A couple of weeks ago I went over to a neighborhood park where a handful of homeless folks hang out. As I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve recognized many come and go, but some are neighbors in the truest sense of the word. Many have ambitions and plans and even hope for whatever comes next.
One woman’s personality burst through the normal routine with enthusiasm. Soon she was grilling me about why I spent my lunch with them, who were my family and eventually what I did for a living.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Me too!” she said. “Well, I want to be anyway.”
“That’s what it takes, the desire,” I said, seeing she had plenty of that.
“I’ve started my memoir,” she said.
She even had a name picked out, Cry Baby, Cry. It’s a good name, I thought.
“Wanna help me out,” she asked? “I’m on Facebook and all that.”
“You have email?” I asked.
She had to have been a regular down at the library. I love libraries for exactly this and a hundred other reasons.
“Of course, man,” she said.
I handed her my card.
“Email me the first few pages,” I said, an offer I’ve made to countless people in countless difference situations.
Writers, I have found, are everywhere. Writers wanting help, any help, are everywhere too. Whenever I offer to read their words — their art — it is almost magical. Some feel energized, others bashful, some worried, and a host of other things. I’ve always felt it an honor to share their words on a page.
“Alright then,” she said. “Fuck it. Let’s make a million dollars. It’s a good book.”
“A million dollars sounds good,” I said.
Why not, I thought on my way home, with just a mild sense of trepidation that my volunteering could open up a whole host of complications I’m not sure I wanted.
Turns out I haven’t heard from her yet. Like many, many budding authors I run into, desire and enthusiasm are often high, but the follow-through can be quicksand.
I’m reminded of another guy who asked me to read some chapters when I was in rehab. I said sure. He told me his plan for his novel. He had big plans. He asked me to offer advice to help him accomplish those plans.
A few days later he brought me more than 100 pages. I sighed. I didn’t have time to read 100 first draft pages, much less give serious editing and coaching tips. But I had said I would. I was learning service had a lot to do with sobriety. I dug in.
It wasn’t terrible. I could tell he’d read a lot of John Grisham and wanted to write like him. My first advice on the page was crucial: Find your voice, I wrote.
I had only planned on reading about ten pages. Soon I had read it all, complete with red line ideas and a laundry list of things to do. It wasn’t that the book was so compelling. Rather it was selfish. The work for me was compelling. I had missed it.
I treated him like the pro he aspired to be, telling him in clear instructions the work he had to put in. I recall one of them distinctly: “Take Chapter two and tear it up,” I wrote. “You lost your focus entirely and your writing shows it. Jump to Chapter 3 and then refocus the organization.”
The bad news was chapter two was bad. The good news was chapter three showed promise. He had a bunch of stuff to go on. The work could progress. I gave it all back to him and even offered to spend some time over a cup of coffee explaining any of my comments.
I learned later he lost interest in the project. I retraced my steps. Was I too harsh? As an editor in a newsroom I didn’t learn manners. And I know I can be a bit of a diva when I’m working. The last thing I wanted to do was crush a writer’s spirits.
But after a time of critical self-evaluation I realized this man was like so many writers: Full of desire to “be a writer,” but short on the trudging work necessary to become one.
I’ve never stopped helping writers try to discover their art. Recently a book proposal I helped an author finish snagged the first agent he approached. I am not sure if I was more thrilled than he was when a short while later his book sold to a publisher. His agent wants to help him craft a plan for his next books. He’s on his way. I played a very, very small role, but I wouldn’t have missed his “I’m an EFFin Artist, man!” moment for the world.
Yes, I’m a writer. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be and I’m blessed to be one of those people who make their living banging words onto a page. But I’ve realized that I am also a coach, and even more so a cheerleader. I love to spur on others to find their voice and tell their story in whatever fashion it may be.
That’s really what EffinArtist is all about anyway.