So you want to be a writer?

Writer-in-residence Stuart Ross discusses the ins and outs of the writing profession

Aspiring writers should be constantly reading and practicing their writing, Ross says.
Aspiring writers should be constantly reading and practicing their writing, Ross says.

With the holiday season just around the corner, students are dreading the “what are you doing to do when you graduate?” question that always seems to come up.

For those who want to pursue a career as a professional writer, questions like these often breed doubt and uncertainty, especially when it comes to the haunting reality of financial instability.

Despite being a rather ambiguous pursuit, the goal of becoming a professional writer remains the plan for many.

Stuart Ross, the current Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s, has come to terms with the professional unease that comes along with a passion for writing. He said he considers himself a writer and workshop leader, as well as an editor.

“Aside from sporadic income through arts council grants, my writing became a substantial part of my income only in the past few years,” he said. “But I still teach, and work as an editor, to make a living.”

Ross said that aspiring writers should have a back-up career planned.

“Be prepared to work at other things to make a living throughout your writing career,” he said.

Ross said even Shakespeare couldn’t rely on writing plays alone to keep a roof over his head; he worked as an actor for the Chamberlain’s men, while also leasing out property that he inherited upon his father’s death.

Much of the advice for aspiring writers circles around a get-lucky or try-try-again paradigm. While it has always been difficult to get work published, the advancement in technology has broadened the population of new faces in the writing world.

The emergence of eBooks, blogs, and other forms of social networking challenge the writer to present their work as unique from all the rest.

Nonetheless, Ross said an online presence is becoming an increasingly important tool for writers. “I’m on Facebook and MySpace and I tweet a bit,” he said. “If writers want to become involved in the promotion of their own books, social media is a pretty important part of the puzzle now … On the other hand, I admire writers who shun Facebook; they probably get an awful lot more writing done!”

Getting an early start seems to be the most promising advice to succeed in a future of writing. Ross said he got his start when he was just 16.

“A press called Books by Kids [later Annick Press] published a book of poetry by me and two of my poet friends,” he said.

Ross said he thinks reading is one of the most valuable ways an aspiring writer can improve their skills.

“Write a lot. Read more than you write. Hire me as a writing coach! Become involved in your local literary community,” he said. “Queen’s has a great library. Take home armloads of books and read like crazy.”

Students at Queen’s who are interested in writing professionally (or even just as a hobby) can take creative writing credit courses through the English department. The workshop courses, taught by professional writer Carolyn Smart, help students hone their craft, with some of them culminating with a submission for publication in a magazine.

Admittance to the course is by permission of Smart, based on writing samples. Ross said there seems to be either a lack of knowledge of on-campus writing resources due to little advertisement, or a lack of interest in seeking guidance.

He said students interested in professional writing need to take advantage of the resources available to them. “If your writer-in-residence hosts workshops or readings, go to them,” he said. “I’ve been getting standing-room-only crowds at the readings I’ve been curating and organizing, but I’m shocked at how few creative writing students show up. What the hell are they waiting for?”

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