Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Courage to be Average Before Brilliant

I'm writing to you today from the Pima Writers' Conference in Tucson,Arizona. The ice broke on the Santa Cruz River on Friday. There is no water in the river; it just means the temperature reached over 100 degrees for the first time this year. It's been that way for two days now and it'll be that way today, too. Ugh. Take me to a writing oasis!
Refresh the writing soul. Image "Oasis and Wonderland" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Dean Terry
So here I am in the Proscenium Theater amid writers of all ages. I run two writing groups and am working to develop a non-profit writing resource in Tucson, and there is not a single participant here that I recognizeeven though I used to run some writing sessions out of a Tucson-area writing group that has 300+ members.

I thought this was strange. Shouldn't I know someone here?

Perusing the schedule, though, I realized that I'd met the organizer on several occasions—have even been into her office to discuss the non-profit—and two of the presenters. I recognized a third presenter because she also ran a children's writing group out of the same cafe I ran a group. In February, at the last conference I attended, I knew one participant, a panelist, and a featured reader. I'm seeing a pattern: I'm going into these things like I'm a beginning writer, even though I'm not.

There is something to be said about confidence. I tend to see myself as a skilled and occasionally brilliant writer, while simultaneously being a terribly average writer. Sometimes I'd just rather be a brilliant and embarrassingly awful writer—at least I'd be straddling some sort of genius/crazy line that could be confusing enough to cause some debate. Or maybe there is no need for any kind of brilliance. Maybe I should leave that word alone, let it go.

But no. I bother thinking of myself as average and I think there are a few things that contribute to this. First, I've spent a lot of my life with walls up and I've been working on that. I find that the more I let go, the more I reveal, the more I write something that feels totally embarrassing, the more my readers love it. The parts I feel are most horrible are the ones readers seem to go for. They're the ones that get pointed out as the most memorable and affecting. So I do feel like I am aptly dealing with that and trying to push myself more.

Another thing that makes me average, though, is my subtlety and my penchant for understatement. I find these much harder to deal with. Letting down emotional walls, sure. Giving up subtlety and learning to be sparing with understatement, not so simple. The problem? When I'm not subtle, how to I reveal things openly without being obvious? This part is like trying to learn how to write all over again. It's exciting, though.

I've spent a lot of my life protecting myself, too. Thus, I haven't put myself out there. I've barely tried publishing and only recently have gone public with the fact that I am back at writing, that I am making an effort to be a writer. I've only recently gone public enough to fail publicly. I always thought it would be best to do that in private and not let anyone know about it. This is a critical factor in remaining average.

What it comes down to today is that I am at a conference and the sessions I find myself at are talks on completing a draft, on keeping a ritual... things that are more about discipline and inspiration—things I should be able to figure out in life. And while I tend to avoid any talk (or even thought of) publishing or agents—I find that worrying about such things while drafting or working on a first revision can taint the whole story—I am choosing those presentations. And you know what? They are giving me confidence. Maybe it's this concern of mediocrity that I've been suffering with, this feeling that no matter how skilled a writer I am, no matter how wonderful I am, I'll still find a way to not stand out.

I've always been someone who hides in the shadows. Even as a kid I didn't want to be noticed... unless it was to be acknowledged for doing well—not praised for my success or excellence, mind you; that would be embarrassing. Wait. No. To be praised for my success (and preferably to be better than everyone else) would be joyous, but then I'd feel guilty for liking it. I was mortified that I'd become big-headed and it was presumptuous to be proud of the work I'd done. (I thought.) It might also set a precedence of consistently superior work. So being acknowledged for being good was just about right. Being good also allowed me to not try too hard and gave me the room to think I'd be amazing if I actually tried. Ta-da! No failure!

I know a lot of people do this. I'm not the only one. It's screwed up. The idea is to get past it.

So yes, maybe I am walking into these conferences with the idea that I am a novice. Well, I am: my novel is not published and writing is constant learning. If I'd had more courage to make an earnest attempt earlier, I'd be further along at this point. If hadn't bothered to listen to all people who told me writing wasn't practical, that a Plan B was necessary, I might be further along. 

But now, I get to connect with people I haven't seen in a while and meet new people. The difference now is that I walk up to panelists and speakers I don't know to introduce myself and start up a conversation. (I won't leave out the fact that I may tell one or two of them that what I just wrote is crappy. WTF? Why do I do that? I'm a work in progress, I guess, like my novel.) Now I get to start connecting so that when I'm ready to look for an agent and a publisher, I have some idea where to start and what approaches to take. Now, I get to connect with people who go through similar experiences; find readers; feel a sense of the larger community; admit I am writing.

So I'm here now to encourage everyone to get out. Be a writer in public. Even if you think you suck. Go ahead and succeed or fail—do it in a big way so everyone can see what you are doing. Failure is learning. Failure will help build relationships and support and tenacity, which will help you fight the emotional fight of the family and friends who tell you writing is a nice hobby, it's good that you have something creative to indulge in, but Plan B is more practical.

In the words of C.B. Bernard who spoke at this conference on Friday: “Writing is not an indulgence. Indulgences are all the things you give up to write.”

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  1. Absolutely wonderful! So encouraging for those who are holding back with writing. It's easy to turn your back from it, especially when critics are just waiting to pounce and pull you down. But really, you bless the world more when you share your passion.