Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Advice from James Michener

When I was in college at the University of Texas, I took a creative writing course for undergrads. My professor was involved in setting up a special lecture with novelist James Michener for her graduate students, and arranged for us to be included. She was pretty excited about it. The main thing I knew was that Michener was a famous novelist and journalist.

At the time, I had my future career all planned out: I would be a journalist until the income from my fabulously well-received novels allowed me to focus on them entirely. Since I had the impression that Michener had done this, I looked forward to what he had to say.

He did indeed address exactly this topic, but his words made my career plan flash before my eyes. His advice to young writers was to avoid mixing journalism and other writing; he said the daily drive to publish saps energy for other pursuits.

There was a meet and greet session afterward, where we starry-eyed undergrads mingled with the grad students and professors who had turned out to hear the great man speak. Most of us ended up in small groups talking to each other. As a sober undergrad, I was subtle in my efforts to express my reaction to Michener's words. I believe the way I put it at the time was that Michener had 'crushed my dreams.'

A professor whom I did not know told me not to worry about what Michener had said. "If it bothers you," he said, "remember that it's just one man's opinion."

Nearly all of what Michener said that day has long since fled my brain, though I've since come to believe he had a point about the stresses of journalism and how it could interfere with fiction writing.

But it's those kind words of perspective from a not-so-famous professor that I will never forget.


  1. That's something I think about whenever I read guides about how to go about writing a novel.

    I think that the general observations--mainly that writing talent has less to do with finishing a novel than sheer effort and dogged persistence does--hold true.

    And I imagine that the practical advice on getting published--how to submit cover letters, manuscripts, and so forth--is applicable for most aspiring writers.

    But I'm starting to think that the methods are a bit quirky.

  2. Hi Aaron,

    Ah, yes, what influence a few words can have on a young man's aspirations.

    I knew Michener very well, as his collaborator on his South African novel,The Covenant.

    I've created a web archive of my Michener material, which I think you'll find well worth the visit.

    You can access it via my online writing project A Novel of America

    Or go directly to the archives at my website:

    As Doug says above: persistance is the key!

    All best,