I don’t really attend writers conferences anymore, because it’s much more comfortable to stay home in my cozy attic office editing the books of the coolest writers on the entire planet—but I have attended a few.
And I want to tell you a story today about something that happened once at a writers conference:
Step #1: Saying what you shouldn’t
This was a number of years ago, before I became an independent editor. We were in a workshop led by the very popular creative writing teacher at the local community college. This teacher was at the board doodling graphs and calling out for contributions and scribbling them down as fast as she could, and it was all quite exciting and loud and creative. Everyone was thrilled, and the energy ran high.
Then things calmed down while we all thought about what we’d created together.
And after a few minutes a small, shy woman directly in front of me raised her hand.
“I have a question,” she said tentatively. “I’ve written a novel that was published and even favorably received, and I’m working on my second now. But it’s not coming along so well. In fact, I’m kind of paralyzed. What if I only had that one good book in me? What if I’ve lost it?”
There was some murmuring, and the teacher said brightly and with great confidence, “Oh, don’t let it get you down. I’m sure you’re fine!”
A woman in the back cried loudly, “I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend, but you haven’t lost it. You’re a great writer!”
The other attendees chimed in with their encouragement and positive opinions and exhortations to ignore her anxieties. . .And the woman tried very hard to smile and accept their diagnosis. But I was close enough to see the fear growing in her eyes.
So I turned to her.
“You know,” I said, “maybe you have. Maybe you have lost it. It’s probably wherever mine is.”
The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.
Step #2: Facing what you haven’t
“I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the woman in the back aggressively after a minute. “How can you tell her she’s lost it? You don’t even know her. She’s my friend!”
“Victoria, don’t you mean maybe she’s lost her confidence?” said the teacher helpfully. “Not that she’s lost her talent?”
“No, I mean her talent,” I said. “I mean maybe it’s gone. Maybe she can’t rely on it anymore.”
I looked around, and the entire hostile room looked back at me.
“Isn’t that our big fear?” I said. “The terrible shadow under which we work all day long every day, year in and year out? That we’re relying on a talent that could go away—that one day we’ll wake up and we’ll have lost it?”
The woman was looking at me as though I were her lifeline.
Step #3: Doing what you can’t
I turned back to her.
“So we keep on working without it. Whether we’ve lost it or not. We just keep writing. . .because we’re writers.”
Yeah, that was kind of the end of that particular class. The teacher wouldn’t smile at me as I walked out.
However, that woman came up to me in the parking lot later and flagged me down.
“I want to thank you,” she said, “for what you said in there. I feel so much better now. Nobody else seemed to get it. I’ve been really frightened.”
“I know,” I said, and we held hands for just a second. “This work can be really frightening.”