with nothing but your notebook. Write! Write! Blur the ink with tears as you journey to the shores of Indonesia, where someone new will crawl into your arms, pull you to Europe and hold you at 3 A.M. in the muted pink light of the midnight sun, too transcendent for words, but you will try.
Years later, when you have loved enough, or simply had enough, then leave Europe and find your way home. Take any job, brew your own coffee, and write.
As A. Lee Martinez said, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”
You choose. But if it’s writing instead of waiting, listen for voices in your head until you hear them as clearly as your new beau—the swarthy Italian psychologist singing “Pinball Wizard” as he stir-fries onions in your dingy kitchen. Write about him. Write about the people you love, and the parents you have spent your whole life trying to love. Or make up characters and fall in love with them.
Waiting. Writing. You decide, until it’s no longer a choice and you are reaching for your laptop, as essential as your inhaler. Quiet yourself and live in words, but try not to hear those other voices, the ones that long to steer you to the path of should. Unlike the terrifying creative path that you are navigating—the one that requires a leap into the dark—the path of should starts in glistening sunshine then stealthily drags you into unmitigated blackness. Soon you are settled into your gray cubicle inside someone else’s dreams and your very own midnight, backtracking out of a life that doesn’t belong to you, and never did.
But, truthfully, I don’t know anything about this. No one can tell you how to be a writer. You have to find your way there with a map that you sketch yourself, one as singularly unique as your own fingerprints. You have to write your way there, taking time to travel, to sing, to kneel humbled before a blood red sunset over the Pacific or lost in a stand of pines that smell like Christmas, like disappointment, like the father you’ve been looking for your entire life, the reason why you write. You might spend time with old people who will show you how both slow and fast an hour can be, or play with children who will remind you how to fly. You might need to fight a bit, hate a bit, hurt and heal and empty a few buckets of tears into soggy tissues or onto your sister’s steady shoulder. But that is life and learning, grist for the literary mill, they say. And remember, there are always antidotes to pain, like the friend who drove five hours to be at your father’s graveside that day; your aunt who knit you a purple sweater; and the words of other writers like Neruda, that you must store in your heart for the day your mother dies: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.”
But you have time. You are young. You have no idea how young you are, and maybe won’t until you are twice this age. Mid-life offers quite the vantage point for viewing the lengthening shadow in your wake and the path ahead, shrinking a little too fast toward twilight. And why not set up your life so when you’re standing on the brink of 50, you won’t look back and say, “If only….” or “I wish….” or “Why didn’t I?” You have time now. You really do. Unbelievable, but true.
So what do I wish someone had told me years ago when I left college?
I’m sorry to say that there is nothing anyone could have told me. But what I can say to you is this: Be still. Listen. Love well. And write.
Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film, “Wait,” starring Kerry Washington, based on one of her personal essays. Miller teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.