Two weeks ago I dropped my daughter off at NYU. Going from a small high school in Massachusetts to a university with a worldwide enrollment of 57,000 and a freshman class just shy of 6,000 students, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a huge adjustment. But it’s not the size of the school that’s disconcerting. It’s the feeling that she’s not quite sure she belongs. As I wrote her a letter this morning, I realized her journey into a film career mirrors mine as a writer. And I believe it’s important advice for me to remember everyday, as well as anyone else in a creative field. It ain’t easy, people. But there are two fundamental pieces of advice I gave my daughter that I believe we all should follow.
First, in the big, bad world of anonymity, when you’re lost in the sea of humanity, when you find yourself in a business that feels large and impersonal, it’s very important we seek out mentors, friends and supporters who will validate our creativity, help us feel welcome, help us to trust our instincts, help us make good choices personally and professionally. The ironic piece of this is that we must step out of our comfort zone in order to step into our comfort zone. We have to knock on doors, attend workshops and socials where we know no one, introduce ourselves over and over until we find those three or five or fifty people who will be our professional family going forward.
When I first set off into the publishing world, it was big and scary and I didn't know where to begin. I didn't know how to meet people, how to get started, where to find a critique group, or how to write a synopsis or a cover letter. I began this journey of building a community by attending an awards presentation and schmooze. After getting lost four or five times and circling on one-way streets, I arrived quite late. A bit frazzled and nervous, I dove into the swarm of strangers and proceeded to ask Lois Lowry if she had ever been published. (She had, in case you were wondering.) Having gotten the worst, most humiliating network experience out of the way, things took a turn for the better after that first night. I persisted meeting new people and, consequently, I turned the big, bad world of publishing into a smaller, family community through workshops, socials, SCBWI conferences, author signings and local bookstore events. I've met great people, made lifelong friends, and have found out that most people are just as scared as I am and are looking for friends and community too. As I told my daughter, we’re all looking for community. That’s the human experience, right? We’re all looking for reasons to get up in the morning and go to work. And the people I assumed would be the least approachable are the ones who were most approachable, and they have turned out to be trusted friends and mentors.
The second piece of advice I gave her was to trust her instincts. It’s often the hardest thing to do. We must trust our instincts and never look back. We shouldn’t wish to be more like "X" unless we truly believe being a little more like "X" will make us better writers, better people. Just as she may think she’s supposed to be like another student in class who receives an abundance of praise for a film style that’s not comfortable to her, we writers are often guilty of the same second-guessing. The biggest mistake writers make (and I made it early on) is trying to follow the market or trying to be someone we're not. We hear what publishers are buying and what they're sinking huge marketing dollars in, and we think, "Crap. I don't write that." And then the next logical thought is, "Maybe I should write that instead." And we try to do that, and we fail. We fail because we don't follow our own voices. Not one publisher out there is publishing what I’m currently writing. Not one. And I'm pretty sure if you were to say to them, "Hey, how about a YA novel about XXX?” they'd spit their coffee out all over their desks. But I've never been prouder of something I've written (and I’m sure they just don’t know they’re looking for it yet!). I believe in this manuscript. I believe in the story. I believe in the characters. I believe in my voice. And I will ride this book to the end of my days, until I find the agent, the editor, the publisher who believes in it, too.
My last piece of advice that went along with that is don't ever apologize for being different. Don't ever think that your voice isn't good enough, isn't polished enough, isn’t incorporating fancy words. Your voice, your vision, your perspective on a story (and life) is one of the most important things to trust. Hone it. Listen to it. Never, I repeat NEVER, apologize for it! Let other people do those other things that you think are more glamorous or sophisticated or whatever. You're not that person. You're something different. You're something better.
Good advice, right? Now we have to follow it ourselves. If you haven’t found your community, the people who make your world feel smaller and more tangible, get out there and shake some hands and kiss some babies...you'll find your small comfort zone one hello at a time. And if you’re still questioning your worth, your voice, your instinct, to that I say, STOP. Believe in your voice and don’t look back.
One of my favorite quotes is by Rabbi Zusya and his concern about his first conversation with God after he died. “When I die,” the Rabbi said, “I know God's not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' or 'Why weren't you more like King David?' But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Why weren't you more like Zusya?' And then what will I say?”
Don’t let that be you.