How not to learn how to be a writer

by Guest Blogger

Mark Chiusano ’12, an English concentrator in Winthrop House, was awarded an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to spend this summer working on a collection of stories paying homage to the setting of Flatbush in Brooklyn, and attending the Tin House Writers’ Conference. He is currently the Features Editor of the Harvard Advocate, the Magazine Chair of the Harvard Crimson, and an intern and reader for the Harvard Review. Mark is working on a collection of short stories. Everyone tells him not to use contractions.

Don’t try to write a novel in your family’s kitchen. Use those moments when your parents are in other rooms to write aching, heartbreaking half-paragraph portraits of single mothers in black bikinis whose sons are swimming with their shirts on.

Do not try writing in the second person. You will begin to speak in it too, as in: at lunch with friends who have real jobs and are taking time out of their busy schedules to meet you and see how the writing life is going, when they only have thirty minutes once they’ve found "this pizza place" they’ve heard about, their having lived in the city for two months now and really "knowing their way around." When you are doing this you will find yourself telling a story that starts, "You know, you take the Belt Parkway out past the Verrazano Bridge, across from Staten Island where the old stone fort is," etc. etc., and their eyes will glaze over and they will ask instead what you’ve been reading. Try to avoid such lunches. They make you feel bad about yourself as a working person.

Don’t take long walks, or bike rides along the water, explorations into Redhook, Rockaway, Washington Heights. Delete the motion in your stories, because you know it’s only standing in for a lack of emotional depth.

If you go to a writing conference (and, well, you probably should go to a writer’s conference) don’tassume that every night’s drinks will be complimentary. Don’t get jealous, don’t lose heart, don’t worry about missing the lecture on Death and Dying. Don’t read your work in front of famous people when you’ve had too much to drink. Don’t think about how young and dumb you really are. If someone says they’re married, trust them, it’s true.

Back home, don’t lose your notes. Don’t stare in front of a blank screen. Don’t write stories that start, "When Diane came into the hotel restaurant, there were only two other tables taken." Don’t write stories that start, "'Why me?' said the 18-year-old dinosaur to the crocodile, his friend and longtime companion."

Don’t copy Lorrie Moore too obviously. Don’t stop reading. Don’t go out for lunch again with working friends. Don’t drink too much. Don’t lose heart. Don’t leave the room, don’t leave the window open, don’t turn off the fan. Don’t close the laptop top. Don’t check if "seditious" means something else.

Don’t stop for water, or food. Don’t stop for anything while characters are moving in front of you, while the cursor defies the stationary, while you have "another good idea." Don’t think too much. Don’t look over your shoulder. Do not beg, do not apologize, do not plead.

Do not start everything all over again.

[Caption: Artist Development Fellow Mark Chiusano '12]