Dear Aspiring Writer Me: Nothing Will Go As Planned--Love, Stephanie Kuehnert
Dear Aspiring Writer Me,
This is going to be hard to hear, especially for you, but the biggest, most important writing and life lesson you are going to learn is that nothing will go as planned.
Since I’m leaving this for you in your dorm room at Antioch College while you are on a crazy spring break trip in New Orleans, I know you are beginning to figure this out. I know you are more okay with it when it comes to doing things like leaving on your road trip to NOLA a day early, but less okay with it when it comes to facing things like your overwhelming desire to drop out of college. Antioch was supposed to be the place for you. The plan. You were going to study sociology and women’s studies. Instead you’ve been taking creative writing, but since you didn’t choose this school for its writing program, the classes are leaving a little bit to be desired. You’re thinking, I don’t need school to be a writer, so why the hell am I here?
You are going to drop out. You are going to move back to Madison, but that’s not exactly going to go as planned either. I won’t say how (I’m going to be sharing a lot of spoilers as is), all I will say is that you won’t spend a lot of time writing as planned and you will eventually realize that while not everyone needs school to write, you do. Regardless, you need that time to just be there, live your life. You need to fuck up and do things/be someone you never thought you would be. It will make you cringe sometimes—a lot of the time, actually—but one unexpected thing that you will learn is that you need time NOT writing to be a writer. Though you’ll feel bad about going back to school the year that you should have graduated—and in Chicago, a city you swore you’d never return more for more than a visit, but the school, Columbia College Chicago, will be worth it, I promised—that Wisconsin landscape is going to shape your first published novel.
That’s right. You ARE going to publish a novel. Here’s another unplanned/unexpected thing: it’s going to be a Young Adult novel. I know! Even though you write teenage characters, you think your stuff is too dark, too edgy to be YA—Francesca Lia Block is the only edgy YA writer out there as far as you know now, but that is going to change. I know you are already quietly pleased by this. Writing books that matter to or make a difference in the lives of teens sounds like a total dream come true. And it is, but of course that dream won’t go as planned either.
You’ll quit your office job shortly after your first book comes out—that’s right, I said first. There is a second. Your editor will buy it before the first one comes out, which is a really, really lucky thing. Even though you still won’t even dare to dream of being a famous bestseller, you will believe that you’ll be able to earn a living from your writing. Unfortunately that won’t go as planned either.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First let’s talk about how novel-writing itself never ever goes as planned. Your structure will change: your first book will start out as a novel-in-stories and end up as a novel told in dual points of view. What you thought was an adult novel will become a YA novel. What you thought was a YA novel will become an adult novel. You have one novel that you’ve already written three partial versions of and it’s still not right. You will have at least one major crisis with each book where you go, This is NOT going the way I thought it would and I don’t know if I’m capable of writing this book! This is par for the course. You’ll still get upset every time and it won’t necessarily get easier, but you will come to accept that whether you plot a little bit, a ton, or just operate off a general idea that you keep in your brain, the story will never goes as planned, but… in the end it will be better for it.
Now, I know you want me to get back to that bit about how your dream writing career won’t go as planned. It hasn’t. You tried for five years to make it go that way, to cobble together a living from writing and teaching and bartending, but much to your dismay, it was mostly from bartending. You wrote two full novels and three partials. As of yet, none of them have sold. I won’t sugarcoat this for you, it has been a crushing experience. You’ve probably cried more about it than you have over any boy, any relationship, any friend. And since I haven’t gotten a letter from fifty-year-old me/us, I don’t know how it will turn out. I just know that last year you started working on accepting this whole “things don’t go as planned” trip and since then you’ve felt a lot better about it all. You’ve been able to focus on the Not At All Planned but totally awesome parts of your writing life. Like how it has turned out that you love and adore teaching. (Hopefully, you will be getting to teach an in-person character workshop and an online YA Fiction class this summer!) And how you discovered the very best thing about your writing life when you blindly submitted to a teenage girl’s call for writers for a Sassy-inspired online publication. The community that you will find while writing for Rookie magazine is, as one of our features is entitled, Literally The Best Thing Ever. The editors are one of the biggest gifts you will ever receive and you will learn even more about writing than you did in school. They will push you to explore parts of you both old and new that you never thought you would put on the page. From that experience, the idea for an essay collection will be born. That’s what you have out on submission now and despite five years of nothing but rejection, you will hope and dream because while you’ve learned that nothing ever goes as planned, you have also learned that the things you didn’t or couldn’t plan often turn out better than you possibly could have imagined.
Your 34 year-old self