Saturday, 29 March 2014

Writers' Snake Pits Part II

Last week I talked about Writers' Snake Pits, and how they can stall or even just distract a writer from getting on down and getting stuff written. I've come back for a second forage in the jungle, because there are more of them out there and Indy doesn't want us falling into them either. (At least, I'm pretty sure he doesn't - after all, he's played by Harrison Ford and he's a nice enough guy, isn't he? I mean, he's never punched a journalist or anything..?)

1 - "I wish I knew how to quit you!"
This was actually pointed out to me in the last post's comments section by Patrick Ross (who writes the excellent blog theartistsroad) so credit goes to Patrick for this one. It's sort of a contradiction to the first Snake Pit of Never Finishing What You Start (and as such is important to note, because the last thing we want to do is fall into a pit we weren't expecting because we were too busy avoiding the one we were.)

Sometimes we work on one thing for a long, long time because we love it - like that irresistible, bad-seed lover your mother and all your friends disapprove of because they're unreliable and don't respect you. We blind ourselves to their faults, thinking we can change them with enough love and attention. We turn a deaf ear to the warnings of our friends and loved ones, saying our Beloved is just misunderstood. But sometimes we need to face the truth; this romance is just never gonna work out. It's about knowing when to walk away from a work-in-progress that'll never progress - and that in itself is a whole other skill writers can only acquire through practice. So yeah, the postscript to 'finish what you start' is 'But know when to call it quits.' (And also 'hide all the cheesy photos in the attic, but don't burn them.')

2 - "So... I don't fit in with your club, huh?  Well, maybe YOU'RE the misfits around here - ha yeah, I'll show you!"
I'm going to tell you a true story now which doesn't paint me in a particularly good light (well there's a shocking change, but hey ho...)

I once joined a writers' group after seeing a poster in my local library. It proclaimed it would be run by an 'internationally famous author,' but other than that there were no other details except for venue, meeting dates and times. No matter; it was a chance to hang out with other writers, and I was well up for that. Within the first couple of meetings there was a brief 'tell us about yourself' session for everyone, to get an idea of educational backgrounds and writing experience - and it very quickly became apparent there was - well, let's call it a dominant dynamic in the group. Everyone in the group - the 'internationally famous author' presiding included - had struggled at school, either dropping out before getting any formal qualifications, or not achieving any they could really use to get ahead. Everyone that is, except for me and one other person.

I had no problem with this whatsoever. I've never believed that a person's level of education should be a permanent barrier to writing success. But as these introductions went on - accompanied by much fist-pumping and "yeah you go, mate, sticking it to all those educated snobs!" from other members - I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about getting to my turn. I'm no academic wunderkind, but I went to college and university, which, if the current vibe was anything to go by, was going to make me about as popular as a stripper at a mother and toddler group. I wasn't wrong; for both me and the other guy there - who was an ex-university lecturer - you could actually feel the atmosphere in the room change after we spoke. It was as if we'd told them we drowned kittens as a hobby.

Things got a bit frosty for the two of us from then on. If we made any comments or expressed any opinions we were met with a loaded silence followed by a sharp change of subject. When it came to the round robin of members talking about things they'd written, we were both told that the genres we were writing in were "dead" and  "not the sort of thing normal people want to read." Loud comments were regularly made along the lines of "all these snobs who've been to college thinking they're better than us." And at one point the author/group leader himself made a long speech with the theme of 'don't let all those pretentious educated people tell you that spelling and grammar and all that crap is important if you want to become as famous as I am; they're just trying to stop you achieving because they're jealous you've got raw, natural talent without all the schooling they had!' And stared at me and the ex-lecturer throughout, as if daring us to respond. (We didn't. We both just sat there in meek silence, occasionally swapping uncomfortable glances.)

Now I can obviously only speak from my own perspective. I don't know; maybe when I did voice an opinion in the meetings, I used  the odd long, fancy word when a shorter one would've done the job. I and my ex-lecturer friend wouldn't have noticed that so much, but perhaps the others did and it wound them up. Perhaps, in our efforts to show we didn't think any less of them just because they hadn't taken the same paths we had, we overcompensated and unknowingly came across as patronising or smug instead. We'll never know, because nothing was ever openly articulated like that - it was all snarky asides and dirty looks. All of which came to a head when it was announced that the group would be producing an anthology of members works, to be published and sold in local bookshops. It was, as the author/group leader put it "our chance to show the world that real writing talent isn't all about getting a fancy education and knowing how to spell properly."

I'm afraid it brought out the petty side in me. By this time my ex-lecturer friend had quit the group, sick of being sidelined and snarked about, so I was the only Enemy Within left. I probably should have done the dignified thing and followed his example. But something about the battle cry for that anthology irked me. I resented the implication that being educated somehow automatically meant I grossly over-estimated my writing ability. So I made up my mind that I was going to submit to that anthology - and I was going to make it the best quality I could. I was going to use correct grammar and punctuation and I was going to spell every damn word right - and it was still going to be good enough to get included. I was going to show them that - well, y'know guys, maybe sometimes a person with an education is allowed to be a talented writer after all...

It was a petulant motivation from an immature place in my soul, and I'm not proud of it. It was the first time in my life I ever wrote anything purely with the goal of 'sticking it to the haters' - and I will make sure it's also the last. In the end I got one short story included in that anthology, while almost all of the other members had at least three. My work doesn't stand out as the shining beacon of correct writing style - in fact, it barely registers a ripple within the book as a whole. That's exactly as it should be. I left the group shortly after - and I doubt they were sorry to see me go. I was never going to fit in there - I just wish I'd had the maturity to see that earlier.

But it did teach me something important; writing isn't a giant battleground, where opposing sides flail their swords of technical skill and shields of style. There's room for everyone - and just because there's a ton of writers rampaging around the field, it doesn't mean they're all waiting to stove your head in with a mace so they can be 'the winner' and not you. So just write, and try to be the best writer you can be. Forget about being 'better than [insert random category of writers here.]'

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