Last post I wrote about requesting meetings for coffee with, and advice from, other writers. This week I’d like to offer some suggestions about making these dates happier and more productive for everyone involved.
If you’re the one requesting a meeting and advice:
- Before you ask, check yourself: are you truly ready to take a next step, or are you using this meeting to procrastinate about doing your writing? I’ve had coffee dates with both types, and I’ve probably been both types at some point. Don’t ask someone to meet with you if what you really need to do is more work on your book. Otherwise, the date may momentarily make you feel as if you’re moving forward, but you’re really just wasting both of your time. Plus, the host can tell, and it doesn’t feel good to be used as someone else’s procrastination tool.
- When you extend an invitation, tell the person how long the meeting will take, and stick to the timeframe you’ve set. I recommend asking for a half-hour at a coffee shop, and fifteen minutes if you’re going to the person’s office. If you’re at a point in your life where you can hang out in a coffee shop for two hours, that’s awesome — but most people can’t.
- Be on time.
- Pay for your guest’s coffee. It’s an inexpensive, easy way to acknowledge that your guest is giving you time and expertise, and you’re grateful.
- Keep the meeting upbeat unless everyone knows at the outset it won’t be. Once, I agreed to meet a writer, and ended up listening to his personal problems for over an hour. At the end, he said, “It was nice, sort of like therapy.” Please note that a coffee date for career advice from a near-stranger should never, ever feel like therapy.
- Be clear about what you’re asking for, and don’t say you’re asking for one thing if you secretly plan to ask for something more. If an editor has agreed to meet for a fifteen-minute informational interview on what working in publishing is like, you will make her feel betrayed and awkward if you put her on the spot by asking her for a job, or asking her to read your manuscript.
- After the meeting, send a brief and breezy thank-you note, and keep the person in the loop about your project. If someone took the time to meet with you, they really do care about what you’re up to, and will be happy for you if you succeed.
- Your next contact with your guest should be for something other than another request. People like to feel valued for more than what they can do for you.
If you’re the one being asked out for coffee and advice, there are ways to be generous and not-overwhelmed at the same time:
- Decide on your boundaries. Mine have had to constrict once I had a child and started working full-time, but I still say yes to current and former students asking about their work. As a full-time professor, this is a part of my job, and makes sense. There’s a gray area that exists for a few other people. Anyone else I refer to the Loft Literary Center, a handful of writing coaches, and the MFA program at Hamline University. In this way, I feel I can best help writers get the help they need without overwhelming myself.
If you do accept the request:
- If no time parameters have been set, then let the host know when you have to leave for your next appointment as you sit down. That way, everyone has the same timeframe in their heads and can talk accordingly.
- Allow the person to pay for your coffee, if they offer; however, if you arrive first, order for yourself, and let your host pay for herself when she arrives.
- Never say yes to a request on the spot. Instead, ask to think about it for a few days; then, when you’re home, take a look at your schedule.
Around the time my first book came out, I experienced a sudden surge in invitations to “have coffee sometime.” These dates were usually requested by emerging writers. On these dates, we would talk about their writing. I might offer advice about publishing, applying for grants, or breaking into the teaching profession. Sometimes the writers asked me to comment on their poems, or a whole manuscript.
Often, our contact ended with the one date. Just as often, I was asked on a second date, or a third. Sometimes I received thank-you notes. Sometimes people asked me to be their mentor, and meet once a month for a heart-to-heart on their work and career. No one offered to pay for my time, though sometimes I got coffee, and occasionally a sandwich. The one time I mentioned payment (to a person who wished to meet monthly for manuscript advice), the person disappeared.
I’m the type who genuinely likes most people, and also likes to help, so I said yes to almost all of it. But at some point, I started to wonder whether all these coffee dates were the best idea. I wasn’t that much further along in my career than the people asking me for advice. The dates were taking time I should have been writing and seeing friends I didn’t often see.
Were some kinds of dates okay, but not others? Were some kinds of requests okay, but not others? Should I have been charging? Should I have been more generous?
I never came up with a good solution.
When I told my writer friends that I wanted to write about the creative advice coffee date, I was surprised at how thorny the topic is. About a third of them feel the only correct response to such a request is along the lines of “my consulting fee is $75 an hour or $10 a page.” They are appalled that other writers give away so much for free, because it devalues our skills and creates unrealistic expectations.
Another third freely gives their time, skills, you name it, to anyone who asks. They are a little baffled about why the others are so stingy and upset. The final third has a personal set of rules about when they say yes or no. No two sets of these rules, far as I can tell, match.
I turned to the Magic 8-Ball of the Internet, to see what other writers have to say. I found out almost nothing, except that there’s a group of men out there who won’t go out for coffee on a first date with a woman because coffee never leads to sex. (Good to know.)
I did find one good blog post — I wish I could still find the link — from a woman in business, on the coffee-advice phenomenon. She concluded that most of the aspiring designers who wanted to meet with her would better have their needs met in other ways, and instead refers them to those outlets.
She also decided that when she gave her time for free, she would do so by speaking at certain conferences and events instead. That way, she felt, she could be helpful and pay it forward, but not compromise her own time to work.
At any rate, I don’t expect us to find a not-messy way to sort this out any time soon. Although it’s true that no one would ask a doctor or a plumber to meet for coffee and give advice about one’s body or kitchen sink, creative fields seem more complicated.
I think this is because creativity functions in a gift economy, as Lewis Hyde says in one of my favorite books, The Gift. Just about every other profession functions in a market economy. To further complicate things, of course, creative people still live, eat, and pay their bills in a market economy — so it’s natural for all of us to be unsure of where the line is. Next week I’ll offer my own list of suggestions toward the end of making such get-togethers better for everyone involved.
After my daughter was born, I asked every working mother I knew how working mothers got their writing done. One of my colleagues said, “Write while your daughter’s small? You won’t.” Then, when she saw the panicked look on my face, she added drily, “Did you want me to lie?”
Others gave the “stop whining, just do it, writing is all that matters” speech, and I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. Writing isn’t all that matters. Love matters, my neighbors matter, justice matters, hot meals and clean sheets matter, and anyway, I didn’t want a platitude, I wanted how. Concrete ideas, real things people do to create time to write, parent, teach, and maybe occasionally have a clean house, or go out in the sunshine. Maybe I couldn’t perfectly do all these things, all the time, but I still wanted to try for a life that leaned toward some sense of proportion.
So for a while, on the first week of each month, I’m posting from a series I call How. I’d originally meant to be writing for mothers who also teach and write, but then I realized that everything I have to say also rings true for fathers like my husband, who does 50% of the caregiving around here — and maybe not even just parents, but everyone with a very full plate. Which extends to nearly everyone I know.
By the way, I also love this interview project, Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts, by Molly Sutton Kiefer. ↑ ↑ ↑
Disclaimers: I don’t claim any of this is the right way to live, or is even realistic for everyone. I also realize I’m a bit of a list-maker, a left-brain type, an efficiency freak, a neat freak. But everything I post about will be about something concrete that made our lives easier.
This month, here’s a quick and small list of things I know better than I did four years ago, about time.
- Get as much child care as you need to do your job, or as much as you can afford. If you don’t get enough child care so to get your work done, you can’t be fully available to your child at home. After my daughter was born, I stopped bringing home papers to grade. Some days I miss the free-wheeling feel of my old life, but I love the way my work now stays at the office. When I look back on my childless life, I think that in some ways I was never fully off the clock.
The reality, of course, is that childcare is really expensive. No, really. The first two years of my daughter’s life, when I worked part-time, my entire paycheck after taxes went to our babysitter. It was our single greatest expense each month, including the mortgage. There are a lot of creative ways to make it work, though.
- There’s a difference between your job as you wish it were, and your job as it is. At some point early on, when I was having trouble getting my grading done, I told a retired professor friend that I didn’t have enough time to do the job I’d been hired to do. He answered, “You do enough time to do the job you’ve been hired for; you just don’t have enough time to do the job you want.” Maybe I didn’t need to grade faster or better; maybe I needed to grade less, or grade differently, and no one (including me) had to be shorted along the way. It was one of the most freeing things anyone ever said to me about the way I perceived my daily responsibilities.
- Learn how long it actually takes you to do something. Julie Morgenstern, in Time Management from the Inside Out, recommends that you estimate how long each task in your to-do list takes, then write down how long the task actually takes. She has you do this for two weeks. I’ve done it, and it’s eye-opening. I discovered that some tasks I dread really only take five minutes; I discovered that I’d been unrealistic about how long certain things take. The point, though, is that a day functions as a physical container, with room for only so much stuff. More isn’t going to go in.
I’m still thinking about a day last January when, at the request of my publisher, I spent the morning at a recording studio in downtown Minneapolis. There, I read my entire second book aloud as we taped what would become an audiobook version of The Alphabet Not Unlike the World.
I’d never felt at home with Alphabet in quite the way I do with my first book Atlas. Which is weird, because I was far better supported during the writing of Alphabet. I worked on it with an editor at Milkweed, and was part of a writing community. ButAlphabet was written under a great deal of pressure. Pressure to follow what had been a surprisingly successful first book. Pressure to finish and get the book taken by a publisher in time to apply for a job that was opening at the college four blocks from my house. Pressure over whether Milkweed would truly give me a contract when our work together was done. Plus, Alphabet had been written in mounting private despair. At home, my husband and I were trying to start a family, and instead of getting pregnant, I racked up a series of miscarriages. Suddenly I was in my late thirties, and the future looked very different at that decade’s end than it had at its beginning.
Practicing reading Alphabet at home made me feel as if I were being punished for something. It was the emotional equivalent of writing on a blackboard “I will not — I will not —.” Every time I started to practice, I felt sick. When I came down with a horrific cold one day before we were scheduled to record, I was both relieved and worried I was faking.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to say I had some sort of wise epiphany. It was only sort of like that. I did what I always do: I think about writers I admire, and what they would do. I mean the ones who are great artists and great people, writers who are true to their work and themselves. Like Jake Adam York, who had written me a kind note about Alphabet two days before he unexpectedly died of a stroke at the age of 40. If Jake were here, I thought, he would tell me to be proud of the book (he would most likely tell me I should be glad to be here at all). He would say to record it and go on working on my new project. So that’s what I did. I was still troubled by the violence and despair that permeates Alphabet, but, as Phil Levine once shrugged, “I write what’s given me to write.” In those five years of my life, I wrote about what I had been given to write.
Really, the taping session was great. The engineer was just out of college, and reminded me of someone I used to know. The Milkweed intern hailed from the deep south, a former student of an author we both admire, and I loved hearing her take on Minnesota winter. I’d done my usual — over-practice — and the taping wrapped up in a mere 2-1/2 hours, not the 4-6 hours Milkweed had reserved. The sound booth felt weirdly like a confessional. I learned so much about the arc of that book I was so done with (literally, emotionally) that I think I should forevermore read aloud entire manuscripts in one sitting.
I did keep trying to make small edits in the poems as I read. I admire the way that Patricia Smith freely edits as she performs, so her poems continue to evolve. But the engineer kept breaking in through the headphones to say things like “I noticed you said ‘their’ but in the text it’s ‘the.’ Could you read that again?” His job was to create an accurate transcription. I thought about telling him about Patricia Smith. Then I thought, Just read what’s on the page and go on.
Yes, I did. And Marie Kondo had nothing to do with it.
A few years ago, I had developed the distressing habit of crying every time I left on a trip. I welled up in the drivers’ seat as I turned the key in the ignition; I wept sitting on the tarmac (fellow passengers often thought I was afraid to fly; once, a nice older gentleman offered to hold my hand). I had visions of myself dying, and my journals being all that was left for my family to remember me by. They would open those journals, tender, raw with love for me and their recent loss . . . and then they would read every petty, uncensored thought I’d written down, including several uncharitable ones about them, most of which I didn’t even mean. And that would be my legacy to the people I love most.
For the last decade and a half, I had done exactly what I warn my writing students against: I had mixed my personal journaling into my writing journals. In approximately fifty Mead three-subject spiral notebooks, sandwiched between a lot of stuff I would have liked to have kept — quotes from writers, thoughts on a recent book / movie / museum exhibit, early drafts, ideas for pieces — was a whole lot of emotional processing and other junk. I told myself some lie about why, in this case, it was okay, something along the lines that, because I often draw from life, this personal stuff needed to be in my writing journal. But the truth is that I was lazy and naive.
Having devoted much of my summer to re-reading over fifteen thousand pages of journaling, I can say with authority: all that emotional processing did not need to be there. There is little more boring to read, even and maybe especially when it’s your own emotional slither. Even and especially a decade later. No art is waiting to be made from any of it, and re-reading it didn’t teach me a thing.
I did learn a lot about myself in general, though, reading fifty journals at a time. The hardest lesson might have been that I don’t respect my writing nearly enough. I found any number of quite good, nearly-done drafts that I’d never bothered to type, finish, or send out. The sheer volume of writing was sobering, too: there was easily two books’ worth of work represented there, if I’d devoted that time and energy to making something I could have sent into the world.
Fail better, as they say. From now on any processing stays out of the writing journals, and from now on more work gets finished and sent out into the world. I ripped out any drafts that still looked viable and interesting, and let the rest go. On Wednesday, July 30, my husband and I took a few grocery bags full of notebooks and a bottle of red wine out in the back yard. We toasted to bad memories and ash, and good memories continuing to burn brightly, and kept one ear out for our sleeping daughter as we drank and laughed over the two hours it took all fifty to burn. And though a lost a few items I would have liked to have kept, I now feel free.