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. Have I mentioned house cleaning? I held that job off and on for fifteen years.
While working these jobs, I occasionally carved out time and finances to attend a writer’s conference. I always got something out of the conferences. 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. It takes time away from earning an income, and it takes money to attend. I wasn’t able to do it often.
Recently I was 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. The purpose of this was to prove to an agent or publisher that one is serious about writing.
Attending conferences is a wonderful thing to do, but frankly it proves nothing except that you have somehow found the time and resources to attend a conference. To gauge a list of conferences as proof of seriousness about writing is simply to value writers with money over writers without money. I’m not sure agents or a publishers actually use that gauge. Somehow I doubt it. I imagine agents and publishers gauge a writer’s proof of seriousness by their writing, and their willingness to work.
But perhaps I’m wrong.
Agents and publishers are bombarded every day with manuscripts from writers of every ilk. There are some who could be searching for a simple way to winnow the pile. Perhaps there are one or two (or more) who find a list of conferences attached to a manuscript as reason to read on, and a manuscript lacking such a list as a reason to not read on.
If so, this is a sad thing for literature. Work done outside of the publishing world and the academic world can only enrich a piece of writing.
Listing one’s crappy jobs (in my own list I left out milker on a dairy farm, assistant drum maker, and telephone surveyer) is probably no way to endear yourself to a publisher or agent. Yet, I value my crappy jobs as experiences that have helped me a great deal with my writing, with getting a scene right, or stepping into the mind and body of a character. 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. I can write about these things. The back aches, the frustrations, the quickness developed when that mean cow is in your stall. These things are not trivial. They’re important to fiction.
And they’re important to the world too. I stand by my belief that people who do blue-collar work are no less intelligent than people who don’t. This also helps with writing fiction. A basic respect for all people means a basic respect for all characters.
Writing benefits from engagement with the world. Travel is good, and like the writer’s conferences, it’s highly recommended as a way to expand one’s mind. But work can also expand one’s mind. Besides it being a way to pay our bills, it can also be a way to reach out to the world that surrounds us. And reaching out to the world that surrounds us, the non-writing world, is proof of seriousness. In my book, so to speak.