I’ve heard a lot of advice about writing and the road to authordom. I listen to most, ignore a little, and manipulate the rest to suit my needs. But the truest and most helpful piece of advice I’ve ever heard was: surround yourself with the people you most want to be like.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? I want to write and publish books. Therefore, I must surround myself with people who write and publish books. It’s easy in theory but when you spend too much time over-thinking it–like me–it becomes a little more difficult to execute.
I should tell you that this one tiny piece of advice altered my worldview. (I know! Drastic, huh?) But when I finally understood it, I figured out what the difference between wanting to become a writer and becoming a writer meant. It’s kind of like recess in grade school. Wannabes stand on the outskirts and say, “I can do that! He’s doing it wrong. Oh, maybe I can’t do that after all. Maybe I’m not good enough.” But the real deals? Those are the kids that stop watching, stop over-thinking and jump into the mix, take risks, scrape their knees, and make grandiose plans for tomorrow’s recess.
When I realized this, my first thought was, “Where do I find these people?” My second thought was, “Oh, crap. This is going to require me talking to people I don’t know.”
Suddenly, it sounded like the worst advice I’d ever heard.
Why? I hated recess. I was the kid sitting on the wall, alone, mumbling to myself while the other kids picked teams, made alliances, and subsequently turned on each other like rabid dogs during the chaos of an impromptu tether ball tournament organized by an eleven-year-old third grader named Spike. Scary.
Even as an adult I find social interactions stressful, difficult, and (often times) downright terrifying. One on one, I’m almost normal. But get me in a room full of people without a 12-pack of beer and I’m a wreck (and with the 12-pack, I’m a sloppy drunk. It’s a lose-lose situation). Being around people, interacting with them, well, it’s not my first choice of how to spend my day. I’d much rather write, read, or pluck the cat hair out of my living room carpet. Those activities are safe–because there’s no risk of humiliation involved (until you post it in a blog or tweet it, but that’s a subject for another day). These activities require no filters between my brain and my mouth. Therefore, my blood pressure stays nice and low. I acknowledge that this sounds antisocial and completely mad. Well, that’s because it is. But I like it that way. I’m stress-free that way. (Now whether or not it’s good for me psychologically? That’s for a therapist to figure out.)
Bottom line? I’ve been an introvert since birth–it’s true (and somewhat ironic). I was the little loner girl who had imaginary friends (yes, plural) that lived in the many nooks and crannies of the attic, the basement, and backyard. Various gnomes, fairies, unicorns, and a giraffe named Pete kept me company and kept my family in a constant state confusion (especially when I insisted, night after night, that thirty-six extra place settings were required at the dinner table). My imagination has been my best friend these last three-plus decades, and it has never failed me, smacked me in the head and dubbed me the kootie-monster, or knocked over my science fair project whilst laughing maniacally. I embrace my propensity toward introversion and I believe most writers do to some extent. It’s why writers, especially fiction writers, acknowledge the voices of their adult imaginations without fear or a self-misdiagnosis of schizophrenia via Web M.D.
My point? Surrounding myself with the people I most want to be like has been, and continues to be, the most difficult–yet rewarding–step I’ve made as a writer. It means putting myself out there in workshops, conferences, and conversations with people I don’t know. But the thing I didn’t realize before is: these are my people (and they probably also have imaginary friends). These people just happened to realize, before I did, that you don’t get picked for a team if you don’t stand in line. Since then, I’ve made myself get off the wall–even when the bile rises in my throat because I think I’m going to say something stupid and everyone on the playground will think I’m weird and laugh at me–it’s right then that I get in line. And, in line, I get to hear people’s stories who have been on the road to authordom (or in some cases pave the road to authordom) and who have traveled it with success and failure. Their stories make the whole game seem a little less scary. I get to learn from those who know the game. I build friendships with them. And I don’t feel that stab of loneliness when I realize I’ve been talking to a fourteen-foot tall invisible giraffe named Pete.
Don’t misunderstand; people still terrify me. And I still love Pete. But the thing is, on the playground, the kids are playing the same game I want to play–and they’re good at it. And I want to be like them. Why wouldn’t I jump in the middle of it all? The best advice is the advice that puts me on the right playground, with the right kids, and in the right game. And on the playground I hear all the best advice about game rules and improving my skills. And that means I’m one step closer to finally getting picked.