12 Authors Share What it Takes to Make it as a Writer in Dallas
Much has been made of the blossoming literary scene in Dallas; and yet, the daily struggle of being a writer, in Dallas and in general, is less openly discussed. To "make it" in most other professions is to climb to the top of a predetermined ladder, while a writer's path is variable. Most writers want to be read, but there is no one template for success in this endeavor. For some writers, to "make it" is to make a living writing: a feat in and of itself. For others, it means to write for an esteemed publication, or to write and publish a book (or several) or to establish a national profile through one or both of these avenues, though neither guarantees it.
Because each writer has their own definition of success, we asked 12 local authors what advice they’d give to writers who live and work in Dallas and who may be wondering if it is feasible to “make it” here. The resounding consensus: Yes, stay and keep writing.
"I moved to New York to 'become a real writer,' but I came back to Dallas to write my book. Writing a book takes time, patience, a quiet chair in a dull room, and it no longer made sense to hemorrhage money for a high-adrenaline, high-rent city when I needed to sit still and untangle knots. New York was good for me; it disrupted my sense of specialness, and it helped me see Texas more clearly. I really couldn’t write about this place until I moved away. But it left me stranded inside a cliche, not to mention credit card debt.
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"You can be a writer in any city. You can also call yourself a writer in any city, and the fancier the city, the more convincing you’ll sound. In the end, though, there’s no substitute for hard work, original observation and talent. All those questions young writers have about whether they should write online, move to Brooklyn, become an improv comedian in Chicago or whatever – it’s all too personal for anyone else to say. That would be like me telling you who to marry. (Oscar Isaac, if you can swing it.) Your job is to be a guardian of your talent, to carve out a place for yourself where you can observe, find inspiration and stay feisty enough to keep the pages coming. Readers don’t give a crap where you live. They want a good story."
Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. She is also the former music editor of the Dallas Observer. She's currently working on a collection of essays about traveling alone.
"There’s no one way to make it, especially because we all have different economic situations and different ideas about what constitutes 'making it.' Some people have to sacrifice more than others, some people start with more natural talent than others, and some people catch more lucky breaks than others. Your situation is whatever it is, and only you can decide what it means to make it and what you have to do to move in that direction. It might be a good time to be trying in Dallas, though, because Dallas has a nascent, thriving and supportive literary scene that also happens to be relatively small and relatively diverse. While you can never confuse that scene with your work – nothing is the work except the work – it can at times be useful to connect with other people who are engaged in the struggle too."
Merritt Tierce is the author of the novel Love Me Back.
"The most success I’ve had as a writer came before I was a published writer, and that was in finding and assisting in developing a writing community. Two people who were instrumental in helping me form that community in Dallas were David Haynes and Rosalyn Story. They were the first two writers that I developed a relationship with here; and from those two people, the community grew.
"I believe you need to know who you are as a writer and what your goals are, and from there, you can grow into whatever writer you want to be, from wherever you live. I published with the University of Arkansas Press and I wanted to, because my book was about Arkansas. It went on to get national recognition, a national award and a regional award.
"If you write a good book, it will find its way to where it needs to be. I know that sounds like Pollyanna; but Dennis Lehane told me that, and in my life, it’s been true."
Sanderia Faye is the author of Mourner’s Bench (University of Arkansas Press, September 2015). The novel is the winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in debut fiction.
"There are a lot of resources for writers in Dallas. There’s The Writer’s Garret, the DFW Writers Conference and my favorite, because I went through it, The Writer’s Path at SMU. It’s a continuing education writing program, and one of the best in the country. They take people from how to write sentences, basically, to finishing a novel and polishing it. Then they take writers who have gone through the track to New York to meet agents and editors.
"In my opinion, the market needs voices that aren’t from New York and L.A. They need voices from the flyover states. I think that’s important."
Harry Hunsicker is a fourth-generation Texan and author of seven novels, including the newly released The Devil's Country.
"Don't know about 'making it' here. But 'being it' here is something I can speak to: how the flatness (even bleakness, as some see it) is essential, makes for me a sort of screen whereon to project my blurry thoughts with a certain clarity. I can't write in beautiful country. Such traditionally gorgeous places as Hawaii or the mountains of Colorado shut me down. The beauty is way too loud. Too full of its own ideas. I can write about such places, but I have to come back here to do it. I can remember blackland cotton fields so flat one might detect, from the open window of a '54 Ford, the curvature of the earth. Don't get me going. It's profound. It's like you're living on a sheet of typing paper."
David Searcy lives in Dallas. He is the author of the book of essays, Shame and Wonder (Random House 2016). His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper's, Esquire, The Oxford American, The New York Times and elsewhere.
"My definition of success has changed a bit. Before I published my first book, I would have said success is getting published and finding a readership, no matter how small, that was moved by that experience. That is certainly still true; but because I recently changed genres, from historical fiction to crime, success to me is finding the culture and the environment that will support risk-taking. The creative fire is
fed by risk, and the commercial marketplace often lulls you into complacency.
"For a writer, learning to tolerate the weight and the wait, both concepts, is learning to tolerate the tyranny of the blank screen. You will sometimes feel inspired, and probably, more often than not, you won’t. For a lot of writers, that becomes intolerable, and they give up and walk away. My advice would be to learn to tolerate the discomfort of not putting words on paper; and if you can get past the discomfort that may go on for weeks or months, you will finish your project. And you can’t get published unless you finish your project."
Kathleen Kent is the author of three best-selling, award-winning historical novels, and one contemporary crime novel, The Dime, recently named in the New York Times' “The Best and Latest in Crime Fiction."
"Your writing has one demand on you: time. Time to write, time to read, time to think about what you are writing and reading. Figure out how to organize your life to make time for your work. Guard your time jealously – it won’t be easy; many people need and want a piece of it. Someone will be disappointed; something will go undone; the cost will be money, friends, other opportunities. But if you want to write, you’ll do what you need to do.
"Once, when I was younger and a middle school teacher in Minnesota, I disappeared for an entire summer. I came back in time for school in September. Everything was where I left it, but I was different – changed by the large chunk of my first novel I’d completed while I was away. I still disappear from time to time. Whenever I can."
David Haynes teaches creative writing at SMU and is the author most recently of A Star in the Face of the Sky.
"I give readings, attend festivals and conferences, give interviews, help create local and faraway literary scenes, and so on. But that’s all peripheral. When I was writing my new book, A Horse with Holes in It, I didn’t even think about marketing. I just wrote whatever quickened and delighted my own imagination, no matter how strange it might have seemed to others.
"It’s important to read both old and new texts. My work is certainly influenced by my reading. But in a certain kind of reading, there’s real danger: I think it’s unwise to read one’s most successful contemporaries with a panicky, careerist sense of urgency, and then copy them in an attempt to get ahead.
"My advice is simple: As a writer, go your own way. If there’s a time to be practical and business-minded, it comes later, when you’re trying to get your work out there."
Greg Brownderville is the author of A Horse with Holes in It (LSU Press, 2016), editor of the Southwest Review and director of creative writing at SMU.
"What I think is important to be successful is not just getting involved in the writing community, but getting involved in a way that you grow as a writer. For instance, I joined the DFW Writers Workshop, and it’s been invaluable as far as helping me become a better writer. I’ve met published writers, unpublished writers, self-published writers. There’s a big mix of people in the workshop, and I’ve learned something from all of them. They’re there to help me, and I’m there to help them. Finding your group here in Dallas is so important, and there are so many groups. There’s a Dallas Screenwriters Association; there’s an association for any genre and almost any writing interest you might have.
"The key for me in terms of success is to not be too ambitious too soon. You mostly hear about authors who are overnight successes; but even when it seems that way, it usually isn’t the case. Most of the time, it takes writing a lot of books before you really break out. So I set smaller, achievable goals to meet, while still pushing myself and always moving forward."
A lifelong Texan, Melissa Lenhardt writes historical fiction, mystery and women's fiction.
"There is no one way to make it as a writer, anywhere, anytime. Three factors will determine success or failure. The first is talent, of which there is a great deal everywhere. The second is determination or pluck, which means that a new writer is willing to suffer rejection or being ignored without becoming overly discouraged. These first two are things a writer can work with. The third factor – which can never be predicted, sought for, or achieved through will alone – is sheer luck.
"My own writing, other than occasional forays into journalism for The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, where I served two stints as a sometime contributor (1977-1980, and 2008-14), has had almost nothing to do with Dallas, or making it here. My two commercial books were published by Farrar Straus Giroux in Manhattan. One needs to think both locally and globally."
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes professor of English at SMU and the author of Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (FSG, 2016).
"For me, one marker of success is: Am I happy writing? Because ultimately what you have, and sometimes all you have to enjoy, is the process of writing itself. Does it make you happy when you sit down in front of that blank page, thinking of stories and making up stuff? Do you enjoy language? If you don’t enjoy any of that, and selling a million books is your marker of success, you’ll more than likely be disappointed. Most writers don’t achieve those financial goals they may believe they can achieve.
"I write to be read; I don’t write for the desk drawer. Recognition is something we all want, I think. If you get some kind of recognition, through publishing or through awards, you feel like you’ve been approved of by the writing community and recognized by your peers as successful in the craft sense. But I don’t think making a lot of money should ever be a goal in writing, whether you do it here or somewhere else.
"I love stories. I love the craft of writing. I love trying to get better and better as a writer. I also like the idea of having a voice. A singular voice is something that is hard to have in an 80-piece orchestra, but you can do that
as a writer. Because when you write it, it is yours. You sign your name to it, and you accept the fault and the praise and everything else in between. It allows you to put your stamp on something."
Rosalyn Story is a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the author of And So I Sing, More Than You Know and Wading Home.
"Have a chair, and a desk. Sit down in the chair. Pull it up to the desk. Write.
"If you don’t have a desk or a chair, go into the bathroom. Put the lid of the toilet down on the seat, then sit cross-legged on the floor. Scooch yourself up to the toilet. Write."
Ben Fountain's book on the 2016 election, Beautiful Country Burn Again, will be published next year by Ecco/HarperCollins.
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