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If I were to set up a drive-thru lane of super-sized advice for graduating design writers, I would select three golden nuggets of compressed wisdom.
Now, please pull ahead. You are part of a very long line.
Congratulations! And welcome to a critical moment in your life. These moments are precious. The older you get, the fewer there are. Your first graduation, your first love, your first apartment, your first job, your first sex tape, your first childcare payment: these moments arrive in your life pre-loaded with Big Change. Time to move! Time to pack up! Time to go somewhere new! You don’t even have to want to. You’re forced to. “Get out. Go away. Your mother and I are moving to Florida. Your life is out there somewhere. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass.” It’s wonderful. I miss those moments. The inspiration lasts a lifetime. You’ll really miss the health insurance, so don’t get sick.
Enjoy this critical moment. Drink it in. Here is where you get to slow down time, breathe with the tides, and think about what you really want to do. It’s so easy to make a terrible decision you’ll regret for the rest of your life. But don’t worry. The world will always need guests on daytime talk shows. So grab a double Tanqueray with two olives, sit in a quiet room, and let your imagination wander. Seize hold of three possible lives, and inhabit them, and see if you like the views. Is it better with one…or with two…with two…or with three? You’ve got pink eye, but it goes great with your rosy outlook! Please take the time to really appreciate this moment, because your choice here will, in retrospect, loom ridiculously huge in significance and cast a shadow over your entire identity, kind of like the decision to turn on the microphone whenever Mel Gibson is around. It’s one of those moments that deserve a Hallmark card that doesn’t yet exist. In the Hallmark spirit, I offer the following maxims to contemplate.
Writing is great, no matter what else goes on, no matter all that other stuff that has nothing to do with writing: stuff like money and jobs and other people. Sure, it’s nice to have a day job that pays the bills and doesn't cause you too much pain and leaves you emotionally intact enough to devote your real energies to what you love to do. And if you love to write, then writing is great, because you don’t need anyone else. You just need yourself and a pen and a notebook—and a laptop, a smartphone, and Wi-Fi. And a part-time job, good coffee, a lousy sex life, and, you know, your grandfather’s estate couldn’t hurt. Anyway, writing is like running. You don’t have to join a club to do it. You just put on your spandex and go. A philosophy professor once told me that writing was like a big breast hanging above him: always there for him to nurse. I thought that was gross. But every writer gets his own metaphor, even when that metaphor is a giant, unattached boob—kind of like my Uncle Ronnie.
The thing about being a writer is that you will meet many people who will instantly tell you to be a different kind of writer. “Why don’t you write a kids’ book like Harry Potter?” And I say, “Well, why don’t you shut the hell up,” which I feel instantly terrible about saying, but still, my four-year-old niece can be a real bitch.
At social events, I make sure to distinguish between writing and “a real job” to get a laugh from people I dislike. I always think that’ll be enough. It never is. These people still go ahead and suggest that you write a thriller, and they will suggest it with a kind of helpful innocence. They scoot forward in their lawn chairs to introduce poor, misguided you to real writers of whom you’ve clearly never heard because you don’t have a Costco membership, writers like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King, Stieg Larsson—“Dead,” I interrupt. “He never made a dime”; but they keep going—Tim LaHaye, Glenn Beck, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Stephanie Meyer—I cut them off before they get to Lemony Snicket, Sarah Palin, Jenny McCarthy, or Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story. So here’s what I do. If someone asks you why you have not written a thriller, you should ask them why they have not made a million dollars. Are they in business or are they not in business? If they are in business, and they have not made a million dollars, they are failures. Don’t sugarcoat it. It’s the truth.
Business is about making money, and if these jokers haven’t made any, what’s the point? “Oh, you’re in real estate? Why don’t you get a job that doesn’t destroy the economy? I see you as a barista. Now get me a double machiatto.” Every deputy administrator, strategic consultant, and vice president of marketing should admit their failure, quit their job, and do something productive, like mow my lawn. “I pay ten bucks an hour. Are you in business or not?” This is what I say to people who are in the business of telling me what I should do with my life. I might not have written a thriller, I might not have made a million dollars, and I might have no idea how to make friends with businesspeople, but I am writer. And writers get to tell the truth—for free.
You’ll find, like I did, that there’s very little money in free. So I write lies. I write fiction. I don’t just write design essays about sex, drugs, skulls and the letter X. I write short stories and novels. Stories treat us to the illusion that we are eavesdropping on narrators, that we are somehow privileged to that auditory limbo in which the narrators are half-thinking these thoughts and half-speaking them out loud to a reporter from TMZ. A writer can achieve this effect by nimble use of that private poetry in which we speak to ourselves, combined with the recitation of the banal chores of our lives, during which we can’t help but worry over what’s really bugging us—and what’s really bugging us is that our mom keeps calling while we’re dressing an Elmo puppet in leather and lip-synching, “I’m bringing sexy back.” Our emotions are messy and complex, and they spill over and affect how we perceive the states of our gardens and our homes, how we relate to our dogs and our guinea pigs, and how we talk to our lovers in bed, and our rough trade at the rest stop. Narrators speak to us from within this roiling up of feeling, controlling it by talking about it. They make order, if not sense, by finding language to fit their feelings into.
I offer six more golden nuggets of advice, if you’re still hungry—and writers are always hungry.
Be ignorant. Start at the top. The more you know about the writing business, the more you believe the hype, which is all about telling you how hard the writing business is and how you need to work your way up. Baloney. Be ignorant, and send queries to the best magazines you know, or to the best ones that fit your style or particular story idea, or just to ones you like. Editors are always looking for young, raw talent. They also like writers.
Spell editors’ names right. Editors ignore anyone who misspells their name.
Don’t bet the bank. It’s much easier to write for those places when you have patience, and patience comes from a day job. I had other temp jobs while I was freelancing, and although I devoted most of my time to freelancing, I was near miserable when it came to money. Rejection is the norm. Pay is sporatic—online, it’s virtually nonexistent. It’s not hard to write for periodicals, online or offline; it’s hard to live by them. So don’t rely on that money.
If you’re not invited to the party, serve drinks. What I mean is, if you want to work in a certain industry—in design, in magazines, in the corporate world, in an Ergo Baby Carrier on Michael Bierut’s back—then get a day job, a part-time job, any job, working in, near, or around that industry. If there’s a design writer already occupying the Ergo, then trot beside Mr. Bierut and offer him oranges and Red Bull. Maybe one day, he’ll notice and put both of you in a double jogging stroller. Careers are made one degrading day at a time.
Beware magazine-speak. If you adapt your writing to fit the style of a periodical, you may find yourself wearing a mask. The mask will be plastic, the party will be crowded, and the elastic band will never settle in the right spot on the back of your head. If you look at the face of your writing in the bathroom mirror, you will not recognize yourself. Go home. These people don’t care about you. Rest.
Success is being able to keep doing what you’re doing, so be careful what you start doing. I’ve been living in the North Carolina suburbs for seven years now, and I’ve been going slowly insane, although I’ve found that maintaining an aspect of relative calm fools most people. I wear a lot of jeans and Polo shirts. “He seemed like such a nice neighbor.” Yes, I do seem that way. It’s intentional. And you know what else? I bury my victims deep—real deep—into the soil of my books. Success is being able to keep writing, no matter where I am, and no matter who’s on to me.
Good luck to all of you. I wish you the best in your lives outside the walls of your critical moment, and inside the world of writing. It doesn’t matter whether you write about graphic design or design culture or the tramp stamp on your lower back. That’s up to you—although I would love to see a photo of the tramp stamp. I am an avid tramp-stamp collector. What you should care about, however, is how you define your experience in words. That leap from perception to expression tries people’s souls. Not everyone risks it.
Keep risking it.
Rules are not really made to be broken, however, they are designed to be
breakable. Caplan considers our lax tendencies toward language.
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