How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers

Sarah Manguso

Work. Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you. Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone.

Money. Learn to live on air. Buy the best health insurance you can afford. If you have roommates, work in the library. Run and do calisthenics instead of paying for a gym membership. Invest in ear plugs, good sneakers, and a coffee machine. Buy oatmeal in bulk. Learn to cook simple, nutritious meals. Save and eat leftovers. Cafes are a waste of money, calories, and time; leave them to the tourists. Buy books used, perform periodic culls, and resell them. Wasting money on clothes is the stupidest habit of all. You will only ever need two good outfits.

Health. Stay healthy; sickness is a waste of time and money. Smoking or overeating will eventually make you sick. Drinking and drugs interfere with clear perception, which you will need in order to make good work. It may be worth paying for psychotherapy sessions now instead of paying for inpatient treatment next year; see someone in-network.

Friends. Avoid all messy and needy people including family; they threaten your work. You may believe your messy life supplies material, but it in fact distracts you from understanding that material, and until you understand it, it is useless to you. Don’t confuse users, hangers-on, or idols with friends. If a former friend asks you why you don’t have time to see him or her anymore, say your existing responsibilities have made it impossible to socialize as much as you used to. Cutting someone out with no explanation is an insult that will come around.

Asking favors. When requesting a favor in writing, ask outright and respectfully for what you want. Don’t write what appears to be a long, friendly letter full of compliments and then ask for help at the end, pretending it’s an afterthought. Such behavior smacks of tit-for-tat, or prepayment for a commodity, and it’s ugly to point out the existence of the favor economy. Just do favors and ask favors in a vacuum. If a favor is given immediately after one is received by the giver, pretend not to notice the coincidence. When given a favor, honor those who helped you. Be gracious and sincere, and don’t overthank them.

Giving favors. Don’t give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence. Publishing or showing work where no one will see it or giving a reading where no one will hear it is a favor. Learn graciously to decline. The world will catch on that you are a valuable commodity. When you find great work, help it along; expect nothing in return. Bringing great work to the world is your job, whether you or someone else created it.

Kindness. It should go without saying that you must be kind to everyone you meet. People have long memories. Bad behavior should not be returned in kind. When people forget their manners, take it as an opportunity to practice yours.

Dignity. Don’t respond to personal attacks, either aloud or in writing. Don’t respond to criticism outside the letters section of a magazine that routinely publishes responses to criticism. When asked an ignorant question, take it as an opportunity to educate the questioner; compassionately explain his error in judgment or perception.

Allies. Recognize those who would help you, and let them know who you are. Assemble a coterie of influence that will protect and serve you. Doing someone a favor and then immediately asking for one is inappropriate; favors don’t win allies. Only you and your work win lasting allies. Do good work and treat people kindly, and strangers will reach out to help you. Recognize those who will never help you, and ignore them; indignation and regret waste energy.

Enemies. Know who they are and monitor them. Those who offer or ask for favors might be enemies in cheap disguise. Calling enemies out in public makes you look weak; in the company of others, act as if no enemy could possibly hurt you. When asked about an ad hominem attack, pretend never to have heard of the attacker. Don’t overlook the possibility of enemies’ influence, but don’t become overinvolved, either. You aren’t guarding state secrets. No vendetta is so important that it should distract you from your work.

Onward. Once you’ve truly begun, slow down. The difference between publishing two good books and forty mediocre books is terribly large. Don’t expend energy in writing and publishing that would be better used in your family or community. Become tempered by life. Make compromises for love. Provide a service to the world. These experiences form the adult mind. Without them both you and your work will remain juvenile.

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of The Guardians: An Elegy. Her previous book, the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a Best Book of the Year by the Independent (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle, the Telegraph (UK), and Time Out Chicago, and was short-listed for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.



The Guardians from Sarah Manguso on Vimeo.

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  • Ah, Ms Manguso’s words are very wise. And ironic. While we ignore them at our peril, in my experience every writer worth their salt has been an inveterate grasshopper, as inclined to the back slide as they were to the slide ahead. For if there is no art in the occasional failure, if one cannot admit to being normally human — Lord, what have I just written? — then there can probably be no art in success, achieved as much by strange artistry as by studied plan. The health advice is good though…

  • Susie

    If I followed this advice, I would turn into the sort of self-serving, unimaginative and reductive person that I hope I will never be.

    The only writing advice anyone needs is this: write.

    • Dear Susie, Yeah, but I’d hate to be approached by a young writer today like when I approached my writing teacher at Columbia a hundred years ago. I arched my eyebrows, said HOW?; and he said, “FUCK IT. JUST DO IT!” But that was way back in the day when we were different. To any youngster writing today, I’d say, Stop moaning, get on with it. Jesus, all the time spent thinking about doing it. Break that habit first. Then spend the next 10 years making every mistake you can think of. Lick all your wounds and limp back to what you are. Stay away from the universities. Get on the beam. Take your bloody time. Ah, it wasn’t like this when we all didn’t want to be famous. What a toll that is.

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  • Oh. Sugar.

    Would love to hear back from you in 20 years or so. If I’m still around, I’ll be curious to know how all this worked out for you. And if you find yourself at all messy and needy at that point, please know there are people who’ll love you anyway. There are people who are kind without agenda, institutions that grow unexpectedly into being of consequence and enemies who turn out to be more misunderstood than malicious.

    As a writer whose career has been an amazing surprise party for which I’m extremely grateful, I’ll tell you this simple truth: In all the days and hours I spent tethered to an IV tree in the chemo ward, I never once heard anyone rue the day they ate too much and worked too little. Mostly there was a lot of “What an idiot I was for taking myself so seriously.”

    Peace be with you, kiddo. You’re a wonderfully talented writer.

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  • I’m still trying to find the part that applies specifically to writers.

    • To Joel: Funny joke. (That’s a fine website you’ve got. You have very good stamina!) Cheers.

  • June

    I genuinely can’t tell whether this is satirical or not.

    If it is, I think that should be made explicit immediately because people are obviously taking it seriously (it’s clearly not working as humor :)).

    If it isn’t (and I fear it isn’t):

    Like Joni above, I’d guessed this author was still solidly in the young and invincible stage, without any experience of being “messy and needy” herself. Minimal googling turned up the surprising fact that, like me, she’s had very serious (and mysterious) chronic health issues. I can’t fathom how someone who’s come through that could now tell us to ignore family in need because they threaten our work.

    And it is (just to take the example that struck me most) hard to think of a less kind or more shortsighted rule than “Don’t give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence.”

    Really crossing my fingers for that disclaimer. I want this to be failed satire, not real advice that anyone impressionable takes to heart.

    • Malk

      June, I appreciate your comments. The article I just read by Sarah Manguso is a proof that there are people who are really experts when it comes to being selfish and self-centered. If work is served to the detriment of family, I would ask “who will be by our side when we become unnecessary?” I have just clicked unfollow the Twitter account where this article was recommended.

  • I agree with Joni–while earnest and heartfelt, this is a recipe for a cheerless, ascetic existence. I personally would rather sit in a café (regardless of calories, money, and time) than sit alone in the library, eating oatmeal, in my comfortable sneakers. I find I can’t get as much inspiration being overly responsible and frugal all the time. Perhaps this grim self-discipline works for some; but as a catch-all advice column for young writers, I think it advocates too much work and not enough of experiencing actual life.

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  • Of course this was meant to be ironic, a satirical study of the demands we must resist if we’re to be any better than we are. There’s no point in a disclaimer just because all of us are taking ourselves so seriously. I imagine that Ms Manguso had had just one too many “You’re so selfish, you’re just doing this for yourself. How come we don’t ever go out?” Let’s remember that we write because others don’t. And that it’s nobody’s business but their own. The readers here, I’m presuming, are deeply immersed in the literary culture. And writers, we know, never ride for free.

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  • Anon

    Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a careerist approach to a writing life (though those motives and anxieties will eventually show up in the writing, of course). And I totally get it about not buying clothes. Finally someone has had the bravery to say it!

  • Mary

    I couldn’t even get through to the end of this. One element of good writing is keeping the reader engaged, and Ms.Manguso failed in that endeavor. What a lackluster way to look at life and writing, both of which have the potential to be exciting and fulfilling. Manguso has done a great job of isolating herself in the ways she describes here, seeing as she cannot even hear how arrogant and joyless she sounds in this piece. I call it the “say it out loud test”: say it out loud and really listen to the drivel spilling out. As others have echoed here, the only real writing advice is this: keep your pen moving.

  • June

    Rob, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that it’s meant to be ironic. There is a lot of sincere-sounding advice in there (and, to be fair, a lot of good advice!).

    Will we get a response from the author?

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  • poetkid

    I’m not sure this article, or these comments, understand what satire or irony are.

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  • Oh I don’t know…but sounding sincere and sounding good you’ll have to admit is a pretty gambit. Irony (and probably the best satire too) depends on the writing having an internal credibilty — and the listener and reader being in the know. Does how soon the penny drops that you’re having your leg pulled depend on the individual reader or on the author lending you the cent? If I remember right, my first response was minor outrage, followed by a minor chuckle: Yes, we are known to be selfish creatures. No harm done there. We keep on going. But alas I am grown tired of all this…transmission ends.

  • Brani Peterson

    Tomorrow I’ll have a hangover and that really sucks because I got to go see my grandmother. She wants me to help her in her garden. Old people are so needy, but I really don’t mind. She’s a great cook so I’ll probably eat too much. My friend is going through a divorce. She’s a mess right now. I could cut her lose but it seems pretty cruel with the divorce an all. At some point I’ll work on my next project so I can’t really find the time to monitor my enemies. I’m not even sure if I have any. Oh, and I write romance which everybody knows is just tripe compared to literary fiction… I personally prefer the royalty statement of 40 books to an empty bank account, an over inflated ego and two books only the critics read.

  • Kimberly S.

    Geez…….I saw this recommended by a (writer) friend on Facebook. I have to say, in all the blogs I’ve visited (and there are many), I’ve never seen such a group of critical commentators (on not just this, but many of the posts). Talk about people taking themselves too seriously. Sure, some of the author’s advice is naive, but whatever. If you know better, then (I just did a comma-then!! See Franzen’s post…ha!) take heart that you know better and that she’ll figure it out in her own time. I think a lot of you need to focus on just writing and not being so critical of your “competition.” No one is perfect. No advice is perfect. And, to be honest, who really gives a shit?

    • Rachel Thompson

      Hey Kim! A: It’s me time to waste. Bite me.

      B: I think you need to stop stalking a thousand blogs looking for a chant to posting comments that tell people to stop posting comments.

      C: Follow your ow advice. Focus on your writing and stop to micromanage the internet.

  • Great post, though nothing in particular for the young writers – alright – um – I ‘m new.

  • “Work. Be relentless.” is pretty good advice. (I have “stop messing around and get on with it” stuck on my wall).

    It took me a while to realise this was satirical, but once I did, it made me smile. There’s a lost of truth spoken in jest.

    It’s a good read. Lots of energy. Thank you.
    Back to my messy and needy (and very likely selfish) life.

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  • Oh. It’s a joke.

    And I’m a provincial hippie. Awesome.

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  • As a young writer myself I know everything she mentions in the post is absolutely true and something that all writers (not just young writers) should keep in mind 🙂

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  • Priceless info. This article was speaking directly to me.

  • This is how I try to live my life! Extremely validating!

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  • michael itolo

    Hello my name is Michael itolo, i am from Nigeria and i am a new talented author with ideas, please i would love to be part of your young coming author group, please i would love to expose my writing talent, and i promise to do all my best to make this group great more am sure and i can do all my best, i m gifted with this please help me to join this
    thank you i hope to hear back from you
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    Michael itolo
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  • J. Geiger

    Wonderfully pragmatic and useful information!