Ariel Gore is an adventurer, the Indiana Jones of literature. Full-time author and part-time teacher, she’s a novelist, a memoirist, a journalist, a zinester, as well as the writer of the brand new How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights.
And how does one do it? Ariel asked Marc Acito, novelist and Palahniuk protégé, who got his big break because Chuck had read his newspaper column.
She asked poet and memoirist Michele Tea the secrets to spilling your guts on both page and stage, and got them.
Reclusive Dave Eggers offers fresh insights on both writing and publishing. DIY demigod Jim Munroe of www.nomediakings.org tells how (and why) you should take your word show on the road, and Pulitzer-prize winner Dave Barry talks with honesty about how hard it is to be funny.
Between the meaty interviews, Ariel offers her own mental vegetables about career and craft. In 78 short-but-great chapters, she covers pretty much everything that matters. From how to give yourself a Lit Star makeover, to mastering your craft, to publishing before you're ready and playing with the big dogs, to becoming a brazen self-promoter. She shows you how to be the P.T. Barnum of your own literary legacy. It’s no short order, but she deals with the real issues of the writing life shamelessly.
Blunt as a hammer and fun as cotton candy, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead does what few (if any) books on the craft ever have. I speak from experience. As I’m sure I’ve read at least 150 of them.
Ariel took the time to talk with me about her new book, her family, her self-published zine Hip Mama, and how she seems to accomplish anything and everything without going completely crazy.
Will Tupper: Straight out the gates, the Preface to How to Become a Famous Writer just broke my heart. After you decided to write the book, what was the next step you took?
Ariel Gore: I just started writing it. Pen to paper.
My friend Allison Crews had written me an email asking me to be her mentor — to teach her what I knew about writing in general and the publishing world in particular. She was a young editor and activist who I’d always imagined would take over publishing my zine, Hip Mama, when I was ready to pass it along. I told her I’d be happy to, but a month later – and before we talked again – she had a seizure and died. She was 22. A crazy reaction to the antidepressant Wellbutrin. So I just started writing what I would have told her. I wrote the first chapters longhand, mostly in bars. I wrote to make myself feel better, I guess.
My agent told me that how-to writing books by writers were impossible to sell — that there were just too many out there— but what did I care? Well, I cared a little bit. I am not a kept woman. So, basically, my agent said, “No, don’t send me that.” And I said, “All right, here is that.” And she said, “Well, OK, let’s figure out how to sell it.” (Maybe this is the beauty of already having an agent, but it was also a different type of writing book — a book more focused on getting your work out into the world, and a book full of interviews with all these other authors — actual FAMOUS authors — so in the end it isn’t just my advice). Anyways, I put those early chapters into a proposal format and my agent was kind enough to send it around.
Will: You pretty much hit up the cream of the crop as far as writers working today: Dave Eggers, Michelle Tea, Daphne Gottlieb, Dave Barry, Jim Munroe… the list just goes on. Ariel, how do you, as a writer, stay organized? How much of your day would you say is devoted to the actual craft, versus the “business” side of writing?
Ariel: Organized? Hmm. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly organized, but I do keep a lot of little things taped up around my desk to remind me to do this or that. I gave in a couple of years ago and got a calendar. But I still don’t have a watch. I try to be sure I’m not spending time on things that are not contributing directly to family/joy/writing/teaching/publishing, but it’s hard to break that down and say, well, I’m spending 50 percent of my time on craft and 50 percent on business. How would you classify time spent answering these questions, for example? Or time spent driving cross-country with my kid and a bunch of friends and putting on shadow puppet shows and peddling a new book? Not being a kept woman and not having a day job and having kids who really keep you grounded in the business of survival has helped me stay focused on the reality that I have to make a living when I’d often rather let myself get sucked into the alternate world of art and words and the strange light of my computer.
Will: One of my favorite sections of your new book is Part Three: Publish Before You’re Ready. You talk about the importance of getting your work out there, in whatever way you can. Be it in Blogs, be it in poems, be it in the PTA newsletter, you stress the importance of performing “public printed presentations,” so to speak. You talk about zines, self-publishing. All sorts of neat things.
You tell how your first break came from an internship at a small community newspaper. What you didn’t mention was what your next step after that was. And I was curious… what was it?
Ariel: I just kept on. I moved from Northern California down to the Bay Area and went to Mills College, where they had an actual school newspaper. I split my time between the communications/journalism department and creative writing. I got another internship at the weekly newspaper in the town where my parents lived--so I could drop my daughter off with my mom and go be a "reporter"--which, as an intern, pretty much meant that I wrote obituaries and feature articles about zucchini. I wrote and tried to publish fiction at night and I did the journalism work during the day. I started writing my own features that fused those two writing styles -- creative nonfiction and journalism -- essays and stories about motherhood and economics and being a teenage welfare mother and traveling. I sent those stories around to Ms. magazine and Parenting magazine and Mothering magazine and Glimmer Train and lots and lots of small literary journals. My stories were all rejected, many without being read, and I'm too sensitive for that. I knew this wasn't going to work for me--this whole culture of pouring my soul or at least my sense of humor into a piece of writing only to get a form-letter rejection. So I started my zine, Hip Mama. What I needed was an editor and a publisher, right? So I became those things. And then immediately I saw that what I needed, too, was a promoter. So I became that, too. My time as a journalism intern had introduced me to the world of press releases, so I became my own PR person and started sending out press releases and getting my work out there and sort of getting myself out there as a news or lifestyle story with the real agenda of promoting my work.
Will: A lot of folks reading this will likely soon be going to college for the first time, in college right now, or recently graduated, and considering Grad School. I've heard tons of opinions, both ways, on the pros and cons of the MFA. You got your master's in journalism, yes? Looking back (knowing then what you know now), would you maybe have done anything different?
Ariel: As a writer you don't need a degree. You need time to work and you need life experience and you need teachers living and dead. So the question is--where are you going to get those things? If you're looking at a grad school program where they're going to fund you, that's something to seriously consider. If you have to sell your house or your soul for it, I certainly wouldn't bother.
I applied and was accepted to both an MFA and a journalism program. I chose the journalism program because it was cheaper. That's what it came down to. I was clear that I was buying these two years to work on my writing and to spend time in a community where the intellectual life was valued. I was getting a big scholarship and a mid-sized loan that together would feed me and my kid--the alternative was to get a non-writing day job I knew wouldn't leave me enough time to be what I wanted to be, which was a writer/teacher/editor/publisher. I'm comfortable with being poor, but I'm not comfortable starving my family and I'm not comfortable deferring the life I want to live--so I had to find a balance. You have to find whatever balance you can. If grad school makes the balance work, I think it's great.
Will: You make the great case that maybe we all do a lot more writing than we realize. When we Blog, we're practicing writing. Email to friends is writing. A well-written angry letter to your Congressperson will no doubt get a better response than a poorly-written one. However... is there a point doing this where enough is enough? And how do you know when to put up (and start working on an actual project), or shut up (keep doing this "practice")? I ask this as I suspect there's a lot of writers out there who use practice as a method to procrastinate (I know I’m often one of them!).
Ariel: Yes, there is a point where enough is enough! Now! Get your butt to work on a project! If you fail, you can call it practice. But you will not fail. Put your intention into the writing you want to do and the life you want to create and get your hands in the dirt and things will start to sprout and bloom and do all the things good garden metaphors are supposed to do.
I am really not kidding about this death thing. And I'm not trying to be cheesy or cliché. But think about Allison Crews. She did an amazing amount of writing and editing and activism in her life and everyone was always saying, "Alli, slow down, you've got your whole life." Well, her whole life turned out to be 22 years.
Will: It's changing, but I think there's still a palpable public disdain towards self-publishing (lots of folks forget that even Chuck Palahniuk started out in a small magazine that some friends of his self-published!). I suspect a big part of this feeling is a writer's desire for validation from the "establishment" (be it a school, a company, or - most likely – their parents). Is there a trick to getting over this, other than maybe write - publish - get used to it?
Ariel: Study the history of self-publishing as a literary tradition. It's deep and inspiring and real. And know that there's nothing you can do about that public disdain. You say you're a writer and immediately people want to know who your publisher is. Like they want to know if you're a REAL writer. But nothing will satisfy them. I always thought that if I could say I was published by HarperCollins and Random House they'd shut up and think I was something special--but they don't shut up. People like that never shut up. They want to know how big your advance was and how many copies you've sold and if you got a good review in The New York Times. They want to know why they've never heard of you. They want to know if you have a famous agent. And, you know, if you ever get to the point where you impress them, then they just want you to read their manuscript. Or they want to borrow some money.
There's a great moment of artistic empowerment when you can stand up and call yourself a writer, but as soon as you do, you realize that you need to sit down and keep quiet. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I sell T-shirts on the internet, which I do: www.hipmamashop.com.
Will: You have a daughter who just headed off to college. You recently gave birth to your son. When you were young you travelled around the world and (by your own admission) wrote very little. Ariel, why is that? Why is it the more we have to do, the more we get done, and the less we have to do, the less we get done?
Ariel: Marc Acito says that it's because we have to learn to manage our time. That might be true. Last year, my daughter did her junior and senior years simultaneously, was a varsity athlete, and held down a part-time job. As soon as she graduated from high school and just had the part-time job to deal with, she kept forgetting what day it was. She ended up getting fired and, by summer's end, she was just sleeping all day.
There are limits to how much we can do and how many roles we can play, but within those broad limits, joyful action and productivity increases rather than decreases our available energy.
Will: Speaking of family (kids, lovers, parents, whomever), you write in the book about how hard it is to get others to respect your time and space. At one point you even tell how you lied to everyone, just in order to get away for a bit. Even if you don't have a room of your own, could you tell me a bit about the importance of carving out writing time (even if it's just 5 minutes, like Marc Acito), for nothing but writing?
Ariel: Well, you'll need more than five minutes--but that's a start. If you work at home, or even if you have an office but your hours are "flexible," the people in your life will likely start to eat up those hours. Perhaps more as a woman/mother/lover, but probably no matter who you are, you have to make a real effort not to dissolve into all the things that need you. Your writing needs you, too, but your writing is probably very shy and quiet about it and so it's easier to neglect. If you're not making money as a writer, it can be really tough to get the people in your life (yourself included) to take your work time seriously, but even during the seasons when I was the sole breadwinner in my household, I had to fight for my time. Mostly I have to fight the urge in myself to say, "Oh, well, all right. I can work later."
Will: Over the years I've directed a number of peers to this essay: Free Money! Your Zine and the Taxman (http://www.zinebook.com/resource/tax.html), for advice on how to save money by writing off educational books, supplies, whatever, on their taxes, as they develop their craft (and begin to get paid) as writers. Like, I'll be writing off your book for sure :). Now this is easier when you do start getting paid... but how important was it for you, starting out, that you thought of what you did as a viable business? You talk about this in the chapter, "See Yourself As An Artist And An Entrepreneur." What advice would you give for a young writer first starting to embrace the business side of writing, esp. since it seems to run so counter-intuitive to the "Don't publish before you're ready," art-not-for-money philosophy held by so many?
Ariel: Well, it turns out that most of those purists who go around preaching about art-not-for-money have trust funds.
When you're doing good work you're offering a kind of sustenance. I can go down the street to Junior's Cafe and Audra will sell me a plate of vegan spicy spuds and I'll pay her, and then she'll buy my book and we'll be feeding each other. There's nothing impure about that. Now, if Audra starts putting junk in her food without telling me so she can make an extra buck, or if I start giving her happy endings when my heart is full of tragedy just so I can get a big advance from Random House, well, now we're getting into trouble and pretty soon it'll be over.
I mean, I've found myself getting pretty jealous of writers who make more money or have trust funds or whatever--I imagine they can spend more time on their work and are free of that constant pull to write for the marketplace--but what are you going to do? On the other hand I know talented people with trust funds who never produce anything because that fire just isn't under their ass. They can spend all the time in the world on their work--and they do--and so there is no work.
Will: In the afterword to the latest edition of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk writes: "In the workshop where I started to write fiction, you had to read your work in public. Most times, you read in a bar or coffeehouse where you'd be competing with the roar of the espresso machine. Or the football game on television. Music and drunk people talking. Against all this noise and distraction, only the most shocking, most physical, dark and funny stories got heard."
I personally started in my teens by writing poetry and doing spoken-word, open mics, etc. for years. And it helped. A lot. You devote the whole last section of the book to how to "become a brazen self-promoter." I think a lot of folks (especially since the advent of the Internet) are a little spooked about doing this. And yet... books (poems, stories, etc) DO have a LOT to compete with.
The communities of poets, writers, other artists that I've been involved with have ALWAYS been so supportive of one another, as we all do our best to raise our game to the next level. It sounds like you've always been fairly fearless (traveling the world so young, etc). But what would be a good way for someone maybe NOT so initially brave to start working a little P.T. Barnum (i.e. brazen self-promotion) into their writing life?
Ariel: That's funny about reading in cafes and bars. I did all my first readings at Hip Mama events where there was always at least one kid for every adult, and I'd start out by consecrating the space as "child friendly," so these kids could make all the noise they wanted and no one was allowed to bad vibe the mothers. And of course there was always the espresso machine going. I usually had a mic, but that was my only weapon. So I got used to reading like that. Eventually I started inviting other writers to those events and the ones who'd never read under those circumstances just couldn't believe it. They couldn't concentrate. But if they had the guts to come back a few times, they learned.
I don't consider myself all that brave. Learning to be a public person was hard work for me. It’s still hard work. The trick is just not to take yourself too seriously. To embrace the part of yourself who is just a terrified geeky writer standing there with a mic. And to start small. Read out at little open mics. Bars are perfect because the audience is drunk--and hopefully forgiving. It's tough to find yourself in a position where you're doing your first reading when you've finally got a book out. Better to have some practice in venues where the stakes don't feel so high. And to get used to the theatric aspect of being a writer. In the interview with Ursula K. LeGuin, she says she's fiercely introverted, but in readings she found that she was also secretly a ham. That's the part of yourself you have to find.
Anyway, read How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead. It's all in there.