Proof of Seriousness?

For years I wrote while holding down some sort of job that had nothing to do with writing. The jobs were not glamorous. House cleaning, bartending, carpentry, costumer, clerk in a grocery store, cocktail waitress, house cleaner again, and again, and again. While working these jobs, I occasionally carved out time and finances for a conference. I always got something out of the conferences I attended. I always picked up some new clue to the craft of writing, or some new way of looking at what I did. I made friends and enjoyed being around other writers. But attending conferences can be an expensive proposition, time wise and money wise, and I wasn’t able to do it often.

So, I was more than a little alarmed when I heard some advice being dispensed to young writers to attend lots of conferences and list these when submitting a piece for publication or to an agent as proof of seriousness about writing. Attending conferences is a wonderful thing to do, but it proves nothing except that you have somehow found the time and resources to attend a conference.

I suppose we’ve got to face the fact that agents and publishers are bombarded with manuscripts from writers of every ilk, every day. They are most likely searching for some simple way to winnow the pile. Who can blame them? Just as editors will dismiss a manuscript for a misspelled word, agents and publishers may well look at a fat list of conferences and veiw it as proof of seriousness compared to the resume of a person who, for whatever reasons (money, time, children, illness in the family) has not been able to attend conferences. This is a sad thing. Work done outside of the publishing world and the academic world can only enrich a piece of writing.

I once taught a workshop in a private high-school, in which a student spoke of spending his summer writing his novel and gaining money that way, or working at McDonald’s and gaining money that way. Never mind that he most likely would not have sold that novel, and never mind that the writing of a novel would have been good for him. I advised him to work at McDonald’s. “You need the experience,” I told him.

It’s understandable that listing one’s scrappy jobs (I left out milker on a dairy farm, assistant drum maker, and telephone surveyer) is no way to endear yourself to a publisher or agent, and yet, I value my scrappy jobs as experiences that have helped me a great deal with my writing, with getting a scene right, or stepping into the mind of a character. I also value these experiences as helping to make me a kinder person, because I know what it is to stand on my feet eight hours a day. I know how small-minded some bosses can be. I know what it’s like to get kicked by a cow and smacked with its shit-encrusted tail. And I wanted the young student writer in the private high school to know a little more about these things too. It’s not a bad thing to understand that people who do blue-collar work are no less intelligent than people who don’t.

The student was good-natured about it. He said he hadn’t thought about needing experience. I applaud him for that, but I don’t know which he chose to do, or if he did either. I still stand by the advice, though. We all need to know something about the world before we can write about it. We need to know about people other than the folks we are thrown with at birth. To me, this reaching out to the world that surrounds us, the non-writing world, is proof of curiosity and an open mind, and both are needed for writing, and both are proof of seriousness.

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6 Responses to Proof of Seriousness?

  1. Julie says:

    I have also had a variety of jobs, but they were mostly white collar. The experience that enriched me the most was volunteering at Duke Cancer Support Center. I met people from all walks of life: retired CEOs, farmers from Eastern NC, a black female pastor, a little boy from Mexico. They jolted me out of my college-educated, middle class complacency and taught me to see them as individuals.

  2. Anne says:

    So, I read a compelling short story this morning & wanted to learn more about the author so I went to her website to read the ‘About’ section. Here’s what it said: “My name is Kelly Barnhill, and I write books. I am a former teacher, former bartender, former waitress, former activist, former park ranger, former secretary, former janitor and former church-guitar-player. The sum of these experiences have prepared me for exactly nothing – save for the telling of stories, which I have been doing quite happily for some time now.” I think she’s proof of your post this morning!!

  3. I agree, I don’t think attending conferences should be relevant to editors. Maybe on an artist’s statement if one is applying for a grant or a residency; I suppose that is proof of seriousness, but other things are, too.

    • Nancy says:

      I know too many people who are working hard and well on their writing, but can’t afford conferences. And I know people who attend lots of conferences, money be damned, but have difficulty with the daily practice of it.

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