June 11th, 2008

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Writing: chairlift v. slog

On other venues (print, online, multiple)  I've heard two parallel streams of chat, both resting on the same foundation: the presumed need of young/new writers for help from older/experienced writers in order to get published.  

On the one hand, there are published writers praising and thanking those who helped them get started.  "If it weren't for X, I would never have gotten published..."  "Y gave me encouragement and that kept me going..."  "Z introduced me to his/her agent/editor and that's how I got started..."  "For me it was Famousname Workshop and its Famousname instructors...I could never have done it without them."   Ritual disclaimer #1: many published writers *do* give personal help to unpublished/novice writers and the help given is indeed valuable  (as it is when more experienced published writers help out less experienced ones.)   I think this is great.

On the other hand, there are unpublished writers lamenting that they have not had the chance to attend the workshops or conventions,  to meet the writers who--by the accounts of others--hold the keys to the golden doors.  "If I could only meet the right author, I'm sure they could help me get published..."    For these writers, no matter how good they are, there seems to be a need to find a mentor or the equivalent of historic Bath's Master of Ceremonies to make introductions to the right people.   I've met them at workshops, in classrooms, at conventions, and they're convinced that the reason they're unpublished is that they haven't found the right published writer to promote them, lead them by the hand into the Country of the Published.  Ritual disclaimer #2: some novice writers are so close that all they need is a nudge, and that nudge is invaluable.

For the novice coming into writing, and reading these parallel streams, it seems obvious that finding a patron/mentor is just as important--maybe more important--than improving one's own writing....because everyone has had that help, right?

No.  Not right.   Here's where things get sticky.  When a published writer says he/she went it alone, this immediately arouses suspicion of ingratitude and disbelief...because the prevailing view is that no one can go it alone.   Mentors are uneasy because, if someone can go it alone, they lose the bragging rights to that person (and yes, mentors do brag on their
protégés, and why not?)   Protégés are uneasy because, if someone can go it alone, doesn't that mean their own deference to a mentor was unnecessary?  Are they less because someone else didn't (apparently) need that helping hand?  

That also isn't what I'm saying--let's everyone relax a moment here and let that sink in. No disrespect is intended to mentors or
protégés or aspirants for either position.   If it happens that a novice writer knows a published writer, and if the personalities of both allow for a successful mentoring relationship, that novice writer is indeed in luck, and will receive a benefit, and the mentor deserves thanks and praise. 

But in fact not every published writer had a mentor.  Not every published writer went through Famousname A's Famousname Workshop.  Not every published writer is some other writer's
protégé.   Some were able to cobble together enough information from books, magazines, and now the internet, to keep themselves going, to learn how to submit (perhaps by making embarrassing mistakes in the process, but they kept trying) and achieved publication by slogging up the mountain on foot rather than taking the networking chairlift. 

Am I trying to claim special virtue for these writers (among whom I belong) because of their independent struggle?  Not at all.   This is not a slam at mentors.  This is not a slam at people who had mentors.  This is meant to give hope to those who, for whatever reason (from shyness to location to economics) cannot make the contacts others make, go to the places others go, or handle the interpersonal difficulties inherent in a mentor/
protégé relationship.  

I had a lot of encouragement and help from other published writers...once I got published.  I cannot say enough good things about the professionals who welcomed me, who warned me against this scam and reassured me about that editor/publishing house/anthology proposal.   Before that, through a combination of shyness, family circumstances, location, and lack of money, no other writers knew I existed:  it would never have occurred to me to contact a published writer and ask for advice or help with a manuscript.  If you'd  transported me by magic and put me in a room with my favorite writers, I'd have been unable to speak a word and would have bolted through the nearest door--into a utility closet, if necessary, to sit on a bucket and wait it out.   Instead, I slogged up the mountain from someone who never finished a story to someone who achieved publication on my own two feet, and I know fully just how difficult that was and how many years it took.  I arrived at the summit a lot later than some people, sweaty and unkempt. 

But the take-home lesson for today is that I did get there.   One discouraging step at a time.  Through self-doubt, depression, distractions, exhaustion, money problems, family responsibilities, all the things that hold all of us back...I got there.  It would've been easier if I'd been in a different place, if I'd been a different person, but in spite of that, in spite of my mistakes (and there were many) and personal flaws (and there were and are many) and LifeStuff problems (many of those, too), sheer pigheadedness finally got me there. 

And it can get you there.  If you don't have the money for Clarion or even a local community college's workshop--if you can't get to conventions--if you don't know any writers and you're too shy to meet any--if the writers you do meet brush you off because they're already busy and overloaded--that's OK.  It means you'll spend longer getting there, and your feet will hurt and you'll have twigs and leaves in your hair and your stomach will be stuck to your backbone with the hunger for it....but if you keep at it, and determine to write better and keep finishing things and keep sending things out and keep going no matter what...you'll get there.

A chairlift is a great way to glide up a mountain.   It's not the only way to the summit.    If you're an unpublished writer who's been standing at the foot of the mountain waiting for a chairlift to appear on that blank wall of trees and rocks...lace up your hiking shoes and get going.   There may not be a chairlift in your future, but you can put one (writing) foot in front of the other all the way to the top.  (On the other hand, if there's a handy chairlift...go ahead.)  (On the other other hand, don't assume that published writers exist for the purpose of being your chairlift.   They have responsibility to their own work first, and they have only the same 24 hours a day you do.) 

Be gentle with  each other---the life of writing is never (OK, almost never) all smooth flowery meadows and tinkling fountains.   Both the chairlifted writers and the slogged-it-myself writers find that the summit has its own challenges (staying up there, for one thing, when the winds of change start blowing in the world of publishing.)  Nobody should sneer at either method of getting to publication...the work itself stands on its own merits.  Mentors,
protégés, independents: all made it.  That's all that counts.