1. Be 23
In a perfect world, you are 23 and have read enough David Foster Wallace to start getting interested in Bolano and some of the South American fabulists who are known for their meaty paragraphs and sentences built link upon link upon link. You may have graduated from a college — do poor people write maximalist fiction, or is it only for the luxury class? — where a professor convinced you to read some of this South American fiction in the original. This did not, actually, do you any favors. It ruined your ability to pronounce “Borges” and “Cortazar” without sounding like a pompous windbag. You will forever be the lonely person at the party, breathlessly asking strangers, “So, what did you think of Tristram Shandy?” This is not a good way to meet people, but you’re 23 and you don’t know that. Collect grudges, since you are the perfect age to take everything personally, and then catalogue them at great length in a thinly veiled autobiography that you’re thinking of rebranding as a pseudo-mnemonic parallel life memoir.
2. Love your own voice. A lot
The sentences. Are so long. Longer than Proust, longer than a chain of Hebrew National sausages, longer than holiday dinners with people who don’t love you enough, longer than your high school girlfriend’s hair, longer than a page. You are 23 and you’ve just discovered that you can go on and on and on. You look at your idols, the ones that line your bookshelves with their girthy novels, and sigh. How do they do it? You wonder. You plunge forward into the story, figuring it’ll work itself out eventually, or maybe you’ll become famous for creating one of those endless, super meaningful novels about nothing. You get used to hearing yourself talk a lot. You wonder why nobody calls you, unless it’s your mother. You suspect that your friends are all secretly minimalists, or else avoiding you. Both of these statements may be true.
3. It’s all about you
Yes, you, you precious starfish. They say, “write what you know,” and your 23-year-old ass is going to take that shit literally. Despite your tenuous grasp on your own personal reality, you may be emboldened by the amount of garbage that regularly appears in your Tumblr feed — essentially an endless scroll of unsendable text messages — and decide to emulate what you see. You may begin with your own personal experience, and then move on to your feelings about that experience, and your opinion of your feelings. You could do this shit indefinitely. And you will, because your experience is real and valid and true and although absolutely nobody wants to read the spool of self-centered jabbering you produce faithfully, that is not going to turn you away from sitting down to write every damn day. Because that’s what writers do.
4. Take it seriously
Miss the point of every Pynchon novel you’ve gobbled up and opt to take your writing seriously. Yes, you are 23 and a Serious Writer. You flip to the author photo when you’re book shopping, and wonder if that person is younger than you, and what the odds are that you’ve missed your creative peak because you were busy trying to pass geometry or smoking weed on the lawn because it was a nice, sunny day. Your only recourse is to redouble your efforts and your output. Never mind that you don’t know what your novel is about. Never mind that nobody wants to read it, and assiduously avoids eye contact when you mention what you may lovingly term The Work. Compensate for your relative youth and inexperience by writing about increasingly dark things, even though you yourself may never have been touched by real tragedy. Find ways to relate your personal problems to the things you’ve read about in other books, or seen in films directed by Angelina Jolie. There’s a formula for this, and involves building an elaborate web between how you choose to remember the past and all media you’ve been exposed to up to the present moment, which is like a library of meaningful shit, when you think about it in terms of yourself—since you are the center of this universe. For example. Your father maybe was mean to you once. And you read The Bluest Eye in college, during Banned Books Week when you were making a point to be seen reading controversial literature. And your best friend did a great short story that was kind of like “Bluebeard” but set on an island in the Caribbean, because she’s from Tobago and her authenticity gives her fiction the most enviable real-ness, which you pretend you don’t aspire to because maximalist fiction, you think, is about creating much from very little, a meringue of fiction, and you combine these three things and fluff it and fluff it until stiff peaks form and it ceases to be its ingredients and becomes something else, which doesn’t even approximate reality and is not funny but more like a horrible mashup of the things you think represent trauma. You think of James Frey and make a note to yourself not to market this as “true.” Unless the reader wants it to be true, you think, because really there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re just the Writer. You’re the vessel for The Work.
Eventually, you will run out of steam. You will tire of talking about your own haphazard experience and at some point even your contrivances — incest, rape, arms deals, drug addiction, violence — will bore you. Reread your heroes and steal every fucking thing you read. Everything from Philip K. Dick to John Barth to William Gaddis, read and steal. You may own a vanity copy of Mrs. Dalloway or something, but it’s untouched. Avoid thinking about why there are no notable female maximalist writers—do women write maximalist fiction, or is it only for the men, the truth-seekers, the genre-penetrators? — and focus on taking what you can. If you’re a man, resolve to do better than the writers you idealize, even as you admit that your effort will be a failure even if it ends in success. If you’re a woman, resolve to be the first of your kind, and ruminate endlessly on the accessories of womanhood, such as your child, your vibrator, your reproductive rights, your Women’s Studies syllabus, your menstrual cycle, your relationship with your mother. Steal from all sources. Don DeLillo baffles you, but Tao Lin does not. Confess to no one your sentimental love for Tom Robbins, from whom you steal unrepentantly.
6. Finish What You Start
Whether this was a NaNoWriMo novel, a thought experiment gone awry, an inspiration that wouldn’t burn out, or whatever, you will eventually run out of steam and ingredients and things to steal and lists and paragraphs and windy sentences with multiple parenthetical phrases and you’ve lost sight of the plot’s shore more than once and kind of drifted in and out of what you think you’re writing about—who cares, elevator pitches are so bourgeois, aren’t they? I mean who writes for profit — but now things are wrapping up and once you’ve slapped a few Joycean turns of phrase on it, you can more or less call it good. Once it’s done — and you can tell all your writer friends this — the real work of The Work begins. Unpicking the huge wad of whatever-it-is is significantly less fun than creating it, so let yourself drop off a bit. Mess around with a few sentences, get lost, convince no one to help you edit this thing into shape. By the time you worry out the burr in this nest of self-centered yarns, you’ll be 24. You’ll be done, and nearly cooked. You’ll be ready to move on.