Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Following Your Own Path


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!

12 comments:

  1. As I'm finding is usual, your latest post is inspiring and motivating and dead-on true. We all have to find the writing way that works for us. And yeah, it always starts with _writing_.

    I do enjoy going to author events. I love to support others, plus, regardless of genre or style differences, I find it inspiring to hear what works for other writers and I love, love, love talking (and talks!) abut the craft. That said, I live in a small town. There aren't a lot of author events clamoring for my time and if there were, I'd be choosy. I jealously guard my writing time, ever fearful lest I be one of those people who love to talk about being a writer but never writing!

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  3. I'm always a little shocked by egotistical authors--especially if I've loved their books. I feel tricked.

    I'm approaching the halfway point of a suspense with supernatural elements and I'm planning a YA short story anthology.

    How about you?

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  4. Ha! Nice article Holli. And totally true in a large sense. Although you're mistaken about one thing: there aren't literary events going on every week or every couple of weeks; they're going on EVERY DAY! LOL!
    McNally's pretty well has something every day, and Aqua Books in its third year as "Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall" also has events almost every day.
    So yeah, you definitely can't go to everything!! :)

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  5. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I've been giving this a lot of thought myself and I've come to the conclusion that I am not an artist; I am a professional writer. I want to support other writers and will buy their books if I can. I enjoy talking craft with them. But I want to talk to them as fellow professionals, not as gods. I know their success will not be mine if I do everything they did. I have to make it in this *business* by myself (find my own path, like you said.) And I know that my attitude will offend a lot of the literary crowd. So I'm trying to find the line where I can still be friends with them socially and still manage to stay professional. Fortunately, I'm beginning to think that there are more writers out there like me than I previously thought.

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  6. I think that writing in the novel/literary sense is one of those rare careers where it doesn't matter who you know. Knowing people isn't going to get your book published. It isn't like you can develop a partnership and collaborate with other authors (success in that is rare). Writing lots and often and in isolation will (if you have "talent" and a good marketable idea).

    Going to literary events is a social activity like any social activity. I've been to a few, but not many. If the only thing about me was writing and the only thing I wanted to TALK about was writing then I would go to more of them. But I hope I am a more well balanced person than that.

    Nice post.

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  7. Hi everyone,

    Wow! Thanks for your comments. @ Ev, sounds great! I'm halfway thru the first draft of a paranormal mystery. @ Perry - every DAY? Wow, I rest my case! @ Elspeth, I think a lot of writers agree with you. I believe a lot of us are tired of "the literary way is the only way" bunkum. Let's face it - those people are just bitter, and @ Kim, I completely agree. Knowing successful authors can help you get the lay of the land, but it will not make you a successful author yourself.

    Thanks everyone!

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  8. This morning while skimming the Facebook news feed on my iPod I miss-read a sentence in your hook to this blog link. This is what I read, “false gods ARE the people who worship them.” Hmm. Give me existential angst. I spent the next enjoyable half hour thinking on this while sipping my morning tea. I pondered such ideas as, if we are what we think then by extension we may be what we worship. Hmm.
    Later I went to my computer to read this latest post. So... not what I expected to find, but it certainly didn’t disappoint.

    Hey, Holli, I love a good argument. And this ‘lit scene’ topic is a dozy. I must confess I attend far too many literary soirées, buying the signed copies for a chance of those few moments of rubbing gills with the Big Fish in this small provincial pond. And I do enjoy the idea of it. Trouble is, to me this “pond” doesn’t seem so small, considering you could fit the whole of the British Isles + Ireland into Lake Winnipeg (if you first chop it up) and considering the fact I never would have presumed to call myself a writer if I’d remained in the old country. Ha. But, yes, I hear what you are saying. And sadly it is mainly the wannabe writers who take in all these events. I have a dear friend who consistently reminds me that all writers are legitimate; all genres and styles within genres are worthy and that we should stay true to our own inner voice (when we’ve found it) and not become obsessed with comparisons, awards, being published/recognized etc. We are all immaculate conceptions. (No, she didn’t say that.) But it fits with my earlier musing on fake gods. If each of us is a little creator, then we better choose our “in her image” wisely.
    I’ve gone off topic, but there are so many interesting avenues here, so much to say. And here’s me who believes comments should be kept short!
    So, thanks for the insight. Love it. Oh, and I’m reminded of a comment on our bizarre preoccupation of rubbing noses with published authors, attributed to Margaret Atwood, “just because I like the paté doesn’t mean I need to go and look at the duck.”

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  9. Hey Jocelyn,

    I LOVE that Atwood comment! Totally agree. I was really hoping you'd weigh in on this one, because you are a part of the literary scene group, you scene-maker, you! :)

    So, all in all, if you had to pinpoint what you actually get from these events, what would you say? What makes you go? How do you feel afterwards? Have you ever had an experience like the one I describe? Inquiring minds want to know! :)

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  10. Okay. Why do I go? On the whole it is because I love books and bookstores, and when the event takes place in a library or independent bookstore, then the ambiance is part of it, part of the high. And if the guest speaker is someone I know, or who’s work I admire, then I’m there to support them. (the complementary wine is a bonus :-) If the occasion is a regular monthly feature, say an Open Mic Poetry bash in a small and familiar locale, then I’m there to participate and enjoy the company of familiar faces. This type of event is a delight, I come away inspired and uplifted.
    So, where’s the downside? you may ask. Well, going to too many launches/readings may make me jaded and cynical, questioning my own motives - am I just escaping from my own work? Or, if it is a high-end literary thingy, I come away doubting my own reasons for writing, wondering why I bother - the “I’m not good enough syndrome.” And yes, I have had the experience you describe, where I come home feeling lower than a snake’s belly, and wonder why on earth I bother. At such times my cynical side takes over and I question the whole scene, is it just so much posturing and hot air? what’s the point? (or the green with envy, not nice, “how come she can get published” :-) I’ve noticed this feeling of despair can also overcoming me while reading certain literary magazines --and not just because of the unattainable artistry of the language, but also if I’m brutally honest with myself I often find them boring. Perfect use of language alone, doesn’t make an exciting story. That’s when I have to get back to what my friend said about there being room out there for everyone, and how you must be true to yourself, enjoy the writing process, and remember that variety is the spice of life.

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  11. Right on Holli, there is much to be learned from the work ethic, problem solving and creative support that successful writer have.

    There is, also much to be desired in being who you are, speaking with your own voice and telling your own story.

    I, too, went to the writer's lunch and found myself thinking, "If I ever get a chance to do one of those things let me act differently." Not that the author did anything wrong, he did what was expected, was rewarded with the diligent note taking.

    What I did enjoy was that he took such pleasure in the work that went into his writing, the travel, the research, the people, etc.

    I think the best way for us to hone our craft is to read those authors who resonate with us (I have old favorites, new loves and some guilty pleasures), consistently write, research and trust our words. Then find like minded people to share with and really read each other's work with the story in mind rather than finding things to 'point out' or red pen and that we should not stop if our goal is publication, 100 or 10,000 followers or just to have a place on the shelf with a finished work.

    Don't quit, don't try to be any voice other than your own and if you win the lotto take me book shopping with you! :-)

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  12. @ Jocelyn - thanks for that. I've never really come out and asked the question "why do you go?" before, and your answers were very enlightening. I do think that there is quite a bit of posturing at some of these events, and a few "writers" who think that rubbing elbows with the published is almost as good as writing something of their own, but you're not either of these. Your reasons are good reasons. I actually didn't feel like giving up after the luncheon - I was just saddened to see so many writers who don't believe they have what they need to succeed within themselves. They needed to write down another author's recipe for success, in the hopes it would work the same way for them. That's what bugged me.

    @ my Mystic Mom - I thought exactly the same thing! I actually came home that evening and said, "no matter how many books I publish, I hope I never act like that". I hope to always be genuinely interested in other people and not too in love with my own voice.

    I agree as well that his passion for travel and research was very interesting and inspiring...I just wish it hadn't sounded so much like bragging. ;) "I get to do cool things that you plebians can never hope to, so look around your own sorry little lives for a story, because that's all you got."

    I will never quit, and I hope you don't, either. And once I win Lotto Max, we're definitely heading to the book store!

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