“It’s been a long time, shouldn’ta left you (left you) without a dope beat to step to…”
Humility—aside from the obvious items in your writing tool kit (a knowledge of language, a pen and paper or a word processor, the blinding drive to produce come-what-may) humility is perhaps the one thing that will take you the furthest in your freelance/writing career, and maybe any other career you pursue, for that matter. And when I say “humility” I’m not talking about the fake smile and flattery you put on to get through a dinner party—no, no, no. I mean the real stuff—genuine interest; gratitude without pretext. You know—actually treating people the way you want to be treated; honestly, and with dignity. Like you were important; like your thoughts and opinions had value.
Nothing will put you in your proper place quite like spending a weekend surrounded by people that are smarter and more successful than yourself. Last Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of authors and writers—legitimate ones—descended on my hometown for the sixth annual Tucson Festival of Books—the fourth-largest event in the nation of its kind. And for the bulk of this shindig, your narrator played the part of fly on the literary wall.
The more I talk to (and listen to) published writers, musicians, and other artists of varying levels of fame, dedication, and talent, the more I learn (and have to [reluctantly] accept) that there is no one path to success—no one magic secret to launching myself into those dollar-a-word assignments, fiction contest victories, or whatever else the other freelance “gurus” happen to be hawking at the moment.
Every single professional I have ever spoken with has their own success story, that is to say, their own very unique path by which they were able to make writing their living, and some 95 percent of them (if not more) had to struggle like hell to get there. Aside from that, the only common threads between these stories, at least from what I can see thus far, are 1) persistence; nobody ever got a job they weren’t looking for (except Luis Alberto Urrea, which I will cover in a minute), and 2) likeability; nobody ever got a job from somebody that didn’t like them.
Take these stories of humble beginnings gathered from talks given at the Tucson Festival by two award-winning, best-selling American authors: renowned children’s author Lois Lowry and Latino Literature Hall-of-Famer, Luis Alberto Urrea.
Lois Lowry has written a number of children’s novels that deal with some very adult subject matter, including two Newberry Award winners in The Giver and Number the Stars, though she never set out to be a children’s author. In fact, Lois’ journey toward her status as a legend of young adult literature began with an essay she had written for an adult audience titled “Crow Call”, which had been published in a magazine somewhere in the 70s, the name of which I forgot to write down. At any rate, the Lois Lowry that I grew up reading and revering came into existence when an editor at Scholastic Press read “Crow Call”, called up Lowry personally, and asked her if she might ever be interested in writing a children’s book. You can fill the rest in yourself with a quick Google search.
One specific writing tip worth mentioning from Lois’ talk: she read all of the opening lines from her Giver quadrilogy—all of which were mesmerizing, not to mention similar in many respects—and said this, “That’s what makes a reader turn the pages; an introduction to a character (age, gender, name, etc.) and an introduction to a part of a problem—something you need to worry about.” That about summed it up, I thought; made my skin tingle a bit just to hear it spoken so succinctly. Oh, and watch for “The Giver” the movie starring Jeff Bridges this August—it’s been 18 years in the making, said Lowry, and promises a few surprises to fans of the book.
Luis Alberto Urrea’s path to literary greatness is equally unlikely and, in my opinion, even more exciting than Lowry’s. Urrea was actually “working the graveyard shift scrubbing public toilets” after finishing graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he one day had the realization that scrubbing toilets at a
University might get him a step closer to becoming a famous writer than scrubbing toilets in public parks, Luis sent a letter to an acquaintance of his that taught writing at Harvard in hopes of getting a good recommendation for a janitor position. Sure, said the friend, he could have his recommendation, so long as he sent three pieces of published writing along with his application. “Harvard is so elite,” Luis had told some of his musician buddies that night, “even the janitors are published poets.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Urrea’s connection at Harvard was actually the second in command of the school’s writing program, and so instead of a job as a janitor, Luis was hired to fill an open position teaching expository writing at the most elite University in the nation soon thereafter. When he got to Boston, he was in a completely different world than his native Tijuana—it was his mother’s world, an America he had never known existed, but one that nonetheless belonged to him in some way. “It was a revelation,” said Luis, “that I was not a border rat—I was an American.” Again, I will leave it to you to fill in the rest of Luis’ story on your own (watch for his 10-year-anniversary rerelease of t
he non-fiction classic Devil’s Highway later this year from Little/Brown).
If you are just starting out as a writer—or even if you’ve been at it for a while and have found yourself in one of those inevitable slumps—remember that there is value in what you do that can never be measured in dollars and cents. You write because you love it; because there is nothing else that you would rather be doing, and because, even if there was something you’d rather be doing, you’d only be doing it so that you could write about it later. A writer is one that writes because they have to; not just because they want to. Because those story ideas pile up on themselves and eventually disappear. Because they can cause headaches when neglected. Because you started carrying a pen and paper everywhere you go “just in case”.
Money, success, any notion of book sales or fame—all of these things can come of being a writer, sure, but they must be entertained as afterthought, if at all. The fact of the matter is that the guy (or gal) that is writing from the heart (that is to say, doing it solely for the love of the art form) quite honestly is going to produce better, more honest—and certainly more heartfelt—work than someone rushing toward their next paycheck. And any editor you query is going knows this all-to-well.
So, make sure and remind yourself from time to time that nearly every writer in history has been there—stuck in a rut, no money, no pending assignments, no support or opportunity to speak of, with nothing but their own words to sooth their aching spirit. But, to paraphrase something Urrea was told by a Native American medicine man when he was at perhaps his lowest point:
When you ask the world to free you of your obligations so that you can focus your energy on your craft, make sure you mean it. If you are sincere in your request, then when the angels come to rid you of your burdens, you will be grateful. If you are insincere, however, the angels that take your possessions, break the bonds of your relationships, cull your distractions even at your request, you will be tempted to call devils.
No matter what you may find yourself doing, do it because you love it. And if you can’t do what you love for a living, do it anyway, whenever and wherever you can. When you stop loving it, stop doing it—regardless, you will one day learn (either the hard way or otherwise) that passion and hard work are the only prerequisites to success. Just make sure and count your blessings along the way. In truth, there is plenty of advice out there to help get you from introduction to conclusion time and time again, but nobody is going to hold your chin up for you.