If you ever want to appear in need of unwanted advice, begin something new, quit something, or simply be a woman.
Since leaving academia, I’ve received much unsolicited counsel. Most of it annoys me. Some of it I shrug off. A small portion helps.
When I first admitted my plans, a well-meaning person told me I should wait until I had tenure, because, of course, most aspiring novelists fail. She said she wanted more for me than that I should be a chauffeur for my children.
A man at an event for writers advised me science fiction can’t sell without very explicit hetero sex. When I said I’m not sure that’s true, and even though he didn’t recognize the name Robert Heinlein, he assured me women don’t know sci-fi.
I’m not a good faker so I didn’t take their advice.
Everyone needs guidance at times. Few people can edit their own text with an expert’s eye. I write and rewrite sentences, introducing grammatical errors and typos as I go. I often don’t catch them in my own work. I know what I want to say and how I want to say it. I don’t always see what’s actually on my own page.
The summer before I taught writing for the first time, I met an English professor at an American Antiquarian Society symposium. More than anything, she recommended, avoid coming off as angry when you comment on student papers. If students think you’re angry, she said, they’ll convince themselves their shortcomings are your problem, not theirs.
Although I’m in the long process of quitting teaching, I don’t hate it and I am rather good at it. Her advice was the best I’ve ever received.
I take something different from her words for my own writing. I pay attention to what emotions people express when giving their commentary. I want people to be honest about what my words make them think and how my stories make them feel. Even if I sense that their comments are more about their own interests or concerns in their own life, I try to hear what they’re saying. No one has to read my book. I want to be read, after all.
One reader, when I told her about the guy who said my book needed sex, helped me strengthen and enliven the emotional relationships between certain characters in a way that worked for my story.
Several readers, after someone said my opening dragged, have helped me see how I can introduce a better hook in the story while remaining true to the arc I had planned.
I hope my co-creation will be successful.
To return to my critic with the largest concern, I can hear her worry about my becoming “just” a chauffeur as well. It’s no fun when people make judgments you don’t need to hear, especially when you’ve already thought of them yourself anyway. I’m perfectly competent at tearing myself down without help.
While my kids are awesome and significant, I need to do more for myself than parent them to feel like a worthwhile person. But I have done more with my life than drive Hoot and Wise around for the past three years. I don’t have to go further than a few blocks from my house to see that. I’m also fortunate enough to be in touch with several of my amazing former students. I might not have a concrete accomplishment with recognized market value and social capital like tenure or a full-time position, but I’m getting there. I’m working on it, every day.