You Can’t Teach Everyone

Everyone knows that old adage: You can lead a horse to water . . .

I don’t profess to be the be-all and end-all of writing knowledge.  This industry changes every day, sometimes twice a day, and I struggle like everyone else who is serious in this business just to keep up.  But I have learned a few things in the 15 years I’ve been doing this.  I’ve attended more conferences, workshops, lectures, book signings, author visits, and seminars than I could possibly remember at this point.  I’ve been responsible for conducting my fair share of those things, and I’ve even been a guest speaker for quite a few.

I’ve met dozens – more likely hundreds – of authors and aspiring authors, and I’ve tried to take advantage of the opportunity to pick brains, absorb wisdom, collect knowledge, or just enjoy the company of each of them.  So why all this background? Because I’m a bit frustrated by a few horses.

It seems to be that the stars, planets, and cruel gods of the mountain tops have all aligned themselves to draw out frustrating people in droves. Maybe my patience is wearing thin; maybe my medication needs to be adjusted; or maybe I’m just worn down by the silliness of others. I don’t know. But a sizable number of annoying people seem to have found my e-mail, my phone number, my web site, or my husband. I’ll explain the last one later.

I’d venture that most of us don’t wake up one morning, walk into our doctor’s office and say, “I’ve decided to be a brain surgeon, so can you lend me about 10 hours of your time so I can show you what I can do?”

Of course you wouldn’t do this.  Being a doctor takes years of college, study, internships, residencies, and continuing education.  But I am stunned – literally – at the number of people who wake up one morning and announce, “I’m not really into books, don’t really write much, have a brain disorder, can’t really hold any practical job for more than three weeks, but I just know I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling. Wanna read my 800 page novel for 5-year-olds?”

Yes, I’m exaggerating. Only a little.  The book is probably for 6-year-olds. The rest I can give you actual examples on if you’re interested.

A brief time out while I provide a little background.  About 13 years ago I attended my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) national conference in Los Angeles, CA. I’d already struggled on my own for two years, collecting dozens of rejection letters, nearly getting shafted by a vanity press, and rapidly realizing that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.  That’s a harsh lesson, but an important one.

I had the great joy to meet Jane Yolen, and to actually sit with her for a few moments. Sadly, at the time, I really didn’t know who she was. She was gracious, kind, and shared two wonderful comments with me. She later shared one of these in her key note lecture at the conference.  The first thing she told me was that writing was the easy part. I’m certain that the stunned look on my face was enough to make her want to laugh, but as I said, she was gracious and kind, and she waited to laugh until after she was out of ear shot of me.  The second comment she made, that she also made in her key note, is that writing is often a mentoring craft, much like metal working or painting was during the Renaissance.  Those who’ve been working at this craft for a while pass along their wisdom and knowledge to those who’ve just arrived at the door.

“You can’t really pay back those who mentored you,” she told me.  “So you have an obligation to pay forward instead.”

I took this to heart. I had a lot of mentors in the early part of this venture, and they were all generous enough to share their time and talent with me. I stepped in and served as the Regional Advisor in Utah and Southern Idaho for SCBWI for 5 years. I networked, I kept researching, and I began to have successes.  I published numerous articles for City Search, Wasatch Parent Magazine, and many others.  I published my first book in 1998. The next one came out in 2002. Three more in 2005. Another in 2006. The next one will be out in about a year. 

So I had the opportunity to follow up on what Ms. Yolen said about paying forward. I’d been teaching creative writing classes for a long time, but now I could focus  on offering  my repayment to those who wanted to become more proficient in writing for children.  Through ICL, I get the chance to give back.  Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, I get as much from my students as I offer them. That’s one of the things I love most.

But every once in a while . . .

This is a true story, but some details have been changed for obvious reasons.  And no, this is not about one of my ICL students. 

I was speaking at a young writers’ conference this past weekend.  I taught two sessions: one was mostly junior high and high school kids, the other was mostly elementary kids.  The kids were fabulous. There were a few adults, too.

At a break, I was approached by a woman who wanted to talk about a picture book she was working on.  She had this great idea, she said, sort of like “The Brave Little Toaster” only furniture.  The chair was jealous of the couch because the couch was bigger. The end table was jealous of the coffee table because the coffee table was longer.

I stopped her and said, very honestly, that writing about inanimate objects and anthropomorphizing them was not very popular with publishers these days.  Too many “Thomas the Tank Engine” knock offs. I asked if she couldn’t use people, or even animals, instead of furniture.

She acted as if I’d told her she was unattractive and her children were idiots. She proceeded to give me a list of all the stories that violated that very rule.  I told her that each of her examples was published at least ten years ago, including Thomas the Tank Engine, and I also pointed out that Thomas was a British import, and Thomas has a human face.  She stomped off.

Another example of this came when the wife of a friend of a guy who works with my husband (did you get that?), emailed me a manuscript that was nearly 5 pages long, with over 2,000 words for a picture book.  For those not overly familiar with the picture book market, 500-600 words is considered the maximum length for a picture book.  In addition to its length as an issue, the whole story was told in rhyme that was forced, off beat, and sometimes completely mismatched. I don’t care how you say it, “turtle” and “scuttle” do not rhyme. Okay, those of you with the British accents might pull it off, but us Yanks can’t convincingly do that.

Did I mention that I never agreed to do this? She didn’t ask if I was willing to do it, she simply emailed me asked if I could comment for her when I got a minute. Oh, and could I send along the names of my publishers for her to send this to.

I gave the piece a cursory view, then emailed back that it was too long, shouldn’t rhyme, and I didn’t really have the time to do this at the moment. In addition to my teaching job, my ICL job, and my own writing, I have clients for whom I do manuscript critique for a cost, and I was also right in the middle of redecorating my dining room after a pipe broke in the ceiling and ruined the ceiling, carpet, and paint.

I got a rather terse email back saying “Thanks for nothing.”

The last one comes from the local writer who despises me.  This, gratefully, wasn’t directed at me personally, but it sort of fits into the “you can’t teach everyone” concept.  On her blog she wails about having attended a very prestigious writers’ conference, presenting the concept of her “novel within a novel” and being rejected out of hand by agents and editors. “They wouldn’t even let me explain it to them,” she bemoans.

That’s probably because editors and agents get swarmed at conferences by newbies who are certain they’ve got the next great idea, only they don’t have the skill or knowledge to pull it off.  Professionals would know better than to approach editors and agents in the middle of a hectic conference to try and push their idea.  This is part of that knowledge base that comes with research, time, and experience.

But you can’t teach everyone.  There are those who just know that they know more than they do.  They refuse to listen. They want it their way. They want to grab the doctor by his white coat and tell him or her what’s what. And ultimately, these people don’t want to serve the apprenticeship that comes with any real art because they don’t think they should have to, or they don’t know they should, or they just don’t know any better.

I can see why a lot of writers refuse, ultimately, to participate in conferences.

All that aside – I still love what I do.  And I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m breathing.

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4 thoughts on “You Can’t Teach Everyone

  1. Ms. Kim,

    You are darn near telepathic, ’cause this morning I posted similar sentiments.

    I have been reading your blog a while now. If folks can’t learn from you they are in trouble.

    When I first started with my agent he said doctors (and often other professionals) who had achieved in one area of life did not understand this did not guarantee success as a writer.

    I do now know exactly how much success my book will see, but if there is any I attribute most of it to a good agent and the advice of folks like you who I read. I do give myself credit for listening to them and doing my best to learn from those who have been there. And too, if it is a success luck didn’t hurt at all either.

    Dr. B

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    Dr. B,

    I fully believe anything you write will be a success. You have a charm to your writing, and a wit that cuts like a saw blade. You will arrive on your own talents, and because I can tell that you are good folk, you’ll take less credit than you deserve. It’s that willingness to listen, and to learn, that will lay the foundations of the success you’ll have, but it will surely be your own hard work and effort that will earn you the accolades.

    You keep me posted!

    Kim

  3. I enjoyed reading this post a lot more than you enjoyed writing it because I thought I was the only one people told about their book ideas. The thrust of their comments basically was that writing doesn’t require any skill since they know how to use e-mail, create grocery lists, and possibly keep a personal journal.

    Nonetheless, they simultaneously discourage me from stepping into their fields without any training.

    Malcolm

  4. Kim Justesen says:

    Malcolm,

    The problem in the world of children’s writing is two-fold: not only do the would-be writers decide that grammar school and email alone qualify them to write, but they harken to the idea that if Suess could rhyme “cat” and “hat” and make money, so can they.

    Often, I reply by saying “The fact that I know how to flush a toilet doesn’t make me a plumber. Neither does the fact I can boil water make me a chef.”

    But as you well know, there are those who hear this and decide that you are obviously not a good writer or you’d see how genius these ideas truly are.

    Kim

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