For years I wrote while holding down some sort of job that had nothing to do with writing. The jobs were not glamorous. House cleaning, bartending, carpentry, costumer, clerk in a grocery store, cocktail waitress, house cleaner again, and again, and again. While working these jobs, I occasionally carved out time and finances for a conference. I always got something out of the conferences I attended. I always picked up some new clue to the craft of writing, or some new way of looking at what I did. I made friends and enjoyed being around other writers. But attending conferences can be an expensive proposition, time wise and money wise, and I wasn’t able to do it often.
So, I was more than a little alarmed when I heard some advice being dispensed to young writers to attend lots of conferences and list these when submitting a piece for publication or to an agent as proof of seriousness about writing. Attending conferences is a wonderful thing to do, but it proves nothing except that you have somehow found the time and resources to attend a conference.
I suppose we’ve got to face the fact that agents and publishers are bombarded with manuscripts from writers of every ilk, every day. They are most likely searching for some simple way to winnow the pile. Who can blame them? Just as editors will dismiss a manuscript for a misspelled word, agents and publishers may well look at a fat list of conferences and veiw it as proof of seriousness compared to the resume of a person who, for whatever reasons (money, time, children, illness in the family) has not been able to attend conferences. This is a sad thing. Work done outside of the publishing world and the academic world can only enrich a piece of writing.
I once taught a workshop in a private high-school, in which a student spoke of spending his summer writing his novel and gaining money that way, or working at McDonald’s and gaining money that way. Never mind that he most likely would not have sold that novel, and never mind that the writing of a novel would have been good for him. I advised him to work at McDonald’s. “You need the experience,” I told him.
It’s understandable that listing one’s scrappy jobs (I left out milker on a dairy farm, assistant drum maker, and telephone surveyer) is no way to endear yourself to a publisher or agent, and yet, I value my scrappy jobs as experiences that have helped me a great deal with my writing, with getting a scene right, or stepping into the mind of a character. I also value these experiences as helping to make me a kinder person, because I know what it is to stand on my feet eight hours a day. I know how small-minded some bosses can be. I know what it’s like to get kicked by a cow and smacked with its shit-encrusted tail. And I wanted the young student writer in the private high school to know a little more about these things too. It’s not a bad thing to understand that people who do blue-collar work are no less intelligent than people who don’t.
The student was good-natured about it. He said he hadn’t thought about needing experience. I applaud him for that, but I don’t know which he chose to do, or if he did either. I still stand by the advice, though. We all need to know something about the world before we can write about it. We need to know about people other than the folks we are thrown with at birth. To me, this reaching out to the world that surrounds us, the non-writing world, is proof of curiosity and an open mind, and both are needed for writing, and both are proof of seriousness.