Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why We Need Other Writers in Our Lives

By Kelley Lindberg

You know what they say. They try to tell us that writing is a lonely calling. That we should be huddled in attics, with our eyesight failing and our shoulders hunched, madly scratching away at our craft while the world rotates somewhere out there, beyond the window, without us.

The problem is, that’s not necessarily the best way to go about this obsession we have.

First off, if we’re not out there living in the world, how are we ever going to bring it to life in our writing? If I decide to write a thriller about a bunch of corporate accountants killing each other over year-end financial reports, I’m probably going to have to leave my desk at some point and go talk to some actual accountants. If I want to write about a cop who has an epiphany about street-gang violence and how to channel that into a fashion empire, I’m probably going to have to, I don’t know, maybe chat with a cop and perhaps a fashion designer and a gang member at some point? I mean, Google is all-knowing and all, but still. If we don’t want reality to slip through the cracks in our writing, we might want to keep reality on our radar in the real world, too. That generally means interacting with other people.

Second, isolationism is hardly ever healthy for humans. And we’re not even discussing politics here. If the only company you keep is your own, you’re bound to develop a few odd ideas and habits. We humans are a social species. We band together. We seek out like-minded organisms who can help entertain us, keep us warm, contribute to our welfare, and keep us from wandering around in our birthday suits with mouse nests in our hair. We fill in each other’s weaknesses, complement each other’s strengths.

That’s why writers need writer friends. Or at least writing colleagues and contacts.

I meet a lot of people in my travels who have written entire novels without having ever shown them to another person. I understand how that happens. It’s fear, mostly. Occasionally it might be arrogance (“I’m brilliant, and if I show this to anyone else, they’ll just be jealous”), but it’s almost always terror. The terror of embarrassment and shame (“What if they laugh at me and I’m too humiliated to show my face in public anymore?”), or the fear of learning that you might need to practice your craft a little more (“But I don’t want to work on this anymore, I just want to cash that million-dollar check!”).

Here’s what I always find interesting: people who are too embarrassed to show their early work to friends who can help them revise and refine it often leap at the chance to show that same work to agents and editors who have neither the time nor interest in helping them revise it into publishable shape. And by doing that, the writer blows their one chance with that agent or editor.

There are several problems with writing in a vacuum. One is that, whatever weaknesses we have, if no one is there to point them out, we will keep repeating them over and over until they are so ingrained they are nearly impossible to eradicate. Another problem is that we are hopelessly incapable of objectively measuring our own talent. So we are blind to both our faults and our strengths, and it is ridiculously easy to confuse the two.

This is why I’m a strong believer in writing helpers. Whether they are professional editors (who can be expensive, but useful), critique groups (which can be online or in person, and are MUCH cheaper—as in, free), or just a single writing friend hoping that if they read yours, you’ll read theirs, these folks can help you spot the weaknesses in your writing, weed out your bad habits, and strengthen your story to the point where an agent or editor might actually give it a second look. And wouldn’t you rather practice on a cheap friend than a once-in-a-lifetime agent?

Overcoming fear is a challenge, but let me tell you what I've learned. That fear of embarrassing yourself? While we all share it, it’s something you can get over. No one has ever said, “Wow, you used a dangling participle in that sentence, so our friendship is now over.” And that fear of learning that you have some more hard work ahead of you? Well, if you’re afraid of honing your skills to become a better writer, you just might be pursuing the wrong career. I’m just sayin’.

So if you’re writing in isolation, I strongly recommend you steel your nerves and find yourself a writing buddy of some sort—preferably someone who doesn’t love you (moms and significant others are notoriously bad choices), and someone who is also a writer. You want honest feedback, not affirmation. Sure, affirmation feels better, but it doesn’t get you published. Distance doesn’t matter—critique partners can be invaluable whether they are meeting you for coffee in your hometown or emailing you from the wilds of Borneo.

Let's shake off those cobwebs and venture out of our writing attics every once in a while. There’s a world of like-minded writers out there, and we all need each other to become the writers we want to be.

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