Dispatches | January 27, 2011

You know, as a young writer, it’s easy to let the sharp pangs of jealousy get the better of you. Especially when you see writers younger than yourself getting short-listed as this year’s best new voice. Or even worse, when you find out that the same writer has never written before, that, essentially, he just wanted to see if he could write a novel, for fun, and it just happened to be a smash hit. After all, up until a year ago, he was studying neuroscience or microbiology and thought he would take up writing as a hobby. And, surprise, surprise, he was pretty ok at it.

Good for him.

The rest of us, though, are secretly hoping that this young writer has a terrible case of halitosis or trouble in the bedroom. Not anything too bad, just something that makes his success seem a little less sweet. I know it’s immature, but imagining he is deeply unhappy or was born with eleven toes really does make us feel better about ourselves.

But seriously, I find these writers a little problematic not only as a writer myself, but as a teacher of writing. I make it a point to instill a sturdy work ethic in my students by telling them that talent is a negligible factor in becoming a writer, and what one really must do above all, is write. I’ve known some talented writers who are incredibly lazy – they want the fame and the glory without putting in the time – and it never works out. Of course, there are the exceptions to this rule. The writers who have managed to get lucky at every turn and have proceeded to have successful careers without wasting much time banging their heads against the computer screen, and I’m happy for them, I really am. Them and their halitosis.

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting Manuel Munoz when he visited University of Wyoming’s MFA program. He was young and had just published his second book of stories. In other words, I was prepared to give him the hairy eyeball. That is, until he came out with it. I remember him saying his first short story was accepted in Glimmer Train and he thought this whole writing thing was a piece of cake. Then nothing he wrote was published for years, and he started to rethink things. What he did then is what I encourage all of my students to do, which is to work hard. He devoted time each day to writing. He worked a full-time job and used the time it took for him to commute from his apartment to the office to compose sentences in his head. When his friends pestered him to go out on Friday nights he turned them down because he had to write. And it paid off. He wasn’t lucky, he worked hard. His novel comes out this March and is already getting good reviews.

At times when I’m deciding whether to watch another rerun of That 70’s Show or rearrange my sock drawer, I think to myself: What would Manuel Munoz do? He would write, and then do it again the next day. Because after all, there’s plenty of work to do.

For those who live in the area, Manuel Munoz will be visiting Columbia College in Columbia, MO this spring. Public reading at book signing to follow at Columbia College’s Dorsey Gym on April 21st @ 6pm.

Meagan Ciesla is a PhD student in fiction at the University of Missouri.