Paying it Forward

It isn’t a new concept. The movie with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt came out in 2000, so we’ve all heard the phrase, and we’ve probably all thought it was a great concept – but how does one pay it forward? Well, I can’t address this for everyone, so let me speak to it from my own experience as it relates to writing.

The first big writing conference I ever attended was the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference in Los Angeles, CA. in 1996. I had been writing and submitting for years, but was getting nowhere. I’d had some success writing nonfiction on the internet search site CitySearch, but my stories were stuck.  I’d been suckered by a vanity press, and I’d almost decided to give up when I learned about the organization, met the Regional Advisor, and began attending workshops. It was through this organization I came to know my first mentor, and very dear friend, Carol Lynch Williams. At that point, she had something like 15 books published, and to me, she was a goddess of children’s writing.

At the conference, Carol and I discovered a mutual quirky sense of humor, and a sincere desire to become more effective and successful writers. Carol invited me to attend a writing group in her home, and we became fast friends.  During the conference, I was able to hear from writers such as Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, and E.L. Konigsburg: some of the biggest names in children’s literature in the past 20+ years!

Each of these speakers was eloquent, helpful, and very generous in giving advice and time to those of us who were new. In a fortunate turn of circumstances, I was actually seated with Ms. Yolen alone for about 20 minutes and was able to talk with her uninterrupted. Her kindness, warmth, and patience with what I know now and  acknowledge were stupid questions was certainly beyond the call of duty, but she was tolerant beyond measure with me. Later, when she spoke at another even I attended, I learned why. Ms. Yolen has long-held the belief that paying it forward is the only proper way to conduct yourself.  You can’t pay back those who’ve helped you. What could I possible teach to a woman who’s won more literary awards than I have fingers and toes to count them on? So this became my mission: as I learned, I shared. As I progressed, I helped to bring someone else along, too. Carol mentored me, and we continue to stay in touch even today. I began to mentor others through classes, writing groups, and individually.

But there are downfalls to doing this. There are those who don’t really want to learn. What they want is for you to give them the shortcut to success. They want the name of your agent, your publisher, and a good word from you to guarantee that their work will make it to publication with the effort and time that everyone else has put in.  There are those, too, who don’t really want your comments, your feedback, or your help. They want you to tell them how outstanding their work already is, even if it violates every law of grammar, punctuation, and acceptable standards for the genre in which they are writing. I’ve been asked for help by would-be writers, only to have them turn around and call me names and insult me. I’ve had them ask for my input, and because they didn’t like what I said, they’ve publicly flogged me through email, on blogs, and to others in the writing community.

But I’ve had some very positive experiences, too. Several writers who are former students of mine have gone on to become very successful writers themselves. Anne Bowen and Becky Hall are both former students and now friends who have been multiply published – and not because of me. Because they are hardworking and committed writers, and I was just in the right place at the right time to provide some encouragement and some insight.  My wonderful friend and writing partner Jared Anderson is on the brink of success – so close we can both taste it. I’ve worked with him for a few years as a mentor, but now more as a co-writer and friend. When he achieves success – and it is inevitable because he is so good – it won’t be because of me. It will be because he listened and applied what he learned, and he improve his craft. But I can take great pride in having offered just a little help to each of these writers, and they in turn are paying it forward to others.

This is how writing improves, excellent books get written, and new writers are encouraged to bring their voices out into the open. I have long practiced, and long believed in the power of paying it forward, and I hope that those whom I’ve touched, whether they are writers or not, will see the value to themselves in doing the same.  PIF on, my friends!

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11 thoughts on “Paying it Forward

  1. Great blog! And thanks for the kind words about my writing. I appreciate the help and encouragement you’ve given me.

  2. Linda Bennett says:

    It doesn’t matter was it is, if someone shows you a kindness and it helps in any way shape or form and you simply make a cup of coffee for someone else you are paying it forward.
    Your out look on your craft and the way you have helped others is indeed a kindness paid forward as well as your friendship to me.

  3. AndrewC says:

    (Warning: spew follows. No warranties of relevance or interestingness apply – proceed at your own risk.)

    Writing is an inherently lonely profession, and the publishing business is — as one quite successfully published author of many Star Trek novelizations (hey, ya take what ya can get to keep the ‘lectric bill paid) said to me after a neat panel discussion — more a brutal spectator sport than it is a rational business. And the correlation coefficient of actual talent to ‘success’ is effectively zero.

    So it’s not much of a surprise that many aspiring-to-somewhat-successful writers head to writers’ conferences and workshops and seminars, like the salmon flocking back to Capistrano to spawn in their mysterious 17-year cycle — to commiserate; to regain the warmth of non-immediate-family human contact; to reassure themselves that (contrary to spousal and/or parental opinion) they’re not the only nut in the pecan tree; to spend three or four days not in the Writing Space wearing The Bathrobe sipping full-octane from the mug that says “You don’t have to be crazy to be…” etc. etc.

    Oh, and to hope for The Happenstance Intro to The Magickal Agent. Or that Rowling, or King, or whichsoever avatar of that J.D. Robb / Nora Roberts / Sarah Hardesty / Jill March multi-person, or Tom Clancy Inc.’s armada of “with ____” ghostwriters, as happen to be present, will allow a touch of the hem of their robes and spirit them into Airport Bookstore Name Land….

    I like the quote – got it somewhere, but don’ matter who said it or how, exactly, for it to be truth: to be a writer, it’s not necessary to take classes, or go to workshops, or do exercises, or read books on writing, or send inquiries. (Or to fret about choice of software or workspace or habits or method or ….). All that is necessary is to write something.

    (OK – to be a *good* writer you actually have to write something *good*, too. 😉

    I’m not a writer (directly poking a finger in the eye of the point I just made, but hey – it’s *my* point) — but I bow to those who dare, and especially to those who succeed, often not *because*, but *despite*. And, because they practiced their craft, never listened to “no”, had something important to say, and had a burning need to give birth and voice to that, and shoved it out the front door, for someone, anyone — and hopefully everyone — to see. And maybe even understand.

  4. AndrewC says:

    (Oh – PS – I may’ve left the wrong impression:

    (A) Kim, having read your stuff, you ARE a good writer (I’m WAY overdue, I know, I know, sorry!), and,
    (B) My little novella above was an addle-pated riff on writing, workshops, the industry, etc., in general — NOT pointed at you, or what you were describing.

    My wife often reminds me that my ability to both stay on-topic, and avoid making it All About Me, is absolutely fertile ground for improvement. This being one such occasion.

    • Kim Justesen says:

      Andy – you crack me up! I appreciate your friendship, and more importantly, your willingness to read work that is raw and challenging! Thanks, my friend, for dropping in!

  5. Joe Rhoad says:

    Well, whatever level of success I achieve in my own writing, you can be sure you’ll get nothing but good words from me about your contribution to it. Your instruction has been invaluable to me, Kim, and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to turn against you. I’m also very happy to hear about your recent good fortune in your own writing career. You never know what the future holds for you–just don’t ever quit, and never ever compromise your principles!

    • Kim Justesen says:

      Thank you, Joe. I’m so pleased that you have kept going with your writing and have focused your efforts. You are so close to reaching the success you want, and I have no doubt you will achieve it!

  6. I so appreciated reading this post, discovered through my google alerts on children’s writing. I am a prepublished writer who gained enormously from my first time at SCBWI LA last summer, and it was wonderful to read of your experience at your first conference. What a gift to have had that one-on-one time with Jane Yolen!

    I, too, have benefited so much from example and interaction with those further down the writing road. Paying it forward for other aspiring writers will certainly be my watchword.

  7. Kim Justesen says:

    Welcome, Beth! I’m so glad you found this so glad it spoke to you! Thanks for your comment!

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