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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You’re Leaving There Too Soon

If you think I’m going to respond to that outpouring of love and support, you have another thing coming you beautiful motherfucking writers. Like my friend and colleague Erin “The Hose” says, I hate to be a bitch, but I hate not to be a bitch. Or something like that.

So today, I was the distinguished guest at a Master’s tea at Yale. I was invited to talk about publishing, writing, agenting, the usual. I thought it would be really clever to eat a few “pop’ems” before I left the house. These are Entemann’s idea of munchkins, only a little more dense. Anyway, I like to show up for these gigs with a little white powder on my chest in case my cred is in question. Then I like to remind the kids that life is long, but not that long. That if they do enough drugs they will become great writers. And that getting published is like getting spit on. It’s exhausting being this inspirational. The students, by the way, were gorgeous and hip and one dreamy young man, the last one on line to ask a question, told me he was writing a memoir about his search for love. Sign me up.

What would you tell a college student who wants to be a writer?


97 Responses

  1. write.

    don’t do anything else but write.

    don’t go find a job because you think you need money. sell drugs. tend bar. whatever. don’t join the circus (unless it’s a real circus that inspires water for elephant like stories).


    fall in love. get your heart broke. visit places. stay locked in your one-room apartment for a month writing.

    have experiences to write about. don’t let those experiences be marriage, kids, mortgages until you’ve written enough to get paid for it on a regular basis.

    start seeing a therapist.

    write. write. write.

    • Yes. Yes to all of that.

      Also – don’t get married or have kids until you’re 60 and at that point they can be your stepkids who hate you and what do you care? You’re 60.

      • LOL. That is funny to me for so many reasons.

      • I’d love to hear them. As if I could not care if someone hated me. I wish. How awful is it that I give my kids this advice? If you want a life, don’t tie yourself down with commitments. This is why I’ll die a lonely old woman in a rat hole of a nursing home.

      • i don’t know, 60 still sounds kinda young for kids.

        i mean, that’s when you truly know yourself right? you really need time to enjoy that.

        maybe 75?

      • LMAO! Although I got married (and I adore the man), I never had my “own” kids but I do have one of those hateful step-thingys but, you’re right, who cares? And I’m only 59…

  2. Don’t.

  3. Maybe “that’s fantastic, the world needs more writers!”

    Maybe “that’s fantastic, the world needs more good writers!”

    We’ve already got enough depressing advice, especially for college students graduating these days.

  4. I don’t understand these people that just write. I don’t understand writing or MFA programs. What do these people write about? Go out into the world, join a cult, get brainwashed, get de-programmed, change your consciousness, learn about yourself…wait as long as you possibly can, and then — if you must — write about that. And it better be original.

    • Right on! Or write on.

    • Yes to what Kyler said. Or take a shortcut to enlightenment and get a job in retail. Or in hotel housekeeping, or fast food management. That’s where you’ll meet people who, unlike those in your MFA program, have a soul-deep understanding that the world does not owe you its protection or gratitude, least of all just because you want to re-write Bleak House. Once you’ve faced the cosmic indifference of life to your writerly ambitions, that’s when you’ve right-sized your place in the world. And THEN you can write your way through it.

      I’ve seen Betsy do her book talk. And there are ALWAYS gorgeous, hip, dreamy young men waiting to catch a private word with her about love.

    • We write about talking wombats.

    • School is where you get the tools– not the material.

    • You’re giving me hope here, Kyler! I’ve been putting off writing in favor of so many other things. I’ve lived a full life, if not a very significant one, and I’m full of stories. The trouble is, I’m starting to forget everything almost as soon as it happens. Experience seems to just pass through me these days like a dose of prune juice.

  5. What they said above, even Steve, which is a contradiction, I realize. And then I’d hand them Bukowski’s poem “So You Want to Be a Writer” and tell them to tape it to their bathroom mirror.

  6. I’d tell him to study anything but English and writing courses. Sociology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, biology, women’s studies, history, anything and everything but English courses.

  7. Read. Read, read, read, read, read. Books, billboards, highway signs, cereal boxes, poetry, rap lyrics, advertisments, advice columns, obituaries.

    Dance with the words, figure out which ones pull you, poke you, prod you, make love to you, hate you, bore you, zap you, tickle your toes, spray your keyboard.

    Write what you love to read, write what you want to read. Write what you love and hate and wish you knew.

    And get some words down while your at it.

  8. “What would you tell a college student who wants to be a writer?”

    If a college student told me, “I want to be a writer,” I would ask, “Do you already write?”

    If the answer to that was, “No, but I want to be a writer,” I would say, “Too fucking late, do something else.”

    If the answer was, “Yes,” I would say, “Do you write because you are compelled to write and cannot not write?”

    If the answer to that was, “No, but I do write and want to be a writer,” I would say, “Cut it the fuck out, there’s enough slaughtered trees and wasted electricity already by your sort. Go do something useful, save some lives or something.”

    If the answer was, “Yes” — and remember, the follow-up question is, “Do you write because you are compelled to write and cannot not write?” — I would say, “You sweet little heartbreaker, I love you like my own child, but there is nothing I can do for you other than give you my blessing and let you know that you may spend the rest of your life writing and never see whatever dreams it is you’re dreaming about it come true. You may find yourself forever on the margins, socially and financially — though if you write because you cannot not write, you probably already know what it means to be on the margins of your world. You may die decades from now in poverty and oblivion, and you’d better damn well be ready to face that possibility because otherwise, you’re wasting your life. And if you write because you cannot not write, your life is what it will cost you. And that life is short, far shorter than it may appear, so sit your ass at your desk or wherever the fuck it is you do your writing, and get to it. And for God’s sake, read! Read every piece of quality writing you can find, as much as you can stand to, like you were some cloistered monk or something. See how it’s done. Learn the grammar by mainlining it, and for fuck’s sake learn how to spell! And get out in the world some, you can’t spend all you time at your desk or in your library. Take a walk, smell a flower, meet some people, take some notes. Now get to work!”

  9. If someone wants to write, he/she is going to do it, no matter what we say. If you can’t write for a living like journalism or (shudder) PR or marketing, then make sure you write something somehow every day. Between pours as a bartender or after a long day on the help desk. Or whatever is paying the bills. And when you have lived enough life to have a story to tell, then tell it.

    But first, learn your grammar and punctuation rules. Please.

  10. Be a skeptical receptacle
    Of anyone’s advice
    Listen consider
    Just use what’s useful to your life

  11. Tell them to live life. Travel. Learn. Talk to people. Be curious. Always say yes, whatever the question. Take risks and write down what you learn. Listen to storytellers, no matter their age. Dare to respect experience so you start ahead and don’t have to start over. And through it all, make notes and save time for the solitude to think about all that just whizzed by.

    Then write.

  12. Do what you want and we’ll talk again in five years.


  13. To limit yourself to TWO alcoholic drinks of your choice per day, more (if you want) at parties, etc., but only after you’ve written your quota. Never think you have to consume any substance (even coffee!) in order to be able to write.

  14. Stop if possible. Give up while you’re ahead. You’re ahead if you haven’t yet made a fool out of yourself in front of family and friends.

  15. Funny you should ask. My little 11-yr old announced yesterday that he’s writing a memoir. (He even pronounced it mem-wah). I’m fucked was my first response, but live by the sword, die by the sword, right?

    My second response was, “That is the most awesome thing. And no, you can’t use my brand new MacBook.” Conditions. If you want to be a writer, get used to hearing the word no.

  16. Read, live, write, revise, edit, copyedit, proofread, repeat.

    Find writers you love and ask what they read. Be very selective.

    Learn how to listen, see, feel, taste, smell.

    Be assertive, be receptive.

    Move around, stay still.

    Ask a lot of questions.

    Question a lot of answers.

    Love intensely and well.

    Don’t overthink.

    Don’t overthink.

    Don’t overfeel.

    Don’t underfeel.

    Learn about physics, marine biology, soap-making, artisan cheese-making, painting, film, history, biology, psychology.


    Practice discipline.

    Dance and sing.

    Study cats.

    Study dogs.

    Find an excellent mentor or three who will be brutally honest with you.

    Find out how to create tension and drama.

    Find out how to be funny.

    Never stop being curious about anything.

    Believe in yourself.

    Doubt yourself.

    And believe again.

    Get ready to avoid and deny and battle through incredible darkness and pain.

    Laugh a lot.

    Stay relatively sober and lucid and healthy.

    Get some sleep–you’ll be healthier, smarter and more creative.

    Dream during the day.

    David Foster Wallace — yes.
    (Read everyone they’ve inspired or been inspired by.)

    Read Vonnegut. He’ll teach you how to live.

  17. Study philosophy and religion and politics and learn a language or two.

    Listen to music and poetry and your annoying neighbors.

  18. I was once that aspiring writer at Yale Master’s teas. I’m still waiting to be invited to speak at one…I would tell them to start by making a list of everyone they want to tell to fuck off. And then write what they think of that person. Pure magic.

  19. Shine your shoes for the fat lady.

  20. Do not use he word “bloviate.” I saw ex President George W Bush speak for 90 minutes tonight. I have never been a fan, but it was — well — interesting.

    Interesting. Shit. See how stunned I am? A writer who cannot find her words, that’s me. Bloviate. He wanted to stop bloviating. It’s a verb. I guess?

  21. I’d tell the student to bloviate. Bloviate until you can’t bloviate anymore. Bloviate until you cannot not bloviate.

  22. Nose dive into your life. Experience every little offering. Run through doors, especially the ones that are closed to you. Love until you’re black and blue. Battle every single bastard you come across. Squeeze that sponge until its dry. If you can write while doing all this, good on you. If not, fret not. That’s what memory is for. The key is to live.

  23. do have a picture of above mentioned dreamy-young man-writing-a-memoir-about-his-quest-for-love?

  24. I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch
    Oh the bitch is back
    Stone cold sober as a matter of fact
    I can bitch, I can bitch
    `Cause I’m better than you
    It’s the way that I move
    The things that I do


    I would tell that student to read this blog.

  25. Make sure your mother the librarian, who read to you and passed on her love of books says the following:

    “You’re not good enough to be a wrier.”

    Worked for me.

  26. Did it again. Do you think this is because I’m about to begin revising my newest novel knowing that I now have an agent whose opinion matters me?

    Unlike my mother’s…..

  27. Then think right now long and hard about what job you’re going to do that won’t bleed your soul dry, so you can write when the whistle blows.

  28. The first time I hit the road, guitar in hand, backpack tightened and adjusted, a friend said, “Don’t read ‘On the Road’, it’ll fuck you all up.” I had thought about taking a copy with me, but decided to follow his advice. I carried two pens and those little pocket notebooks, spirals on the top. I filled about one pad per region. I stopped by to visit on the way back east and the same guy told me, “You should read ‘On the Road’ while you’re traveling.” Everyone will give you advice. When you stop taking it and just live your life, then pick up the pen and start to write. Later, listen to the experiences of those who just might know something and figure out what to do with all the words that flow in meandering patterns like the grain of a particular piece of wood.
    (Kids listen politely to poor and broken fossils like me, but I think they are really covertly texting behind their backs or thinking about ultimate frisbee.)

  29. They’re at Yale; they’ve already won. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Yale_University_people

    What does the scullery maid tell the duchess? In ten years, those gorgeous, hip, smug little crapsacks are gonna be hiring the people who hire the people who throw crumbs on my plate. I’d tell them to die in a fire.

    • I knew we could count on you, August.

      • I’m edging close to self-parody (if I haven’t already crossed over) but the lack of class resentment makes me crazy. These kids don’t need our advice; they need us neck-deep in the mud so they don’t get their shoes dirty.

    • True. Economics always matter. People with money start out ahead and have to do a hell of a lot to fuck up their lead.

      Those of us who couldn’t afford an MFA–who are largely self-taught and who *must* work other jobs in order to survive–will spend a lot of time playing catch-up and not succeeding. Unless we consider being able to read and write success, which, in a lot of ways, it is.

  30. My son is this age. I have to stop myself from telling him to buckle up his car seat.

  31. Write for a newspaper while they still exist. You’ll become disciplined, write (almost) every day, gather clips and hang with like-minded people who aren’t afraid to work. You can hate your editors together over beers. Also, you’ll be encouraged to wear ties and/or heels, both of which can make a writer feel like a dignified adult. Which is a novel feeling in this spit-upon field.

    • Amen, sista. A newsroom is a veritable petri dish for learning to write. After a decent college journalism education and many many people tell me I was SUCH a good writer (c’mon, it was southern Illinois), it was at my first newspaper job where my editor let me know I didn’t know the proper use of its and it’s. I had no idea I was doing it incorrectly. And thereafter, every time I screwed it up again, he wadded up a piece of paper and bounced it off of the back of my head. Today I could probably sue him. But I never get its and it’s wrong.

    • Good advice. Reporters also have the opportunity to hone their observational skills. And learn to ask tough questions–and follow-up questions(!) Plus they know how to meet deadlines!

  32. to remember the manners their Mama taught them.

  33. That would of course greatly depend. On a good day, if the sun were warm and shining, the sky was blue and my conscience clear of resentment, guilt and self-recrimination, I’d clap him on the back and tell him “Wonderful, my lad, it’s a fine aspiration for gentlemen and scholars and I wish you the very best.”

    But such days seem few and far between of late. Far more likely I’d grab him by the lapels and say “Are you kidding me ? Fuck you. You’re young. You go to Yale. You’re described by some accounts as “dreamy”. You’re actually still naive enough to think that people would be interested in your puerile meanderings about looking for love. Which of course they may be, but that’s beside the point. The point is Fuck. You. Live your life. Get a job. Do something interesting. Anything. Get the shit beat out of you. Wallow around in your own filth, get back up, rinse and repeat. Then tell me you want to write, goddamn you !”

    Or words to that effect.

  34. A gorgeous, hip, dreamy young man? Needing advice?

    Right this way, baby. First things first.

  35. Tell them to go out and buy a lottery ticket. Fold it up and put it away in their wallet or purse. And to never check to see if it was a winning number.

    Someone ‘wanting to be a writer’ is like asking if they want to to have fries with that. Or super size that. Or do they want to

  36. I would tell them to get a job that leaves time for writing, that does not involve teaching writing. Could be a lot of things.

    On top of reading voraciously, widely, and including the classics (if I have to tell them to do that, I wonder if they should be writing), I would suggest they try to learn copyediting, at least for a while. Studying the guts of the machinery is a vacation from dragging out one’s own living guts, and the resulting skills can help you get published. Or pay the bills.

    And also I would paraphrase another advice-giver and tell them that if their work is agonizingly beneath their own taste, but they find they can’t stop, to just power through the revulsion and despair. If you work your tail off, you will get better.

  37. Get a job. Join the Marines. Seek responsibility. Fail occasionally. Get married. Have kids. Fail some more. Acknowledge your shortcomings. Read Ecclesiastes (or Kohelet). Vote your conscience. Fail some more. Buy stuff you think will make you happy. Realize stuff doesn’t really make you happy. Accept that nobody owes you a thing. Fail yet some more.

    Then they’ll have character. Then they can write something worth reading.

  38. Keep at it. Take the rejections and move on. Be courteous to the people who take the time to consider your work, no matter what they think of it.

  39. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

  40. Learn to like getting up early and writing in the mornings. It’s one of the only ways to make writing fit with post-college life.

  41. Experience life. Get crazy. And then use the material for your writing. Or play it safe, get a job, live in a cubicle and . . . get crazy.

  42. Friends told me that their 9 year old daughter was so inspired by Harry Potter that she wanted to be a writer. My advice? Learn some kind of really useful skill, like computer programming or accounting. Some kind of skill that can earn a bunch of money in a small amount of time, so you can subside on a part-time wage and make time in your life to write. Or, marry rich. That would work too. 🙂

  43. Be prepared for envy and ridicule as well as glorious and uncomfortable praise. Especially if you’re a woman, especially if you’re funny, especially if you’re smart and imaginative. Especially if you have unusual perspectives.

    And be humble, of course. 😉

    Re the class part August raises: Absolutely right. People with money start out ahead and have to do a hell of a lot to fuck up their lead.

    Those of us who couldn’t afford an MFA–who are largely self-taught and who *must* work other jobs in order to survive–will spend a lot of time playing catch-up and not succeeding. Unless we consider being able to read and write success, which, in a lot of ways, it is.

  44. Fun tip: Tell people you are a writer with a silent “w.” It will drive them nuts.

  45. don’t spend more than ten minutes a day on blogs

    • Yes. Which means don’t edit your blog posts much. Just spout off and dash. (More fun that way.)

      Or spend a little more time and just listen to lectures about black holes while you’re at it.

  46. Live your life. Treat your body well. Have as many adventures as possible.

    Also, if you can do anything else (be an engineer, a nurse, an astrologist) go ahead and do that thing instead.

  47. Read Joyce too.

  48. “If you think I’m going to respond to that outpouring of love and support, you have another thing coming…”


    It’s “If you THINK I’m going to respond to that, you have another THINK coming..” Think once, think twice.

  49. I would definitely discourage him. Do anything but and keep notes or journal while you’re not being a writer. There’s legions of 20- something well -intentioned MFA-ers sitting with sharpened pencils and blank paper. Can’t write because they haven’t done anything to write about!

  50. “What would you tell a college student who wants to be a writer?”

    Be a CPA.

    You have to eat & pay the light bill. Writing isn’t a right, it’s a privilege that comes at great cost to your pocketbook and your personal life. Earn a living first. Then write.

  51. Here’s a novel (no pun intended) idea: let’s start encouraging people of all ages to follow their passions instead of pounding them with reasons why they need to join the ranks of all the numb, unhappy worker bees with all the gadgets they want and all the emptiness they don’t want.

  52. What I was told: take your LSAT, go to law school. You’ll write all the time there. What? There’s no fiction in the law? Huh, could have fooled me.

    If you still want to write once you’re there, use your time wisely. Take classes where the professors don’t believe in the Socratic method, and figure out a way to turn all your term papers into a short story exercise. If you’re really good at it, you’ll find a way to turn a paper on constitutional law into a tawdry romance novel set during the Revolutionary War. Martha and George, clasped tightly together as he discovers the real meaning of freedom? Sounds like Law Review material to me!

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