1. Write every day, setting all other things aside.
2. Read a lot; read widely… and try to read only the best. For example, be patient and assiduous and undertake Proust and Joyce, as well as Austen and Hemingway. Revisit Shakespeare. Acquire the knack of digesting Henry James’ great, weird, elephantine sentences. The lighter stuff on the contemporary best-seller list will be instructive, too, at least in learning the tawdrier tricks of narration. And we are, face it, in the tawdry business of entertainment, competing with pop music stars and reality TV shows, grabbing for the public’s attention; so as you start getting high on Austen and James, don’t let yourself develop a distaste for what’s on the bestseller list.
3. Take care of your spine. Invest in a chair with back support.
4. Love and trust your friends in the book business. You’re in this for the long haul. They constitute your neighborhood. All those editors and agents, they aren’t powerful oligarchs or magnates or elitists, they’re just people who love books and the work that books do in the world. They, like you, don’t know what’s going to work; they’re following their hearts (or the good ones are, the ones worth sticking with). And they’re taking a personal risk in bringing these strange artifacts to the world.
4. However, your most important relationship is with the esteemed reader, not with an editor or publisher, or with a reviewer, or with some old professor you had, or some old anger you consider ennobling, or with some idea you want to be loyal to. The esteemed reader is someone you’ll never meet personally, but who is as sad and deep as you.
5. Keep your attention on your own work table. Don’t look to left and right checking the progress of your fellow writers.
6. Things like MFA programs and writers conferences are fine. They’re good. You can’t expect them to lead to any particular Big Breaks, or Powerful Connections, but they can act like ashrams, or monasteries, more indirectly educating the instincts, magnetizing and ionizing the mind.
7. Be scrupulous in observing the conventions of grammar and spelling. Mastery of the lie/lay distinction and the between/among distinction and the like/as distinction–all such minor accomplishments should lie firmly in your past, by the time you’re publishing. Don’t even trust your copy editors on this stuff. You’re the author, not them.
8. Don’t let your own words get out into the world without your approval. … Unless you’re lucky enough to go on a little spree of publicity for your own book, keep yourself out of the newspaper until obituary time.
9. Stay young. Keep playing around irresponsibly in your work.
10. It seems one does best, in this creation business, if one’s own personal life can obtain to a little constancy and probity. (This last desideratum is perhaps a lot to hope for … and now I appear moralistic.) Keep your promises, stay out of debt, stay married and off drugs, do not be a phony and don’t stretching the truth. Maybe such moral gifts are dispensations of fate, only for the lucky; because after all, plenty of famous writers seem to have led reprehensible lives of betrayal and vice and hypocrisy, glamour, narcissism, celebrity. But there are many kinds of writers. If I add them up in my mind, the preponderance of really worthy books–books that come through as long-term friends as well as artistic risks worth taking–originated from the houses of people who were at least trying. Trying to get it right. The spectacular life doesn’t necessarily go along with the truest writing.
Louis B. Jones, Radiance, is the author of three New York Times Notable Books: Ordinary Money, Particles and Luck, and California’s Over. He’s been a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and has contributed to various high profile magazines and publications.