A YEAR AGO an English teacher from a high school a few hours north of where I live sent me an email. Graduation time was getting close again and he had a request: “This is my 20th year. We are a very diverse school with about 75% of our students on a free or reduced lunch program. The problems our students face are twofold: first, they don’t think they can be successful; second, they don’t know what success looks like. I love where I teach and I genuinely want the best for every single student I meet. I am hoping you can help.”
He went on to ask me to draft a letter advising his students about success—what it was, what it meant, how to attain it.
Like a fool, I immediately said yes.
A week later when I sat down at my laptop, having allotted about half an hour to knock the thing out, the enormity of his request became apparent. Who am I to give advice? What do I know about success? As a teenager I was a lousy student with a bad attitude who enrolled in a job training program for budding mechanics and pregnant girls—just so I could split every day at noon. I am fairly sure my parents are still unaware of this fact. The only two subjects that ever interested me were history and art. I loved to read, but English class was brutal and I hated the perfunctory analysis of assigned texts; compare and contrast Nick Carraway’s perception of Gatsby as ‘great’ with the symbolism behind the blinking lights of West Egg, making certain to include an analysis of theme, structure, and cultural mores as they relate to both Myrtle and the American Dream. I spent four years giving non-answers to these non-questions, mapping the boundaries of exactly how much I could skate through, which, with the exception of calculus, was just about everything. A few days after graduation I packed my ’75 LeMans full of boots, books, and Misfits cassettes and drove down to Washington D.C., having vowed to never attend college, let alone sit in a classroom of any kind, ever again.
By that spring I had a change of heart. Mostly due to the sobering realization that ten months of pulling back-to-back busboy shifts and unloading delivery trucks on weekends just to make rent was hardly the anarcho-syndicalist rebellion I’d once imagined. Also, I was lonely. I went to punk shows alone, moshed alone, ate at Korean buffets alone. The only person I really knew in D.C. was my sister, and what little time we spent together consisted of having our fake IDs turned down at campus bars.
My collegiate ambitions rose. Mostly in proportion to the fear of continuing to work for a man who wore a diamond tie-pin shaped like a spatula. Still, I only applied to schools that were in the A, B, or C section of the Barron’s College Guide because I couldn’t muster the will to research deeper into the alphabet. Each application required two essays. I wrote the first about imminent nuclear winter, heavily cribbed from Martin Amis. For the second, I drew a picture of a cow. Seriously. It was an arty cow, true, with some clever phrases hidden in the line work, but the fact that I was accepted to not one, but two institutions of higher learning is itself a damning commentary on a collective intellectual diminishment that long presaged Storage Wars.
In short, it would be quite easy to make the case that I am unfit to give advice on pretty much any subject, in any context, to any age group, for any reason. Writing a few reasonably well received chapters about film noir is hardly convincing field research. And I am fairly sure predicting the next zombie outbreak is not a licensed form of counsel in any of the forty-eight contiguous states.
For a week I agonized over the letter. I stared as the cursor blinked accusingly in the top left corner of an empty file. I did a few Google searches like WHAT TO TELL TEENAGERS and ADVICE THAT DOESN’T SUCK but the results were invariably full of just the sort of empty platitudes that had driven me toward emptiness as an operating philosophy to begin with.
And then, at about three in the morning on the night before it was due, the following more or less wrote itself:
Dear Students of _________ High
Recently, one of your teachers asked me to write you a letter on the subject of success. I find this to be daunting as well as flattering, because the measure of success is entirely relative, as well as the fact that his request carries with it the implication that I have achieved enough success to have a valuable opinion on the matter.
I’ve never liked the phrase “when you get out into the real world,” and I’m not going to use it now, because I’m certain your world is just as real, this very minute, as it has any right to be. I honestly don’t know much about what it’s like to be you, in your seat and in your skin. Too much has changed in the last twenty years. But I do know that when I was your age, I very much wanted to be a writer. I am now a professional writer. So there’s that.
In publishing, as with most other industries, the metric for success is sales. The number of units moved equates to recognition, royalties, and the power to demand greater control of your product. But I do not agree with that math. The amount of books I’ve sold (not so many), or the number of people who follow me on Twitter (embarrassingly few), or the pitch at which costumed fans scream outside Barnes & Noble waiting for my next special midnight release is irrelevant. I’m doing what I have always wanted to do, what I love to do, and what I intend to do for the rest of my life. To me that is the measure of success, regardless of the other trappings.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that without any of those trappings currently socked away in various offshore accounts, but I still believe it to be true.
In fact, I guarantee that if you can similarly identify a pursuit you care more about than any other—if you find something that matters so much that it hurts—you’re already halfway to affluence. It helps to be realistic, but that pursuit can be almost anything: lawyer, dermatologist, computer programmer, rap mogul, shoe store owner, librarian, bearded lady, wooded hermit, or horse whisperer. True, you have to really want to be a horse whisperer, because there aren’t many openings. It may be more practical to aim for Lakers power forward. Or just being a person who will never in their lives use the phrase “rap mogul.” But under the right circumstances anything can happen. It’s worth saying that again, and saying it out loud, in a dramatic voice not unlike the narrator from Law & Order: Teen Inspiration Unit.
Anything. Can. Happen.
Which doesn’t mean it will happen, but that can is powerful. Hold onto it tightly, especially during your most harrowing periods. Whisper it like a mantra. And if someone asks why you’re talking to yourself, tell them another thing that can happen is for them to mind their own business.
When I was sixteen, I wrote all the time. Terrible, terrible poetry. The absolute worst song lyrics ever. Short stories so bad that they still make my spine hurt. But I also read. Constantly. Obsessively. I researched authors I admired and tried to copy their style, break down their runs, understand their phrasing and tempo and sense of melody. Also, I stole from them. Blatantly. It’s okay, everyone does it while they’re learning a craft. Bands, painters, singers, poets, dancers, photographers, comedians, directors. They all steal from each other when they’re coming up. The idea is to progress until you’re not stealing anymore, until you’ve developed a voice of your own.
Here’s the big secret about writing: somehow you have to not quit out of frustration and embarrassment during all the years when you’re genuinely terrible at it. And you will be terrible at it. It’s the same if you’re learning Romanian or playing saxophone or painting impressionist cows. No one picks up an instrument and is suddenly brilliant at it. You have to keep going even when it’s a total mystery. Especially when it’s a total mystery. Most people eventually let go of the fantasy of creation and give into the reality of making money. Which is fine, if all you intend to do is make money. But to be a writer, you have to plow ahead. You have to continue long after all your family and friends stop believing in you, until even you totally doubt yourself and are ready to do almost anything else.
I swear, you guys, you have no idea how many mornings I woke up feeling like a fool and a fraud. I crumpled reams of paper, got carpal tunnel, ruined two computers, and wasted a fortune’s worth of stamps. But I never stopped. I kept my butt in the seat and my fingers on the keyboard, and by the time I was in my late twenties, I’d finally started to get a handle on how to put a sentence together. After hundreds and hundreds of rejections, one of my short stories was accepted. I won a contest. I got freelance writing jobs. I got paid to describe skirts in catalogs. I wrote restaurant reviews and movie reviews for fifty dollars each. I wrote marketing mailers for huge corporations in which I had no clue what I was talking about. But it was cool because I was getting paid cash to do the only thing that mattered to me. I could probably have averaged more money per hour working the register at Taco Time, but, and here’s the weird thing, no one’s ever going to publish your taco.
At this point, I could recite any number of clichés for you to yawn your way through, but in the end you’re the one who has to wake up tomorrow morning. You’re the one who has to take a chance. You’re the one who’s responsible for making your own life interesting.
Let me say that again: You’re the one who is responsible for making your own life interesting.
So I’m not going to give you any advice. I’m going to give you a sentence. You can laugh at it, dismiss it, or write it on the back of a Snickers wrapper and keep it in your wallet for future reference:
Success depends on figuring out what you really, really want and then being brave enough to do whatever it takes to make that thing happen, even if everyone else around you is busy pretending that nothing really matters.
Actually, I am going to give you some advice: tip well. Give up your seat on the bus. Take action instead of watching. Be a real friend. Listen when other people are speaking instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Pay more than your share. Volunteer. Only lie when you absolutely must. Treat television like dessert. Be dauntingly aware. Don’t put bumper stickers on your car. Listen to unusual music. Break a sweat. Ignore the professionally famous. Be an honest lover. Don’t believe the Internet. There is no one left to impress.
And then read some more.