I have always hoped to touch a chord with people in my life somehow. I seem to have a nurturing spirit that has a magnetic effect on people. I have found myself, many times, to be the guy folks will come to and want to unload on or to seek advice from. It’s not that I’m some white bearded wizard with wisdom, it’s just that I’ve been through one hell of a lot in my time. I can sit down with a homeless vet, or the CEO of some company, and have a conversation on their level. This desire to serve, or nurture, has also been a guiding principle or characteristic in my writing career as well.
I want to know that my words, actions, or writings have felt like a gentle embrace from a sweet grandmother, or if needed, a jolt of much-needed truth to those who are misguided in their writing careers. I want to know that something I’ve shared about my mistakes, awkward situations, or successes that were unexpected, might be just the thing some writer, barely hanging on to their dream, will hear and then feel a new sense of encouragement. Honestly, these things drive me more than money. Obviously, we all want to get paid for our work, but there must be something a bit deeper, in my opinion, if we want to be widely read or successful.
One of the first walls we must climb on the obstacle course of successful writing is to expose ourselves and to hear the word “no.” I believe that writers fearing the worst, or fearing the word “No,” or fearing the trolls of the world, has held us (the literary world) back from discovering the next Jane Austen or James Patterson.
You gotta hear the word “No.”
It’s a fact that most writers never try and publish their work. Writing is tough. It hurts. It’s a process of exposing yourself to a world that is not so kind when it finds your thoughts or ideas to be cliché, uninformed, uninteresting, or they just disagree with them. As one of my professors, a famous British writer, once said to me: “This is writing!”
My wife recently insisted that I go through this personality determination thingy that drove me nuts. When she asked—told—me to take it, I rolled my eyes and painfully agreed. As a side note, it’s ironic how we humans always think we have something more important, more pressing, to do than what is in front of us. That includes opportunities that we display a contempt for before knowing what they may have in store for us. This is called “Contempt prior to investigation.” It’s a nasty little habit that holds so many of us back from our true potential. Back to my story.
I laid back on the bed, and my wife began the litany of questions that felt, to me, like pin pricks to my skin. The questions reminded me of the kinds of questions you’re forced to answer on a job application—a psychological assessment. I looked at her; she was having the time of her life; not because of my painful endurance of this personality test, but, I believe, because she felt she was going to hand me the long lost answers to my life at the end of this assessment.
When she was done asking me questions, she read off the list of personality traits I displayed according to the test. I have to admit, like a drunk trying to remember last night’s tour of the Atlanta bars, I don’t recall anything she said except for one important detail that was spot on, and suddenly, it explained a lot of my life to me. It was that people like me need to know that we have done something worthwhile, and we have a deep desire to be recognized for our efforts; not in the sense of a narcissist or ego driven type of recognition, although my detractors may disagree, but an honest, pure desire to know we have accomplished something and that others have benefited from our efforts, and they recognize that we played a part in their success. This test my dear wife gave me, in spite of my childish revolt at the idea of taking the test to begin with, confirmed a deep-seated desire that I knew existed but could not quite put my finger on or understand.
Now I knew what drove me to continue on the painful and often unrewarding endeavor to write.
I want to be read
I want to touch people with my words. I want to be read. I don’t crave fame or fortune; I’ve made lots of money in my life. I’ve had money and lost money. It’s not my motivation at this stage in my life. My motivation is to be read, to contribute something to my fellow man, to touch people’s lives with the written word. The problem with that–people have short attention spans. They have other interests; the art of conversation has been lost. People’s attention span is 3.5 seconds. You have to work hard to say something interesting and unique. In the words of the great Solomon: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Let me share a story about a recent kick in the pants
In a college class of mine, I was painfully reminded of the fact that I’ve not yet arrived as a writer. I’m no slouch at this point, but I’ve got more to learn. I’ve published some stuff. I’ve had a few proud moments in the sun; however, I’ve experienced far more pain as a writer, far more moments of dark reflection—and a want to hide or quit—then I have success.
In comparison, I know there are writers out there that crave the types of achievements I’ve attained thus far; I should never complain. That said, this morning was a punch in the gut.
I have a professor that I like and admire. I won’t say his name here; this blog has a broad audience. Suffice it to say that he is one of my mentors and a great writer/rhetorician. He’s several times published and loves research in general. The class I’m in with this professor is my very last English class (my major is English/Creative Writing and Publication), and then the work on my major is done.
He gave us a choice for our final paper between doing a research project, or, to take a paper from a previous class in our college writing career, revise it, submit an abstract of the paper to the, then, upcoming Academic Research Conference (ARC), and then submit the paper for publication in one of the many undergraduate research journals. I chose the latter—the ARC/publication route.
My nerves were a mess the day of the presentation at the ARC because my topic was a hot-potato. It was about political correctness. The presentation went well, I had several questions afterward, and my professor later emailed me and said he thought I did a great job. Now, in my mind, I could see the end of the tunnel. All I had left to do was to submit the paper to him for a final review, some copy edits, and then submit the work to a journal of my choice.
A few days later, we had a quiet time/work space sort of class while the professor counseled various students in the class, answered some one-on-one questions, etc. He came up to me and asked me to print off a hard copy of my paper, and he would skim it and give his thoughts/edits during class.
Within moments, he came up to me and asked why I had not indented my paragraphs, and why I had footnotes— “Is this style set for publication?” he asked. He knew that some journals required certain style guides: APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian. I sat there, my face white with blood loss, and realized I had totally bastardized the required MLA style for his class with Turabian and…whatever. He just walked away. He returned about 10 minutes later with a gazillion marks on my paper.
I looked at some of my classmates near me who’s papers he had also read, edited, and returned, and theirs looked way cleaner than mine did. Mine had a mark every paragraph. All at once, I felt that horrible feeling of failure, inadequacy, and embarrassment. I’m an intern editor at the university press for goodness sake—how could I make such a careless and stupid mistake?
Suddenly, all my fears, the ones I had before my first publication, and before I had had any real success as a writer, returned with a vengeance.
We never stop learning
I knew at once that I had to tell this story. I knew I needed to be transparent and share this with other writers. It hurts to write. We expose our souls to the world, to our classmates, to our friends, and to total strangers, and we often pay a price for our transparency.
I saw one of my mentors later in the day, Quentin Falk, who is an enormously successful journalist, novelist, film critic, and writer. I told him how I felt. He said to me there’s so much garbage out there. It’s so easy to publish anything on the internet. Keep focused on what you know and publish that work. Pay no mind to the rubbish (his thick British accent) that seems to get attention in spite of how bad it really is.
His words brought me back down from setting myself on some impossible to attain pedestal. I’ve done well for the short few years I’ve been writing, and I still just want to touch people, to be read, and I hope that my writing helps someone overcome an obstacle in their life. That is a worthwhile cause.