You’re Going to Suck at Parties: My Speech to Graduates

A little free advice on writing, life, and the writing life


I was invited to speak at Marymount University’s English Night, an evening dedicated to English undergraduate and graduate students upon the completion of their degrees. I received my master’s at Marymount (’11) and published my debut novel (’13) when I wasn’t studying or working or Call of Dutying, so the university and its gifted faculty are close to my heart. It was a huge honor, and one I was pretty sure I was going to screw up.

I had been asked to speak largely because of my novel, but this wasn’t a crowd of aspiring fiction writers. I couldn’t give out clichéd writing advice like “Read lots!” and “Write lots!” and “Eat fiber lots!” This speech had to be targeted to graduates going into a variety of fields, so I tried to identify three key things about writing that can apply to anyone at the start of their career. Here are the three rules I came up with:

Rule #1: You’re going to suck at parties.

When you begin your career, particularly a career you’re passionate about, you start to think that what you’re doing is more important than anything (or anyone) else. And that attitude is hard to hide. When I started writing, I also started listening to jazz, and that music became so important to my work that when I was in my car and jazz came on, I wouldn’t allow people to speak so I could listen to the music.

I was a lot of fun to be around.

But such douche-baggery is important. If you’re pursuing a passion, then there is a point where that pursuit has to come before everything else. Just make sure this phase doesn’t last too long. Like Garrison Keillor wisely wrote, “Writing is a sacred calling — but so are gardening, dentistry and plumbing, so don’t put on airs.”

Rule #2: Failure’s not the end.

It took me six years to finish my first novel, and I queried over a hundred agents when it was done. Not one of them took it. The general feedback was that they liked my writing; they just didn’t think my story would sell. I didn’t know that when I wrote it. I was so in love with the story and characters that I couldn’t have cared less about selling it. That state is rare and wonderful and fleeting but, most importantly, honest. That book didn’t sell, but it taught me lessons about writing no teacher could have. It taught me to always find that certain elusive state because, when I do, I know the writing is getting good.

So that book failed, but also, it didn’t.

Rule #3: Ask for advice.

It was all well and good to find that type of honesty but, dammit, I wanted a published book. So I emailed writers, contacted editors, went to conferences…this is all stuff I should have done before, and I would have, but I get nervous when it comes to meeting famous people. I’m always worried they’ll dislike me, or realize how much smarter they are than me, or call me short.

But, happily, I learned that people involved in the same work you want to be in are generally helpful, especially when they can see that you sincerely want to be the real deal. I can tell you that, without the help and knowledge of others in my field, my book (the third I wrote) never would have found a publisher. My writing might have eventually found that balance between appealing and honest, but you need more than good writing. You need people willing to champion your work. And that’s true of whatever you plan to pursue.

In the end, remember these three things: Failure’s okay, ask for advice, and don’t let artistic douchiness overcome you, and you’ll be fine. I promise.

Also, that thing about fiber.

And go Saints. 

E.A. Aymar earned a B.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in literature. He lives with his wife and son just outside of Washington, DC. His debut novel is I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.

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