11 More Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers By Matthew Burnside

In correlation with this previous piece.

RULE: Slow the fuck down.

In this game, taking the scenic route is better. Taking shortcuts will only get you stranded in the big city of opportunity without so much as a poncho to protect your happy ass from the pressure police when they start raining rubber bullets at your head. Here at Iowa, the agents have begun to visit campus and the little signup sheets call out in the Dey House (pronounced DIE), and to be fair, a great many of my more talented peers are ready for such a step. I personally am not. Ain’t that the checklist, though? MFA(x)  Novel(x)  Agent(x) Sweet tenured teaching gig, one of three available at any given time(x)  Sell your novel to HBO under the stipulation they’ll hire Peter Dinklage because you wrote that role just for him (x) Marry a Swedish pop star(x)  Buy a hovercraft(x)  Buy another hovercraft because you can(x)  Ride around in hovercrafts with Peter Dinklage(x). First of all, this whole checklist is bullshit except for the novel part. At some point, you will need something made of words that you have wrought with your own sweat and blood and piss and tears and any other bodily fluids I’ve forgotten to mention. The point is, whatever that first novel is, you want it to be worth all the waiting. You want it to reduce Peter Dinklage to tears, it’s so heartbreaking and funny and twisted and poignant. You don’t want to rush into just having a manuscript for the sake of having a manuscript. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being ambitious, but like virginity, your first novel can be a beautiful occasion or it can be just as easily sent away in an Arby’s parking lot while two dudes watch you in an adjacent Taurus eating Big Montanas and slurping Jamocha shakes.

(If you’re reading this Pete, contact me at Willock77@hotmail.com with your preference of hovercraft interior upholstery color)

RULE: Read for a magazine.

It is good to have a pulse on what’s going on in literature. Like in workshop, you’ll always get more from reading the work of others than receiving feedback yourself. You learn what works, what doesn’t, see the glaring mistakes in your own work magnified x 1000. Plus you get to read really cool cover letters in which people tell you all the names of their seventeen cats, where they attended pre-school, how they found your magazine through dumpster diving, and describe in detail what their story is meant to be and do and how it was inspired by a dream Fred Savage once told them at a rave. Consider finding yourself a magazine you’re a fan of and offering to help. You may not get paid (you won’t get paid) but the investment will be worth it. And don’t just do it to add another shitty notch to your CV.

(But if they begin to take advantage of you, drop that shit like it’s physics for physics majors instead of physics for clown school majors, like you signed up for)

RULE: Read outside your genre.

Because reading the same old shit has a way of making you complacent as a reader, which has a way of making you complacent as a writer. There’s lots to learn in poetry if you’re a proser, and lots to learn in prose if you’re a poet. Diving into different narrative or poetic modes will make you braver, or at least less afraid to paddle in the deep end where you’re unsure of where all the edges are. Shoot for challenging reads outside your immediate comfort zone, then dunk your head and go deeper. Read technical manuals for old laserdisc players, biographies of samurais, physics textbooks, porn manifestos, lyrical cookbooks, coupons you find stuck to the bottom of your shoe, the shooting script of Weekend at Bernie’s I+II, labels of good-smelling conditioners, and Wikipedia pages like these:


(If you’re not buying any of this inflexible advice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Bullshit)

RULE: If you like a writer’s words, let them know it.

Because writers don’t exist in a vacuum and they need to be reminded of this from time to time. If a writer hasn’t gotten so big that you can still shoot them an email or Facebook invite or whatever, most writers appreciate hearing good things about their work. It costs nothing to tell someone whose work you admire how much you admire it, and it might just make them feel so good they write even more words for you to consume. You will never make an enemy this way.

(However, avoid just showing up to their house without an invitation. A writer doesn’t care how big a fan you are when you’re peeking at them through a slit in the fence. Don’t be creepy)

RULE: Unstrand yourself.

Even though you’re your own precious planet – and O my how your Saturn rings do shine! – you’re still part of a greater universe. Anxiety can serve as shackles for the lot of us, but just as important as writing about people and the lives they lead, it’s important to get out there and lead your own life with people. Yes, it takes energy that we sometimes don’t have, but you spend enough time away from people they begin to assume you don’t care. And of course you care, because otherwise you wouldn’t be a writer.

(Here at Iowa, I have yet to attend a single party or reading. But I’m trying, Ringo . . . I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd)

RULE: As awkward as it may feel, learn to market yourself.

Nobody is going to do it for you, especially when you’re just starting out. For the longest time I didn’t have a website because I couldn’t figure that shit out (failed physics for physics majors), but it makes sense. If you have a body of work and you want people to read it, you need to let them know somehow that work exists. Here’s the thing: everyone knows the whole self-marketing thing sort of insists on bullshitting. Here’s the other thing: it never stops feeling awkward for a writer to speak of themselves in third person. It’s straight up weird to think of yourself as a product. Readers are people, after all, but they’re also customers, and you’re providing them with a service, albeit a very intimate service. People won’t think you’re being dickish just because you drop a link to your work. Most likely when you’re starting out, the only people who will really go out of their way to support you anyway will be your friends and fellow writers, and they already know how dickish you are.

(I’ll just leave this here: http://matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com/)

RULE: Say thank you.

It’s easier and more important than wearing clean drawers. It takes less than a second to say it and less than a blink to read it, but it says a lot about you. If editors have been kind enough to give your work a home, say thank you. If editors have rejected your work but said nice things about it anyway, say thank you. If editors have declined your work, say thank you. If someone tells you thank you, tell them thank you for telling you thank you. It’s a simple concept, really. Manners matter. Behind every masthead is a group of people who like to feel appreciated for their hard work.

(Or just send them this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc-EdW1amwg)

RULE: Every once in a while, write something maybe your mom might enjoy.

I still remember the first time I let my parents read something of mine. There were a lot of Whats and Huhs and Whathuhs and Where did I go wrong? Every once in a while, you should throw them a bone. Lately I’ve been writing these little flash fables for my niece and others I love and it’s incredibly satisfying. I used to only write for other writers, but now I’m down with the idea of expanding that readership to your grandmother and pre-teen daughter. Why? Not sure. Maybe I just got tired of all those Whathuhs, and I decided it would be cool if I could write things that everybody could enter instead of just a select few.

(Hi mom!)

RULE: Get weird.

Because changing up your routine can sometimes put you in a weird mindset, radically changing your perspective, giving your work a vastly different energy than it’s used to. I’m not suggesting that you make a habit of breaking your ritual, all I’m suggesting is that every once in a while you write a story or poem while listening to this.That’s all. Some of what I consider my best work has come about while I was under the influence of some weird shit: Russian lullabies, J-Pop, North Korean propaganda, cartoons from the ’30s, old training videos, and Nickelback. One time, I set my alarm to wake up at 4 AM and eat a whole lot of peanut butter and write, just to see what kind of thing would come out of me at 4 AM while full of peanut butter. What came out of me was this. Basically, a victory for all humankind

(You should also write a story or poem while wearing this.)

RULE: Fight the urge every day to be cynical

It’s easy to be cynical, but better to keep your sense of humor/humanity through it all. There are days I wake up and want to beat up a phone booth, but if I can stand back long enough to realize how bad it really isn’t, I can find it in my heart to forgive that phone booth. Cynicism is a virus from hell. It may feel good to blast the world for all its bullshit, but where does that get you, really, in the end? It gets you beating up phone booths, and they hardly deserve it. Negativity has never and will never be sexy. Not only that, cynicism has a way of digging its nasty nails into your work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We certainly need that in literature, and I’ve written a lot of cynical stuff, but of late I’ve found it’s much harder and rewarding to write something more earnest because the stakes are higher. Work that approaches the heart of things without all the venom and razors – like walking through a minefield where the slightest misstep could result in sentimentality – is more risky than writing something extremely dark and nihilistic and full of fucks and death and postmodern lines like: LANGUAGE WON’T SAVE US, which I’ve literally written in my work maybe five times now. Because the thing is, language will save us. I think as a writer you’ve got to believe that, even as you suspect how foolish it may be.

(Who the hell am I to tell you what kind of writer to be? Nobody, that’s who. You know what, scratch this last rule. It’s bullshit. Write only what bursts through you, and if what bursts through you is cynical, then serve it. Because you’ve got to let what you write haunt you and not the other way around)


Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, Gargoyle, Contrary, NAP,and others. His chapbook “Escapologies” is forthcoming from Red Bird Press. He is managing editor of Mixed Fruit magazine and an MFA fiction candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A list of his sins can be found at http://www.matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com/.

  • George

    Hey. Thank you for the good advice. I have one concern, though – and it’s to do with the words I used above, coincidentally. Saying thank you to editors. The issue I have is that I have heard elsewhere in the past that it is bad form to respond to rejections, even to say thank you. And, also, if everyone said thank you when their work is declined, wouldn’t that swamp editors’ inboxes? A question: do you know if this opinion of yours is uncommon? Or do you have proof that most editors would want writers to say thank you even when their work has been rejected without personal feedback? Because at this point, I doubt I’ll be following this particular suggestion.

  • Matthew Burnside

    Howdy George.

    Of course these are all opinions. For a long time I did say thank you for rejections, but only those that were personal. You bring up a good point, and I would clarify that sending a thank you for an impersonal rejection would probably just be weird. Some rejections even tell you not to reply, and I would honor that request.

    My greater point, I think, was just to be gracious. I was being sassy when I wrote ‘when you get a rejection, say thank you.’ But definitely DO say thank you to personal rejections…especially that that come with feedback. These little guys are to be treasured when they come along.

  • Matthew Burnside

    And you’re welcome!

    Thank you for bringing up a good point.

  • Dude, you’re my hero. Keep being this awesome.

  • Barbara

    I have zero doubt that language will save us, language as substitutable for art. I used to get bogged down in wondering if art was sentimental, and why should art be subsidized? Then I went through another rough patch and it was reconfirmed: art saves lives. Someone else had that tattoo, not me.

    Art matters. Most of us are fortunate enough to experience times in our lives when we feel this deeply. Then we can’t be cynical, it’s not possible.