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Advice from the Canon: on Securing Your Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Wilson Josephson By Wilson Josephson Published on May 27, 2016

At a glance, the world we’re writing in seems wildly different from the one inhabited by the many revered writers of the past. We have vaccines and GMOs; we have the internet and smartphones. We have hashtags! But writing has always been, and will always be, writing—and there are plenty of lessons we might learn from those who came before.

Here are five.

First, from Ezra Pound and the modernists: 

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photo courtesy of openlettersmonthly.com

“Make It New!”

My personal vendetta against Ezra goes way back, but about this he was absolutely right. If you’re going to start a blog—if you’re going to make anything at all, for that matter—make it new. The turnover rate of online content is often laughably quick; everyone chases after the next new thing like a ghost hounding Pac-Man. But that next new thing could be you…so long as you aren’t simply regurgitating someone else’s idea.

This may mean finding a previously unrepresented niche (though this has become more and more difficult) or it could mean combining two previously distinct categories. Community radio and Lovecraftian horror? Niebuhr and Bieber? Literature and Starbucks? Some combinations won’t go over well—I’m still waiting for a “giallo meets birding” blog to sweep the nation—but certain combinations can make sparks fly in new and surprising ways.

Part of “make it new” is research, which, gross, but also, necessary. A quick google search—or Bing search, if you happen to be that particular brand of depraved—should help you understand whether your three a.m. plan for a Gillian’s Island (Gillian Anderson by way of Gilligan’s Island; so essential; so obvious) has already been thought of by a half dozen other writers.

(A quick aside: sometimes, your research will reveal that yes, someone has tried this, but on the other hand no, they didn’t do it nearly as well as I could. In cases such as these, traversing mapped territory may be worthwhile.)

(Think of it like a reboot. Who doesn’t love a reboot?*)

Next up is JK Rowling.

Legend has it that the manuscript for The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected by a dozen publishing houses before eventually finding a home. In this regard, Jo joins hordes of other writers whose works were rejected again and again before being recognized.

I can glean two lessons from these stories of rejection: first, be patient; second, be persistent. And yes—those are two separate things, but no—I did not look them up before insisting on the distinction. Being patient means dodging frustration and despondency when your new blog (or youtube series, or litmag) doesn’t get the immediate attention it deserves. Being persistent entails a willingness to try new things when a project runs its course or never gets off the ground. You’ll need a balance of both to find success.

William Faulkner

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An interviewer once asked William Faulkner what his advice would be to readers who felt they didn’t understand The Sound and the Fury even after reading it two or three times. William’s** response has become famous, both for being the kind of thing you wish you’d said and also for being more than a little asshole-ish. He said: “Read it four times.”

I don’t know if that’s a good attitude in life, but it brings me to an important tip about creating content—and an important Internet Tip generally:

Don’t read the comments.

There are plenty of good, beautiful things under the sun; you’ll find none of them in internet comments sections. Your relationship with the comments should mirror Gatsby’s relationship with the inevitable march of time: do your best to ignore their existence. (That worked out well for him, didn’t it?)

It’s true, comments will have the occasional gem—someone suggesting, for example, that the Dursleys are bullies only because they lived with a Horcrux for so long—but for the most part, the dangers of the comments section will outweigh any potential benefits. Often, commenters are simply lonely folks made bold by anonymity, but even those who try to be helpful can sometimes subvert your project. Which brings me to…

Herman Melville

Have you ever met someone who simply adores Moby Dick—but only for the extensive chapters on whaling and cetology? I’d be willing to bet the contents of my fridge you haven’t. But I’d be just as willing to bet that Herman had a grand old time writing those passages.

So: even if you set out intent on claiming your fifteen minutes of fame, be sure you’re writing for yourself. Don’t worry about other people—you’ll be spending far more time with it than they will, anyway. If you don’t feel as excited about your work as Herman did about whaling, it’ll show.

There’s one other !bonus! lesson from Herman: always be willing to say “I would prefer not to.”

And finally:

a tip from the members of Oulipo, as well as a plethora of other literary groups and partnerships: don’t work alone. Work with people who are smarter than you; work with people who get breathless talking about the same things that speed your own pulse; work with anyone who’ll put up with you. The internet is not some Rand-ian wasteland, filled with rugged individualists out for themselves. Not everyone you run into will be worth your time—that’s why we generally avoid the comments—but even (Mad) Max knows that going alone is for suckers.

The internet, for all its shadowy bits and its disappointing bits, presents us with previously impossible opportunities for collaboration. We can make connections and play with ideas in ways we may never have without a community. Besides—working with other people is just straight up more fun.

*The author has many pent-up feelings about the Fantastic Four reboot.

**William? Will? Bill? What’s the consensus on this one?

An aspiring author with one book (Literary Starbucks) under his belt. An avid amateur & a lover--and editor--of poetry. Pursuing a career.