Professional Muses & Mentors in Creative Writing
"One experience pretty common to many so-called upwardly mobile people in the early stages of their careers is that of being, in fact, something rather like a courtier. You attach yourself to people more powerful than you in your field or business, you assist them in often menial, sometimes substantive ways, and your own career and livelihood come to depend, to an extent, on your ability to buoy their egos and provide them with sympathetic and attentive company into which they can retreat from the “combat” of their high-powered jobs.
This is ubiquitous, as far I can tell, and I’m not knocking it. It makes reasonable sense. The evolution of today’s “courtier,” however, seems to me to parallel the rise of therapeutic culture [...] personal trainers and paid companions, stylists and hygienists, formalized mentor-mentee pairings and widespread calming practices (yoga, meditation, jogging—that exquisite torture), which are surely responses to the psychological degradation of ambitious urban work lives. [...] but therapy of any sort strikes me as the mediation of a schism between private, interior life and public, social life—how we want to feel and how the world makes us feel. Treating the symptoms always runs the risk of letting the deeper causes to go unaddressed." -Greg Jackson
Q: How often do you find yourself acting as counsel, coach or confidant (formally or informally) to people in a position to further your career in some way? How do you manage strategically "leveling-up" while remaining sincere in your human relationships?
Or, alternatively, what do you think of the recent proliferation of independent writing coaches, professional muses, and the like? Small entrepreneurial operations aimed at making money off of aspiring writers – do these businesses seem vital and healthy for the creative writing community? Or are they a symptom of something else? (05/14/16)
I make money off authors (simply put). The rise of freelance editors (like me) is a symptom of the changing publishing world, though, and not of some malaise. A good editor is able to point out things authors can't see in their own work: what needs to be clearer, what passages lack emotion (fiction is all about making the reader feel)—or whether the ending is satisfying.
Editors, book designers, cover designers—these are legitimate businesses making money off writers, but for good reason. These businesses are maintaining the integrity of the book.
As far as muses and coaches, I've never personally worked with any, but I see nothing wrong with them. To me, seeking out the right coach would be a symptom of dedication, of knowing the importance of knowledge, the importance of outside perspective on our own writing---once, that is, we have a bearing on who we are as writers, or if not, in order to help us get that bearing. Always, writers have to remember who they are, not what a writer should be, or what a writer should write.
My mother loves to tell the story about the writer’s group she paid to participate in for years with an instructor who never stopped nitpicking everyone’s work. A paragraph let alone a chapter let alone a story was never finished and thus the class went on and on and on. Any sense of accomplishment dissolved in the “never good enough” mantra of the circle and eventually it became painfully obvious that the teacher was more focused on filling the class each semester than setting her disciples of many years free into the great blue beyond of the book world. (This was before the internet with all its astounding resources: the crash course, instant networking and virtual classroom.)
If I’m being honest, I know exactly how that teacher felt. As an educator in the arts, I deal with the conflicting emotions of having to make a living by filling classes while providing a place of integrity far from the smack of franchised lowest-common-denominator courses. And as much as I’d like to send them riding into the sunset, some students don’t want to leave even long after I must have taught them everything I know, which makes me grateful and guilty at once. A bond has been formed and we are afraid to break the spell that permeates in continual and unexpected ways. If they do leave me, resentment creeps in and I stew like a jilted lover.
My mother’s story reminds me to let them go but keep them in my heart. And hopefully they’ll remember that without hard work talent is a lost thing.
Writing is a tough job. Period. End of story. But that's what makes it so rewarding, too. After pouring hours and hours into the craft, you really feel like you've done work that you can be proud of. I don't personally have an issue with people who use writing coaches and such because some people really do just want/need help. If that were the case, there would be no reason to have an editor. Writers need help. I can't be mad at them for trying to get it where they can.
I do, however, take issue with those entrepreneurial businesses that take advantage of writers or other creatives. Those businesses that promise instant success and fame after writing a six-page short story about Samantha Squirrel trying to get an acorn or something are the real dicks. I am by no means an art purist. I don't think the artist gets their message or view across perfectly on the first try. I think all art can be better when other people lend their advice and opinion to the artist in order to help them put out the best product they can. On top of that, I think that helps keep the creative individual humble. To need help, and not ask for it, is the sign of a tried and true idiot.
The thing that really matters to me, as an aspiring writer, isn't if I get help, but the actual quality of the help I get. I appreciate brutal honesty about all things. If my story or drawing is trash, I'd appreciate someone telling me that before I start trying to show it off to the world. Or maybe I'm crazy and I just like it when people say my work sucks.
I can't even imagine what it would be like to have such an experience except as a thesis advisee in grad school, for which you should trade tuition, not your menial labor. Though I am very fortunate to have people to discuss my work with, that goes both ways, and the only thing that furthers our careers is helping each other become better writers. So I don't think trading non-writing labor for some kind of mentorship is ubiquitous, or appropriate in any way.
The quote sounds like the very definition of sexual harassment, or hostility in the workplace, and although gender isn’t mentioned, it came to my mind right away as the only way I can see someone getting away with that kind of abuse of a student, or a less-experienced writer.
On the other hand, everyone (except a mother) deserves to make a living. So if I can pay someone money to help me do things I hate to do, or things I don’t know how to do, or things I would simply prefer not to do, like formatting, say, or fetching things from the library, or washing the dishes or stuffing envelopes, then that's trading money for services from a person who is perfectly free to say no, which is a fine thing all around, as long as everyone agrees on the terms, which in this kind of circumstance, everyone is free to do.
Many aspiring writers often feel isolated and invisible when it comes to the literary community, and the likely alternative for them is to seek out independent writing coaches and consultants as a means of affirmation and accountability.
Basically, I think it all comes down to motive, as to whether or not the services offered by writing professionals are healthy and vital for the creative writing community. With the increasing popularity of self-publishing, I believe that some of these professionals in the field are genuinely concerned about the upsurge in poorly written and poorly edited books finding their way into the marketplace. Personally, I welcome any opportunity to provide coaching, guidance, feedback, and constructive criticism to aspiring writers; however, I think that assistance should be reasonably priced. And if the services are offered by experienced and well-trained professionals, who essentially want to help aspiring writers become skilled storytellers with a publishable draft of their manuscripts, it definitely contributes to the health of the creative writing community.
On the other hand, opportunists, who have no commitment to the craft of writing and who take advantage of inexperienced writers solely for the purpose of profiting, are undoubtedly unhealthy for the creative writing community. And that, I believe, is problematic, as well as symptomatic of a larger issue. But then again, the high tuition costs of most graduate writing programs, which often leave students buried in student loan debt, and without any guarantee of a viable writing career, is indicative of the same exploitative characteristics of some of these for-profit writing and publishing entrepreneurs.
any tangible rhetoric
is sham oratory—
and beneath almost
any replica ekphrasis
is genuine ekphrasis.
Perchance a prescription
compulsion and worship hitch
or adoration habit
and painkiller quandary;
much like the academic
ritual of debriefing
more and further
about fewer and minus
is discerned about naught.
to chair on Friday
and Saturday dusks,
imparting, Go out,
have fun, I’ll be here
corralling when you get
back. It’s no cumbrous
whodunit, the first person
in Hades copiously—
is pitiless, it’s volubly
remorseless, just one person
in chair, schlepping through
year after year, getting hoarier,
fluctuating, an epic,
you with you so long
you stop seeing by hand,
just forecasts of the future perfect,
you’ll have gone—tenses to a lockdown
you injure the ones flanking you—
mayhap if I had read
more Mary Oliver poems
I wouldn’t oblige
the vicious circles of italics
in this typeset. Explicative,
this is Times New Roman, isn’t it?
It’s antediluvian late and I disremember
a tremulous I’m sorry, anterior.
You don’t single out writing,
it makes use of you. I price
cut fluency stockpiles—
the remainders of my pocket-sized
being in unused dental
cleanings and worn out prescriptions—
Nigh on luging down
the lady next door’s litter,
her furious hair, her vertigo
waning and waxing toward
the measliest whiles.
I think the proliferation of independent coaches, etc. is a function of a few things.
1. A lot of us are wildly, constantly connected. The Internet is where we live our lives, and that means we see people who need help. Never mind that those people might self-select and we might select them to follow or we like up their posts or we otherwise pass a ton of social signals to secret social media platform algorithms and therefore we are served more and more of this content. Hence we feel there is a need and a market there.
2. The economy is not what it used to be, and I doubt it will be ever again. It is vanishingly rare that a person works at the same company for their entire career or even half of same. We flit, float, and fly, and coaching and indie-style work fits that ADHD-addled vision of a career.
3. We want to work from home, in our sweat pants. Nine to five is a drag. Per the 2014 OECD, the United States is 17th in terms of hours/year worked. Mexico is #1, with 2,228 hours per annum, also known as almost 43 hours/week, every single week, no vacations! The American figure is 1,789 hours per year, AKA 35.78 hours/week for 50 weeks out of 52. It's not horrible, but what happens when you work in an area where the closest jobs to your affordable dwelling are an hour away in each direction, and that's when the traffic is good? For a fifty-week year of work, that is a whopping 500 hours per year spent commuting. No wonder people want to work from home - you never, ever get that time spent in traffic back.
4. Lots of people watch social media scrolling by and think they can do it better. They often think they are better even without training. Some of them are, natively, pretty good. Lots of them aren't. There are a ton of wannabes out there. This is why I went to school in the first place: to learn how to actually do this stuff instead of winging it.
5. Finally, people have an altruistic impulse a lot of the time, and they may want to try to give back to the writing community.
Mentoring might also relate to beta reading, where we want to expand the role and see if we can help others. I like to think it's a positive step rather than someone trying to undermine others' efforts in some weird insidious way. God, I hope it's not!
Don't be sincere because it's good career strategy,
be sincere because sincerity itself is a virtue.
-Your Best Work
-Troll Yourself & Wear Down
-Smart & Dead
-Disciplines & Letting Go
-Anger & Delusion
-Domestic & Perfect