In her speech at Book Expo America (BEA) last week, Divergent superauthor Veronica Roth talked about her experiences as a reader and a writer. Like many of us who love writing as adults, she loved reading as a child, though she confessed to going through a phase of not reading at all. As she put it, “I lost my love of reading at the same moment I started to say, ‘I already know’ instead of ‘I’m here to learn.'”
As authors, she says, we need to be conscious of that tendency in ourselves, and fight against it. We all have something to learn, no matter where we are in our respective journeys as writers. Instead of thinking we know everything, we should focus on adopting an attitude of humility, and looking for opportunities to learn, from anyone and in any way.
(You can read the full transcript here.)
Her message resonated deeply enough with me that I wanted to bring it to all of you. Because I love the amazing interactivity of online writing communities, and I’m an active participant in as many of them as I have time for, but they can also have a dark side. If you’ve had a long journey as a writer and someone else is still early on in their journey, you might position yourself as an expert. And on some level, you are. It’s reasonable — more than reasonable — to give advice that can help someone else make his or her way forward. To help people figure out how to search for agents or write query letters. To share fruitful ways of giving or accepting critique. To explain which self-publishing strategies have been most productive for you and your books. The community of writers is one of the best things about writing, and if no one were generous enough to share things we’ve learned along the way, the writing world would be a poorer place for it.
But be careful of portraying your way as the only way. We all have different journeys, different paths, forward. Writing a perfect imitation of a Dan Brown novel won’t make you the next Dan Brown; following any single example of an author’s journey too closely doesn’t net you the same results that writer netted. This is why, for example, MFA programs are neither essential nor useless. Like anything else in writing, they can be a huge help to some, a terrible misstep for others, and completely irrelevant to many. People on the internet can be passionate and absolute in their viewpoints, but vehemence isn’t authority. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. There’s no single right answer for everyone.
And be careful, as Roth says, of thinking you have no more to learn. Humility is a powerful tool for us throughout our writing journeys. We can learn from anyone at any time, whether that person is a professional like an agent or editor, or any other published or unpublished writer, or even someone we have no personal contact with but only know by reading their work. “And the thing is,” she says, “when you adopt that attitude, ‘I’m here to learn,’ the world becomes a fascinating, beautiful place.”
Be here to learn. Watch things open up when you do.