Last night I attended my very first writers’ group meeting – a “writers’ salon” at the home of a local wire-tap-transcriptionist turned edgy poet. And I’m realizing now that my late entry into a writing group is yet more evidence that I have gone about my writing career the wrong way – the hard way, the backwards way.
Let me explain exactly how I’ve botched it – so far.
1) I should have joined a writers’ group years and years and years ago. All you kids at home, don’t wait until the advance reading copy of your first novel arrives in the mail before joining a writers’ group.
I’m in the habit of not showing my serious writing to anyone – not my husband, not my sisters, no one. My utter lack of writing colleagues meant I mistook my work-in-progress manuscript for a finished book, started submitting it too early, and inadvertently ended up work-shopping it with the few gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses who were thoughtful enough to jot a line or two (never any more) about why they were rejecting it. It was a traumatic, slow, costly, and stupid way to get feedback.
Don’t be like me. Before anyone in the business reads your work, make friends with writers with similar interests and better abilities than your own. Read each other’s work and offer feedback. Share contacts and news. Learn to be gracious.
2) I’ve never taken a creative writing course. When my publisher and I were looking for a “blurb” for my book, Linda suggested I consider my former creative writing teachers. It would have been a good suggestion if I’d had any. It’s not that I didn’t take university-level literature classes. I took them and I did well. But I never took any courses dedicated to creative writing. I’ve never had my work assessed and graded in an academic setting.
It’s not a fatal mistake. Many writers spring up outside post-secondary creative writing programs — but not as many as I used to think. So far, most of the people I’ve met in the working writing community have some past or present connection to writing as an academic field. They don’t talk about writing as a vocation merely in a romantic, figurative sense. They mean it the same way plumbers talk about their vocations – as papered credentials and regular, paying gigs. There is middle ground between an institution-centred career in writing and never enrolling in a class. And I should have spent some time there.
3) I haven’t read much of the current literature in my field. Instead of keeping up with the industry, I’ve used my precious reading time to polish off classics and to survey the YA books my kids are reading. By now, I’m pretty well-versed in Dostoevsky and Dickens. And I know my way around J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler. But I don’t know much about – whoever the heck has been important in literary fiction since the 1990s.
This was a bad move. Stay tuned to the tone and the content of the industry. Don’t raise your head only to when the mainstream media starts clamouring about yet another wave of erotica. And don’t worry about being unduly influenced by other artists. It’s the post-modern age – a time when humans have been reading and writing long enough for all of us to be a little derivative. There’s no way to avoid it and the best we can hope for is to be able to admit it when our work looks like a freaky chimera of Carol Shields, Emily Brontё, and Napoleon Dynamite.
4) I don’t have a physical space set aside especially for writing. I write on my lap, sitting on my pillow, leaning against the head-board of the bed where I sleep at night. It started as a desperate play for peace and quiet in a large, busy household. I guess that’s still what it is. It’s bad for my mattress, my spine, my wrists, and my temper. Get a desk – or at least a chair.
That’s a short list of a few of my most obvious missteps. I won’t repeat them during my next project — except for the bed-desk.
But there’s something like irony at work here. I failed in all these ways yet I continued to publish anyway. All my stumbling around with an unsuitable manuscript served to match my timing up with Linda’s and we found each other at just the right moment. There’s no fail-safe formula for good fortune.
And on top of all these errors, I did do something right – something vital. I finished the dang book. I took good advice when I was finally given it. I kept revising and submitting. I kept fighting. Of all the things I’ve heard people name as the undoing of their literary ambitions, not finishing their projects has got to be the most common.
Maybe that’s the biggest, most valuable lesson of all the ones I’ve learned so far — the one I’d leave with everyone, the one I kept repeating like a holy mantra at the writers’ group last night. Finish it. Keep going.