Friday, December 17, 2010

Retro You-Are-Not-Alone Friday

(Every Friday, that I remember, I post a song from a classic rock band of my youth. Sometimes I include thoughts. Sometimes I’m luck to remember to even post.)

Sunday I was in an airport. Along with Monday, Wednesday, and an hour of Thursday. (I wonder how many blog posts I start with a story that happened in an airport. Way too many would be my guess.) Anyway, I was on a layover in Denver, when I found my gate filled with military personnel. Okay, fine, soldiers.

They were all dressed in their camouflage, and obviously waiting to ship out. Most of you probably don’t know that I did a short stint in the Army Reserves. I didn’t fight in any wars, and the farthest away from home I ever got was basic training in Fort Jackson, SC. But I can still remember the training as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

Seeing that huge group of active military, my first instinct was to move down to sit at a different gate. Not because I don’t like soldiers. Some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met have been in the military. It’s just that it felt like entering a club I wasn’t a part of anymore.

My memories of basic training and skills training after, are so vivid, that I still have dreams about it. Only in my dreams, I find myself back in the military, but I clearly don’t fit in. I am older than the other recruits, I can’t find half of my uniform, I’ve missed my briefing. You know the kind of dream I’m talking about. Whether you’re dreaming about a play where you can’t remember your lines, or a class where you haven’t studied for the big test, you are there, but you aren’t “there.”

My hair is cut short enough that it could be military. I know most of the military speak. I know they are good people. But I wasn’t wearing BDUs and no matter what experiences I’d had, I’d never sat in an airport waiting to be deployed to hostile territory. I didn’t fit in.

I’ve talked to a lot of other writers who feel that way about the author crowd. You attend the same events, you know their names, you’ve read a lot of their books. You’re pretty sure you both turn on the computer the same way and have to go back and delete extra adverbs the same way. But when you are around a lot of them, you don’t know if you really fit in.

In fact, you’re not even sure if you should call yourself a writer at all. Doesn’t calling yourself that imply certain things? Like that you’re a “good” writer, or a “published” writer or a writer any of them might ever have heard of. You can get yourself so worked up about not being a part of the group, that you actually convince yourself they are probably all snobs who look down on you, and that you really don’t belong.

But here’s a secret that I suspect you already know deep down inside. Almost no one looks down on newbies, because we’ve all been there. And nearly every writer finds himself or herself intimidated at one time or another. Think about any group you’ve been a part of for a long time and you’ll realize I am right. The regulars know each other. They have inside jokes. They’ve been through a lot of the same ups and downs. They know what a newcomer still has to go through. But except for the people who are jerks no matter what situation they are in, the group usually welcomes new members with open arms.

I was part of a recent library event where Scott Westerfeld was the keynote speaker. You know the bestselling Scott Westerfeld who wrote Uglies, Midnighters, Leviathan, and a ton of other great series? Yeah, I was intimidated. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was on a fantasy panel with the other two authors being NYT bestsellers. See how comfortable you are speaking up in that situation.

But you know what? Every one of them was as nice as could be. And it turned out I actually did have some things I could add to the conversation without looking like a total dweeb. So here’s a little advice for the next time you start to feel like you don’t fit in.

Any specialized group tends to use a lot of terms ordinary people might find unfamiliar. In the military it might be MRI, MRE, BDU, or SOP. With writers it might be infodump, head-hopping, POV, or character arc. These aren’t designed to keep you in the dark, they are just terms that we use so much we forget other people might not understand them. If you hear something you don’t know either ask someone or Google it. Stick around long enough and you’ll be using them too.

If you spend enough time doing any one thing, you start to know people in the industry. It’s not that we are all part of a secret society you aren’t a part of. We’ve just been to a lot of the same events, met a lot of the same people, and are members of a lot of the same e-mail lists, or users groups, or whatever. My dad knows a ton of people I’ve never met that all do Geocaching like he does. Are some writers snobs? I think you know the answer to that. The same way as if I asked you whether some people in your neighborhood or church or school are snobs. The best way to get to know everyone and start learning the inside jokes, and cool gossip, is to go meet people. If someone is a jerk to you, just ignore them and move on. You’ll probably discover down the road that everyone knows that person is a jerk and doesn’t really like him anyway.

There is no official definition of a writer. Any more than there is an official definition of a soldier. If you are in your first day of boot camp, you can call yourself a soldier. If you write, you can call yourself a writer. There will always be someone who knows more than you do, has sold more books than you have, and uses bigger words than you. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to anyone else.

That being said, it’s probably not a great idea for a brand new private to start telling a four star general how to do his job. As a new writer at a new event, you should probably spend less time talking and more time listening. That doesn’t mean don’t socialize. And it definitely doesn’t mean not to ask questions. Spend lots of time talking to other writers. Ask for all the advice you can get. But before you start spouting off about what a terrible writer you think so-and-so is, it might be wise to discover so-and-so’s wife is sitting next to you. But be a sponge as much as you can and you’ll be surprised how much you pick up.

Lastly, understand that unless you are the best schmoozer in the world, it will take a little while to fit into any new group. Don’t be scared off by the inside jokes, or the new phrases. Just like when you moved to a new school in third grade, be friendly and play nice, and pretty soon you’ll feel like you’ve been doing this all your life.

And if you discover after sitting with a bunch of soldiers for about fifteen minutes that you are actually at the wrong gate. Just stand up casually, stretch, and stroll toward the right gate like you really do know what you’re doing. 

In honor of not fitting in, here’s one of my favorite 70’s/80’s bands singing the ultimate “I don’t fit in” song.   


The Logical Song by Supertramp


Daron D. Fraley said...

Awesome advice. Thanks Jeff.

Blue said...

Where was this advice when I was in 5th grade? (Well, alright...5th through 12th grades.)