Breaking News

Pep Talk from Viet Thanh Nguyen

photo of Viet Thanh Nguyen

Here’s the thing about writing novels, or writing anything, that should be hopeful. You can do it with teachers and classes and peers, if you need mentorship and encouragement. But you can also do it all by yourself. In the end, you do it all by yourself anyway. In the lonely hours, and writing is probably 90 to 99% lonely hours, it’s all you. Outside of having others read your work, and the business of publishing, which you shouldn’t be thinking about, all it takes to be a writer, day after day, even if you’re successful, is this:

Write a lot. A lot.

Read a lot. Deeply. And widely.

Write for yourself.

No expensive courses needed.

I read widely because I need to expand my small mind and my small experience. I read all genres, I read high and low, I read non-Americans, I read people not like myself, because there is something to be learned everywhere.

I read deeply in my chosen area, because I need to know what others have done so I can be original, or I can allude to precedents, which helps make my writing fun. I also need to know that 90-99% of anything in any category is not very good, or at least not great. If your only goal is to get published, this statistic should be encouraging.

It doesn’t matter whether you write every day. What matters is that you do a certain number of hours overall. Let’s say 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says is needed for expertise. You can do that in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, or forty. You can write only in the evenings, or on the weekends, or just in the summers, or whenever your kids or partner leave you alone. It doesn’t matter. If you can’t do 10,000 hours of writing, by yourself, you probably won’t be a writer. And if you don’t need 10,000 hours, and just need 1,000 hours, good for you. I hate you.

For the rest of us mortals, in those 10,000 hours, by trial and error, we learn what we need. Besides “technique,” and “craft,” we also learn the meaning of art, which is about belief, and spirituality, and stubbornness. We learn to believe in ourselves, and in the importance of what we are doing, which is not first and foremost a profession (although that matters), but a calling. A discipline. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a chef, or a gardener, or a priest, something that would demand from me the same discipline and vision and idea of being an artist. Being able to do 10,000 hours is much more important than talent. You need a little talent to be a writer, but I’ve seen writers more talented than myself who never published or who stopped writing. Stubbornness, endurance, and persistence are much more important.

So write for yourself. If yourself is Stephen King or Colleen Hoover, congratulations. You’ll have millions of readers. That’s publishing and reading and the market. If yourself is an audience of one, congratulations are also in order. In the end, that’s what writing is really about—finding your vision and your voice, and being true to them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

(Need another boost? View our entire pep talk archive.)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous other awards. His most recent publication is the sequel to The Sympathizer, The Committed. His other books are a short story collection, The Refugees; Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction); and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He has also published Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book written in collaboration with his six-year-old son, Ellison. He is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, he is also the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

View All Breaking News