For two weeks each June at a beautiful mansion in downtown Denver, Lighthouse Writers Workshop explodes with literature (quick plug: check out Lighthousewriters.org). First-time and award-winning writers gather for fourteen straight days of literary salons, readings, seminars, workshops, agent meetings, and sometimes, just sometimes, the night ends with a dance party.
On a Thursday night, I listened to a poet read his newest stuff. Before he read, like at all readings, he was introduced and all his literary accolades listed off. The Poet has published two books of poetry, earned a doctorate, was the editor of a literary magazine, and teachers at a university. Legit.
However, the very next day, I – a lowly volunteer – sat at the main door, checking-in writers that scheduled an appointment with a literary agent (for those who’ve never been to a conference, these appointments allow writers to put their work in front of literary agents and editors in hopes of getting represented or published. It’s also a way for agents to make a quick buck while keeping an eye out for new talent). The first two writers I checked in were typical, unpublished conference-goers looking to take a shot with their manuscripts. Then, to my surprise, I checked-in the Poet from the night before. It’s a closed-door meeting, so I don’t know how the Poet’s agent consultation went. Still, it struck me that a man with a remarkably impressive resume and skills still lined up for a literary agent like any other amateur.
We all know that expectations can be wrong and assumptions are bad. But this experience made me question something a little deeper: WHY do I expect certain things? Why did I expect a published writer to be sitting pretty, as if after a single success all other success came easy?
I kept this thought in the back of my mind, and over a few weeks I saw so many indicators that the “professionals” or the “famous” still went through the same rigmaroles as everyone else. We know that professional athletes drill and drill and drill and then finally play in a game. We know that famous actors run take after take after take before getting the shot that works. In the movie The Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld tries brand new stand-up material for a live audience and is NOT funny. Marc Maron has shared similar experiences in his podcast WTF). In the documentary That Guy Who Was in That Thing (ditto That Gal Who Was in That Thing), recognizable actors discuss the difficulty in auditioning for the next job after finishing a major role. Museums still exhibit Van Gogh’s drafts – yes, his drafts. He painted several versions of his master works before he “got it right.” A friend of mine – a guy who loved Ernest Hemingway enough to dedicate his graduate thesis to the author – read Hemingway’s first drafts and said they were terrible. Everywhere I seem to look now, professionals are just the amateurs that keep at it until they get it right. Yes, they have talent and education and experience – but their name goes on the list with everyone else who signs up.
Back to Lighthouse: Before a reading the next night, I was eating dinner and talking to a woman who bragged of her friend as a remarkably talented writer – I mean really bragging (and yes, her friend was with us at the table). Someone asked the bragged-about writer, “Where can I read your work?” and then it came out that the woman never published anything (not even a mere blog like this one). From her friend's bragging, I expected the woman to be a published author, a successful writer, a professional to whom the muse came easily and publication was a quick cover letter away. But the presentation of success didn’t actually mean success.
I guess that’s just the crazy thing about writers: the public really only knows the most famous-of-famous writers (and unfortunately most of the famous writers are not the best writers). And perhaps the famous-of-famous don’t have to work too hard to get their work done. But it’s foolish for anyone – amateur or professional alike – to expect the work of writing to be any easier on a professional than on an amateur. Don’t write with hopes and dreams that you’ll be famous. Because even if you do reach some level of success, more blank pages still await.
Professional or amateur. Famous or anonymous. Brand new or old hand. If you’re writing because you truly love writing, what’s the difference?