From the mouths of babes . . .
I was presenting a workshop recently, and I was approached by a woman who had attended one of my workshops. She asked a few questions about something I’d said, and then she hit me with something I was totally unprepared for.
“When did you stop attending events like this and start presenting?”
I had to think for a minute. “I started presenting at conferences about 12 years ago,” I said. “But I still attend workshops when I see one that looks really useful.”
The woman shook her head, her eyes wide. “You still go to writing workshops?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Does that surprise you?”
She sort of “harrumphed” and folded her arms. “I’ve been coming to these things for three years and I could probably teach most of these classes. I’ve read every book on writing ever written, just about, and I’ve got at least eight books finished.”
“How many books have you published?” I asked. I figured she’d have at least a few in print, and maybe she was just looking for the opportunity to be part of a conference in a different way.
“I have one published, but I have eight finished.” She sounded sort of defensive.
“Great,” I said, trying to be enthusiastic. I was getting a really strange vibe from this lady, and I wasn’t sure what she wanted from me. “Who published your first book?”
“I did.” She dug into a canvas bag she was carrying and produced the finished product. She handed it to me as if it were gold leafed and she was afraid I’d damage it.
The cover art was amateurish, to be polite. The design felt almost lopsided and the colors looked muddy. I don’t recall the title of the book because it was really hard to read. And when I looked at the back cover, I found two typos that were set in bold type.
Now, lest my self-published friends think I’m ragging on self-published books, the point of this particular blog is not her book, but rather, it is her attitude. I’m sure the story was fine, maybe even really good, but this woman acted as if this one book meant she knew everything about writing. Her very words to me hinted (not so subtly) that this is how she felt, too.
I know how this feels. When my first book was published, I felt like I had it all figured out and that my success as a writer was guaranteed. But there is an old adage in the publishing world: The second book is twice as hard as the first. And that is so true. I went six years between my first novel and my second. It’s not that I wasn’t writing – in fact I wrote a lot. But I became afraid. What if this one wasn’t as good as the first one? What if I couldn’t make the magic happen again? What if I wasn’t as good as I thought I was? What if, what if, what if? It paralyzed me, and that made it easy for me not to even try for a while. But I couldn’t stay away, and eventually I had to try again, but I needed reassurance.
So I went to conferences. I went to workshops. I read books. I worked with other writers. These things allowed me to see what my strengths were, identify those areas I needed more work, and helped me to build up those skills that needed a bit more muscle. Even now, these events remind me that I do know a lot about writing, but also remind me that I will never know everything.
I understand this woman’s desire. I understand that she wants validation of her dream. We all do! But the idea that you’ve learned it all and you could teach it all is sort of silly, especially with only one book in print. Yes, you know a lot, and no doubt this woman could talk about her self-publishing experiences, but it takes a bit more than that before conference organizers and workshop hosts invite you to come and present.
The writers I know who are invited to events like this have worked hard for many years to develop the skills they demonstrate in their books and present in their classes. They have tried different ideas, adopted some, rejected others, and have shown through their successes that they understand elements of writing at a very intimate level. And they didn’t show up somewhere, announce that they knew everything, and demand to be allowed to present.
I wish this woman well, and I hope that she is successful – whatever that may mean to her – but the minute you suggest you don’t have anything else to learn, you’ve just proven how little you know.