Friday, July 17, 2015

Rules For Success As A Writer by Steve Bramucci

Every year, someone writes a think piece about how MFAs are a waste of time because writing can't be taught, or maybe it's that writing shouldn't be taught because there aren't enough book deals out there and we're all living a pipe dream, or maybe it's that...actually I don't know what these think piece writers say after the first two points. By then my eyes have glazed over and rolled into the back of my head.

Some writers still reside in the camp of people who think talent is "as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings," as Hemingway once said of Fitzgerald.

To which I respond with another Hemingway line, the last words of The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

It is "pretty" to think that talent is innate. But it's definitely not logical. Everything can be taught, every skill can be improved, and practice can close any "natural talent" gap at a scary-quick rate. How precious we writers must be to think that brain surgery and ballet can be learned, but that our beloved art is inborn. I won't argue about this anymore because people who take time to string together words about who is and who isn't a writer bore me immensely. Lines in the sand that separate creative people from one another are the one thing that I scoff at unapologetically -- and I hate scoffing!

But enough of this rant! If it's success you seek, I have the rules to achieving it. There are others...but you already know them.

  1. Be an age. It doesn't really matter what age. I recommend somewhere in the 3-99 range. Anywhere in that 96-year span should be fine. The guy from The Stranger essay thinks you have to make it when you're young but that nonsense is counteracted by loads of examples. Including a little someone named Raymond Chandler who wrote some of the best detective novels in the history of the genre or Toni Morrison, who wrote her first book at 39. 
  2. Make marks on a document. Use a Mac or a PC or a pencil or a crayon. George R.R. Martin uses a computer that runs DOS -- so don't sweat it if your laptop is a year old. I remember being at big waterski tournament and telling my coach that I was thinking about buying a new ski. He looked at my old ski, lying in the grass, and said, "World records have been set on that ski. Have you set any of them?" I shook my head and the coach patted my shoulder. "When you do," he said, "you can think about a new ski."
  3. Work hard. This doesn't always mean you have to bang the keyboard 24-7. The ever-lovely Robin Benway once said to me at lunch, "We're writers, alive in the world, this is part of our work." If work always looks like sitting at a desk, you'll become the sort of writer who writes about writing or writes essays about who can and can't write -- neither of which are things that I personally like to read. I believe firmly in the following video, with the word "work" being something that we each have to define for ourselves. 
  4.   Be grateful. For God's sake be grateful. When good things happen say "thanks," be excited, and allow yourself room to smile. As a wise man once taught us, "gratitude reciprocates." 
  5.  Have fun. We've been told writing is thankless, that it'll leave us broke, that it's the hardest job on earth, and yet we have to compete with a million new writers every year who want to take the hardest job from us. We get told we can't make it by people writing think pieces who are also surely afraid that they won't make it. All of this makes writing pretty daunting. So if it's not fun, if there's no joy in it...then the juice might not be worth the squeeze.
Those are my rules, but what do I know? I went to grad school, my first book is being released when I'm 37, and I don't think I was born with any particular talent.

But here I am, still writing.

Steve Bramucci is a full time writer and the managing editor of's Life section. His first book, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo, will be released in January, 2017. 


  1. 4 and 5 are particularly resonant for me, whenever I flounder (which is often.) Thanks for the wise words, Steve.

  2. I'd love, love, love an MFA. Feel like I have so much to learn. Have you read How to Fly a Horse: the Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery? It's wonderful.

  3. Steve, love this "make marks on a document." I have seen folks achieve publishing success with MFA's and by being self-taught. And I heard an author say once that taking workshops, classes, and learning from editors in an ongoing quest for knowledge and to improve their craft IS like getting a mini-MFA. The bottom line is that everyone has a different path - and that's ok, right?


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!