My dear readers,
I have a confession to make. I’m not part of the local literary scene. The closest I’ve ever come is being part of a writers’ critique group, but even then, I was the odd one out.
I understand being crazy about books. I always have a stack of books waiting to be read. If you turned me loose in a decent-sized bookstore with unlimited funds, I’m sure I could spend a million dollars inside of an hour. But all my fellow writers seemed to be crazy about other writers. It didn’t seem to matter who they were, or what they’d written. They could be published by a little university press at a rate of twenty copies a year. They could write high-minded academic slop that everyone in the group privately agreed was crap–it didn’t matter. Every reading or lecture or event was well-attended.
I guess it’s nice to support other writers. I certainly hope that my work is supported, and you can be sure that if a writer I’m truly interested in or like personally has a reading, I’ll be first in line. But to turn up at every single event in the city that features a writer? I just don’t get it.
In an earlier post, I discussed the dubious benefits of critique groups. I haven’t been to mine in a long, long time, so I was really flattered when my group’s leader invited me to a lunch featuring a published author. I’ve been thinking I should be putting myself out there more, become an active member of the scene. So I went.
Now, a small disclaimer in case someone from my writing group reads this–I’m still happy I went, and I still am really flattered and humbled that I was invited in the first place. But I have to be honest and say that this lunch reminded me why I’ve always opted out of these things.
I think some benefit can come from learning about how other writers approach their craft. It’s interesting, for example, to learn that Stephen King never takes a day off, even for his birthday or Christmas. Hearing the stories of other writers can make us feel less alone in an art form that can really only be accomplished in complete isolation. If we love a book, it can be enlightening to learn where the author got the idea from. But that’s it. It’s a “hmmm…” moment, and that’s all. King never tells us that if we each write every single day, even on our birthdays and Christmas, we will be as successful as him. Most of us know that it’s silly to assume that what has worked so brilliantly for King will work in exactly the same way for us.
Then why is it that, every time I go to one of these things–no matter who the author is (and in this case, it’s a man who has enjoyed moderate success with small Canadian publishers)–people are writing down every single word as if it’s the holy grail? “This guy gets his ideas by taking long showers with running shoes on, so I should, too!” I even watched writers present some pretty great stories to the author on a silver platter (mind you, this is after he told us that all of his “fiction” comes from real-life experiences, either his own or stories others share with him). They honestly seemed to need this guy’s approval to appreciate what they had. I was flabbergasted. We’re all supposed to be writers. Shouldn’t we know when we have a good idea without another writer telling us so?
Every writer has their own voice, their own sense of style. You can adore the work of King, Grisham, or Moloney, but if you try to mimic their success, you’ll just be a pale, pathetic copy. I know that writing is a business, and that there is some value in knowing who our closest competitors are, and where our novels fit in the marketplace. There may even be some merit to learning how a successful author first landed that agent or that publishing deal…maybe. In the end, just because it worked for some published author, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. In writing above all things, I believe it’s so important to find your own path.
Back in college, one of my first internships was at a hardscrabble paper. This paper was constantly in competition with the bigger daily in town, but it didn’t have nearly the same resources. Still, it managed to continually kick butt with its breaking news coverage by hiring dedicated people who were willing to stay up all night, listening to their scanners, long after the established, well-paid staff at the other paper had gone home to bed. At this time in my career, I was desperate to land a job in the industry, and I wanted nothing more than to work for the underdog. I shared my internship with another student from my journalism class.
One day, the city editor sent us both out on the same story. A woman was walking her baby in a neighborhood not far from the paper’s offices when a man ran up and snatched the tot right from its stroller. Thankfully, the mother screamed loudly enough that the would-be kidnapper tossed the baby and took off running. The baby, while no doubt terrified, was none the worse for wear.
With no other leads than the location (the cops refused to release the woman’s name), my classmate and I dashed to the scene. He immediately began knocking on doors, asking if anyone had seen the incident. I tried a few myself, but it felt so silly and invasive to me that I hung back a bit, waiting on the sidewalk. A man crossed my path, so I felt obligated to hit him with the same spiel about the botched kidnapping. To my surprise, instead of the typical, “no, didn’t see anything, sorry,” the man became hostile. “It was my son, and I don’t want to talk about it!” he snapped. Talk about dumb luck! I tried again, explaining that it was very important that his story be told. I got a similar, if more adamant response, so I let the man go. When my colleague joined me, I told him about the incident.
“Which way did he go?” my classmate asked eagerly.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “He really doesn’t want to talk about it. He made that quite clear.” (At one point, the guy was so furious, I thought he might hit me.)
My colleague kept insisting, so I reluctantly pointed out the man’s house. My friend didn’t give it a second thought before rushing to the door in the hopes of somehow convincing the man to talk. He didn’t get the story, but he did get that coveted job at the paper. The city editor obviously saw something in him that wasn’t evident in me. And it was a smart decision on the editor’s part. This fellow did very well for that little paper before being scooped up by the competition. Today he’s a well-respected crime reporter.
It was obvious to me that day that I didn’t want to be that type of reporter. Even if I’d desired to turn myself into a clone of my classmate, it wouldn’t have worked, because that wasn’t my personality. When I did make my mark in journalism, it was with feature stories. Delving into the story behind the story, and building the kind of mutual trust it takes to get people to really open up. I’ll always be the kind of person to take no for an answer if someone tells me they really don’t want to talk. I can’t help it…anything else would make me so uncomfortable, it wouldn’t be worth it. So I had to go with what worked for me.
It’s great to support other writers, especially if you love their work. It’s smart to learn all you can about the industry. But how someone labels their computer files and conducts their research works for them…make sure you take the time to figure out what works for you.
Cause when it comes down to it, there’s only one thing that can make someone a writer. And that’s writing.
What’s your opinion? Are you a big part of the writing (or other creative pursuit) scene in your area? If so, what do you get from it? Am I missing something? If so, please enlighten me!