Growing the Dream

Years ago, I spoke to a group of aspiring writers and because I'm a fan of cheesy (and cheap) props, I gave each of them a (drum roll, please) single kernel of unpopped corn. I did this, I told them, to represent the kernel of arrogance that each writer must harbor inside, that tiny voice that says, "I've got something important to say here, and I'm darned well gonna say it."

Flash forward many moons, when I ran into a woman at a signing who smiled and actually pulled that tiny (now lint-covered) seed out of her pocket and told me she'd continued carrying it around. Surprised (and sort of flattered she'd remembered something I'd forgotten), I asked how things were going for her. She shrugged in a self-effacing manner before admitting that she hadn't made much progress. She was still tinkering with the same, unfinished novel, still working without critique partners, and still harboring the same dream, but over time it had grown to look increasingly distant. Of course, I wished her well, thanked her for coming, and mumbled something encouraging.

But I wish I'd told her this. That the "kernel of arrogance," like any other seed, has needs if it's to grow and flourish. The seed requires gentle warmth, in the encouragement of like-minded friends. Some of the longest, most lasting friendships I've had have been sown in critique groups, where we encourage, suggest, and occasionally cajole each other forward. (It may take a few tries to find a group like this as opposing to the soul-destroying, rule-spouting harpies from hell who seek to elevate themselves by slamming those around them. But that's a subject for another post.) The seed needs water and minerals, too, the nourishment of knowledge from those already in the business, from editors to agents to authors at least a step or two ahead. Writer's groups and conferences are great places to meet these folks, and the Internet's a good start, though not quite the same. (Too many people feel the need to be snidely hip, IMO.) Finally, the seed needs light, which means the writer's work must see the light of day. If one continually, ruthlessly reworks the same opening chapter, he/she will never reach the book's end -- which is generally the spot that makes it absolutely clear what tweaks the first chapter needed all along to bring the story full circle. Before that ending is reached, the writer should be judicious about sending out the work. Too harsh a light may scorch, scaring the writer from a project that could have turned out beautifully. But without any feedback whatsoever, in the form of critiques, contest entries, and (here's what we've been working toward) actual submission to agents and/or editors, the dream will certainly wither, unfulfilled.

So are you nurturing your dream or carrying the thing around while it hardens, collects lints, and finally gets tossed out with that used tissue in your pocket? If the answer falls into the latter category, what will you do differently this year?

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