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Advice for writers: Living

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 7, 2008 08:30 AM

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Writers need to write, live, and network, and the "live" part could also be termed, "learn." Because if you're not learning, then what, exactly, are you writing about?

I'm 40, and only now can I begin to say that writing is my career. (I don't make my entire living off the Miss Conduct enterprise--I also work part-time as a researcher at Harvard Business School, but that's mostly writing, too, and usually about stuff I'm interested in, so I say it counts.) Sometimes I get a little anxious about that, wishing I'd got started sooner, worrying about my career trajectory. Forty is young but it's not young enough to be the Bright Young Thing anymore--at 40 you can't exactly be considered "precocious" for anything other than a Presidential run or menopause.

But all that stuff I did before I became Miss Conduct in 2005--the theater, the comedy, the graduate school, the bureaucracy, the freelancing, the catering, the housecleaning, the stuff I don't talk about unless I've had a martini or two--I wouldn't be the writer I am without those things. I learned important stuff from all of that. Mr. Improbable majored in math rather than English in college because he figured he'd always read and write a lot whether he was required to or not. He didn't think he'd do problem sets unless someone made him. It was a good choice; he understands a lot of things about science and technology that he wouldn't otherwise, and that informs his writing.

I'm not saying that majoring in English is a bad idea, or that journalism or MFA programs aren't worth it. Certainly, if you need to kickstart your writing, or hone your skills, these can be valuable. (More on this when we get to "networking.") What I am saying is--don't let the day job get you down. Don't daydream of the time when you'll be able to do nothing but focus on your "real" writing. Because your readers will still be working in those day jobs, and you'll relate to them better, and they to you, if you have experiences in common.

Take notes on corporate absurdity. Stop complaining about people yakking loudly into their cell phones and soak up the rhythm of their speech. (Seriously. Do you think Ring Lardner or Dorothy Parker would ride the subway seething in righteous indignation at the loud, too-personal, defiantly rude conversations going on around them? Or do you think they would glow in silent glee with the knowledge that they had struck gold, gold, and begin furiously taking notes?) Learn about gardening, cognitive psychology, wolf behavior, Hinduism, pre-Columbian art, Kierkegaard, commedia dell'arte, cheesemaking.

If you expend a lot of energy, but don't get enough nutrition, eventually your body will burn through your fat reserves and start cannibalizing muscle. This is bad. If you keep writing, but don't feed your mind and heart with enough life experience and book learning, a similar process will happen. Don't let it. And for heaven's sake don't yearn for the day when that will happen, and think that it signifies your birth as a "real" writer.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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