I met Connie several years ago at a writers’ conference in Greensboro, NC. Like me, she had come alone. Like me, she didn’t know anyone else there. Like me, she worked in public education, and like me she was married and a mother of grown boys. And we both wanted to learn more about writing and the marketing of our attempts.
That day, she and I met first over lunch and then sat next to each other at the afternoon sessions and then we walked out to the parking lot at the end of the day and found out that we both hailed from the same North Carolina county, an hour’s drive away from this conference. As we talked more, more coincidences accrued. We exchanged phone numbers and planned to meet again.
Often, one can find a pal for the day, a comrade in arms, a fellow trekker on a journey. But despite good intentions, the fellowship is short-lived and before long, one’s lost the business card or slip of paper with name and number of the newfound friend, and then after a while even the memory of the acquaintance is gone. Not so with Connie. She followed up. We got together for coffee. Again, we clicked as we discussed our writing goals. And we made plans for our next rendezvous to discuss penning essays, memoirs, inspirational stories. Soon, we were getting up with each other every month or so and discussing our kids, our elderly parents, our careers, our goals, our travels, our philosophies, our insights.
The friendship grew.
I never really try that much to make friends anymore the way I did when I was young or when my kids were young. But sometimes it is meant to be when you find someone you click with. Connie is such a person. You can’t help but like her.
She is conscientious, responsible, adventurous, humorous, caring… well, the list goes on. And, she is determined to publish her memoir.
If you, like me, write and seek to have a byline, make friends with others who also have that ambition. Hitch your wagon to a like-minded star. Sometimes, one’s drive dwindles; sometimes a person simply feels that she can’t break through; sometimes one tires of a passion. And in those cases, it is good to have a buddy who is unflagging in her desire to achieve a desired result. Take inspiration from her.
So no matter how jaded you might become about writers’ conferences, workshops, or gatherings, remember that every one of these assemblages is a chance to meet a writing buddy, a fellow aficionada, a soulmate with whom you have a great deal in common--you both write!
I run into budding writers every now and again. Occasionally, foolishly, I try to offer advice. More often than not, my assistance is accepted with a polite nod, then filed away where the sun don't shine. I sigh. But I don't let it bother me anymore. I was a young writer once. Too stupid to know how stupid I was. Truthfully, I still consider myself a young writer. So much evolving to do, and so much time wasted.
At first, I didn't know if I wanted to be the next Bob Dylan or the next Mark Twain. I haven't come close to knocking on either's door. But they both continue to inhabit my heartfelt, if humble impersonations.
I wish hopeful writers would take more care in choosing their heroes . . . and their mileposts. Sure, a stint on the New York Times Bestsellers List will put a glint in any author's eye--not to mention a sizeable lump in his or her wallet. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against popularity, or profit. I'm all for 'successful' writers. As long as their successes and their skills balance the scales.
By my reckoning, 'successful writers' and 'good writers' don't always show up at the same shindigs.
Now, before you go getting your tail quills all up in a dander, let me make it clear that I'm not suggesting 'successful writers' can't be 'good writers', or vice versa. All I'm pointing out is, some 'successful' writers are less good, and some 'good' writers are less successful. If you feel compelled to argue with that, well, I expect you'd try to argue the tree bark back onto a fence post, too. Good luck with that.
For authors, the road to success isn't universally defined. To some, success is a multi-book publishing contract and a movie deal. No harm in that, is there? But to other writers, success is simply one perfectly crafted sentence, a single thought-jangling paragraph, or an unusually well-articulated idea. Not as flashy as a stroll down the red carpet, maybe, but to many of us, more than enough.
Please don't think I disparage wealth and greed. My bank account constantly reminds me I have no margin for disparagement. Comes down to it, I barely have margin for toilet paper. But that's another mess.
All I'm trying say is that writing is a business to some, and an art to others. In rare instances, the business and the art can coexist. Mark Twain and Bob Dylan jump to mind, but I can point to very few more recent examples who will stand the test of time.
I think most budding readers would do well to assess their heroes and their priorities. If wealth and fame are your goals, write Barnes & Noble. If art is your aspiration, write Pulitzer and Nobel. If you can't make up your mind? Well, you may as well join the rest of us.
I read for the thrill of finding what's around the next corner. Truth is, that's why I write, too. But I wouldn't say 'no' to a movie deal, either.
I know Brian Jabas Smith from his time as the lead singer of the Beat Angels. The Beat Angels started playing gigs in Phoenix, Arizona around 1994, roughly the same time my band the Refreshments started to do the same in the close Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Tempe's music scene had given birth to the Gin Blossoms, whose single “Hey Jealousy” was being played nationally on the radio. At the time, there was talk about which Valley band would become the “next Gin Blossoms.” I believed in my band, but then there were the Beat Angels, whose differences from us made me take pause. They were punk in a classic sense, wearing black jackets, scarves, boots, and motorcycle sunglasses. They had unkempt hair that reminded me of Mötley Crüe but that I would soon learn was more reminiscent the New York Dolls. My band wore Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy hats. In short, the Beat Angels were visibly a part of some darker aspect of rock and roll that my band appeared only to be marginally a part of. I doubt any Refreshment could've hummed a New York Dolls song.
In the over 20 years since Smith and I frequented the Tempe music scene, I've read and written a great deal about rock musicians, which means I've read and written a great deal about addicts. Smith's first collection of short stories Spent Saints spans the adolescence and adulthood of one such addict, Julian, who while traversing various interests and professions is also in constant search of his next high.
An addictive personality settles in during Julian's teen years, when he competitively races street bicycles and learns to love the rush. In “Grand Prix,” Julian aspires to rise to the top of the field, hoping such an ascension removes some of the barriers he senses in life but can't quite identify. Smith writes during Julian's trip to Los Angeles for a race:
The Pacific Ocean was a few blocks west and visible over barricades, and its cool brackish breeze only reinforced his unease that Southern California was wholly disinviting in its beauty and impossible to roll into and take part of. Nothing about the coastline calmed.
The best Julian can hope for from the race is victory, which only leads to another race. His quest to find solace becomes the far more difficult task.
Unfortunately for Julian, he's not naturally drawn to activities with more accessible paths to inner peace, preferring those with high ceilings for glory. From this angle, rock and roll soon proves irresistible, and it also serves as a handy replacement for the adrenaline of racing. Smith writes in the collection's title story:
The biggest self-centered pieces of shit are always found in the arts, especially in the performance kind. But all of that wanes when everything is on, and in that extraordinary instance, fronting a great rock & roll band is better than anything. Makes living the day-to-day pretty damn hard.
Julian is learning why they call it a high, and the drugs and alcohol that come part and parcel with band life offer new, easier ways to escape, not to mention something to do when no crowd is watching.
It isn't long before Julian needs his chemical bump more than anything else. While working as a journalist in Phoenix, he finds himself on the front line of a daily battle to get straight, which leads to alternating additions to alcohol and meth. Smith offers the reader a visceral peek into Julian's speed freak experiences in “The Delivery Man”:
Each snorted line seers the thin skin and cartilage of your nasal septum and you instantly taste the slag and toilet cleaner, or whatever it is, drip down in your throat, but it's somehow less noxious than with a pipe or a needle, so you actually feel like you'll live a little longer, even though you don't want to.
The contradiction of wanting to die while also sensing his capacity for redemption is central to Julian's angst, each trip into the drug underworld both necessary and repellent, boxing him further into his loneliness.
It isn't until Julian settles into a writing job in Detroit that he finds a way out, but even journeys to sobriety come with their demons. Smith writes of Julian's withdrawal symptoms in “The Old Ladies in Church Hats”:
By midnight it felt as though I'd been trapped in the precise moment when two cars collide, and the moment repeated over and over. That's the best way to describe it. All skidding tires, screams, shattering glass and burning bodies and it's never going to end. Somehow I understood on a distant intellectual level that I was actually in a bed in Detroit kicking booze, but the terror of that interior loop- of-death was absolutely real.
The horrors gang up on Julian, but soon he starts hearing other voices that don't lead to some new form of hell.
Smith and I have corresponded a few times and have met once since 1994. We always talk about writing, which vexes us both. Smith wrote in one exchange, “Sometimes it feels like this fiction stuff I'm doing is going to kill me.” I've dedicated much of my post-rock life to writing novels, but the process—maddening as it is—never feels like it's going to kill me. Sometimes I feel like I've escaped what Julian goes through in Spent Saints only by the skin of my teeth. Other times I feel like I was never close. As evidenced in Smith's stories, which sparkle with frankness and hard-won beauty, there's no doubt which of us has been there and back.
Spent Saints. Written by Brian Jabas Smith. Roseville, MI: Ridgeway Press, August, 2017. 241 pp. $15.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-56439-008-0.
I attend writers’ conferences. From each one, I glean information. On the other hand, after indulging in my “composing” habit for the past eight years, I feel I know everything they’re about to tell me. Nonetheless, I understand I should avoid this type of “stinking thinking,” where I believe I’m safe tuning out a lot of the instructors’ helpful hints. Becoming jaded is never a good thing.
Yet , if I listen to one more lecturer advise us conferees to strike out words ending in-ly (adverbs) and to delete almost all adjectives; to use strong, active verbs; to eliminate all platitudes and overdone words; to read our creations aloud; to proofread repeatedly; to understand POV and not sin by head-hopping; to create conflict; to strike out tags other than “he said/she said;” to employ “beats” in lieu of descriptive exposition; to keep a journal; and most importantly to attend writers’ conferences, I’m going to turn into the guy in Edvard Munch’s painting. You know the one? The Norwegian guy on the bridge? With mouth wide open and ears covered, I’m going to let out my primordial howl. Perhaps, he, like me, is screaming: “For Gawd’s Sake, I know all this!”
Because I am morphing into a know- it-all about many aspects of the craft, I tend lately to seek out classes on marketing and publishing. Listening to the importance bestowed on maintaining a blog, a website, a newsletter, a Facebook presence, a twitter account et al, ad nauseum, my eyes glaze over the same as the narrator’s in Walt Whitman’s poem When I Heard the Learned Astronomer Speak. These days, I meander to the lecturers who preach about cover letters, queries, proposals, contracts, self-publishing, elevator pitches, back cover blurbs, agents, and the importance of handing out business cards to everyone and anyone you meet at said conference. And my inner voice yelps: “But, I don’t want to smooze!”
Although writing conferences may ignite a spark in a newbie wordsmith and maybe refresh a seasoned, cynical scribbler, they can also drain and depress a soul. Many teachers are frank and dismal about one’s chances of snaring an agent--the elusive butterfly—no matter how many times a person eagerly recites and perfects her elevator pitch.
Writer conferences are a swift kick in the pants to get out and market, but they can overwhelm a new writer and weary an old one. Though meant to encourage those folks dreaming of a byline, they can also dishearten folks when they discover how long some of their fellow conferees have been plying away at their craft, dutifully attending workshops and conferences, are set up with social media and still remain sans a byline.
My advice? Plug along at your own pace. Occasionally, leave your comfort zone to sign up for a conference. Don’t go expecting you’ll come away with a contract on the book proposal you submitted. Hopes will be dashed.
Learn a little. Cultivate a couple of new acquaintances. Do enjoy the respite from your daily grind. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! And it’s ok to ignore, occasionally, some of the edicts the writing sages dole out unabashedly, like the ones about clichés and adverbs and exclamation marks! Break a few eggs.