Herons in the Mist

Fog isn’t something we get a lot of around here, so I enjoyed Oregon’s coastal mists. This heron hunted the tide pools, barely visible. The telephoto got him, though.

Loving my new camera.

I remember one of the first times I saw those kinds of maritime fogs, in Davis, California at a conference.

Somehow I’d ended up on the board of our local new chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). A grant had been obtained and the group planned to send two members to a leadership conference sponsored by the national organization. However, so far only one person had stepped up to go. Hell, I said, I’ll go.

For some reason this is a very hazy memory for me. I was heavy in grad school, I know. After my Great Mistake but before David, which makes it sometime between spring of ’89 and winter of ’91. I think it was a hard time for me. I grieved for my lost college family – never again have I been privileged to be around so many truly amazing people. I lived alone. My love life was going poorly; I pretty much hated everything about grad school (which is designed to break your spirit, anyway), especially my manic/depressive Hungarian major advisor, though I couldn’t face any of that. I was in my early 20s, and most women agree it’s the worst age for us.

I went to this conference with no particular goal, no strategy, except that someone offered to pay for me to go. Morning fogs burned off into bright days and all of these women scientists gave talks about their paths and what their careers had been like. Everyone was brilliantly encouraging in a way that made me feel like a blossom in the sun. No scathing frowns like those doled out daily by my crazy Hungarian advisor.

One woman gave a talk and she was a writer. I can’t remember a damn thing about her – her name, face, what her career deal was. She might have gone from science career to writing? I do recall that her mother attended, which means her speaking was probably an honor and a big deal. At any rate, feeling inspired, thinking maybe this was what I really wanted to do: be a writer and write about science, not this horrible slog through the muck of research, I sat near this woman at lunch and said something along those lines.

And she was mean to me.

Mean enough that I started crying.

Oh, I tried not to show it, sucking up my shameful tears into my sandwich. But I remember the mother throwing me sympathetic looks while the writer-daughter went on about how hard is was to be a writer and all of the stupid, foolish people who thought they could just waltz into it.

Why it hit me so hard, I have no idea. I don’t know if she even gave me any good advice – I was just trying not to let everyone see me cry.

I don’t tell this story often. In fact, I’m not sure what made me think about it now, except for something about the heron in the fog. I couldn’t say whether that incident really affected my writerly ambitions one way or another – I neither gave up at that point nor raced out to prove her wrong.

That woman maybe never realized how hard I took her words. Maybe she was frustrated at not making more money. Maybe she’d just lost an agent or a book deal. It could be she wasn’t accustomed to being in that position, where someone might want to be like her.

But it’s a good lesson, no matter where we are in our writing careers. We should be careful of those who look at us with shiny eyes and hopeful ambition.

We were all that girl once.

15 Replies to “Herons in the Mist”

  1. Terrific post!

    I think writers who've faced a long struggle to get where they are feel this strange compulsion to remind newer writers that it's HARD WORK and that they can't just waltz in and expect things to run smoothly. Hell, I'll admit I sometimes issue such warnings in hopes that newcomers aren't so crushed when the first rejections roll in.

    But I also think some established writers who issue such warnings are secretly worried it WILL come that easy for the newcomer. It does happen sometimes, and it can stick in the craw of those who had to struggle for years to get where they are.

    As writers, we need to just keep reminding ourselves that everyone's path is different, and the length or difficulty of someone else's journey has zero impact on our own.

    Sorry that bitch was mean, by the way. Want me to beat her up?


  2. I think that's exactly right, Tawna. Writers are humans, and can be particularly insecure ones,too. I like how you put that: "the length or difficulty of someone else's journey has zero impact on our own."

    Maybe it's good that my memory blocked out who she was – or I *would* have you go beat her up for me!

  3. Fantastic, fantastic post.

    I wonder if it's because writing is so cerebral that so many people use it as a way to put others down. Even in situations that are supposed to be supportive we see writers put others down as a way to make themselves feel superior.

    But anyway, who's laughing now? Who's a writer– you. And you can't even remember the mean lady's name.

  4. Some people have to crush others' dreams, because they can't bear for anyone to HAVE dreams, or even to be happy. I wonder how many people give up on their dreams because of these experiences — too many, I suspect.

    I hope there was something else going on with that woman, because there was no reason for her to treat you that way — especially after being a speaker at an event! Maybe she's been regretting that moment ever since. 🙂

  5. I've found a lot of this on my life's path… not just in writing. I'm generally struck by the idea that striking down enthusiasm seems to be rooted in a desire to be special. "I love this, I'm good at it, I've been successful… but if you love it, if you become good at it, If you grow your own success, then I'm just another snowflake in a blizzard."

    It used to really sting, but now when I encounter such a reaction, I just say to my detractor, "Wow, was that unnecessary."

  6. Thanks, Sierra – I think you're right about the cerebral thing. A writer-friend of mine used to refer to it as "tail-sniffing," how writers circled each other asking what they wrote, what they'd published. All wanting to be top dog.

    I do wonder, Donna, if something else wasn't going on with her that day. I've sometimes wondered if she regretted that. I always thought maybe her mother said something to her about it!

    And, Marin, you're right on – this does happen in so many areas. Maybe it's just a human failing that we try to make ourselves shine more brightly by dimming others. Very sad.

  7. Such a human flaw — the need to blow out another's candle in order to make our own burn brighter. And that "skill" which we learn as wee folk serves us too well throughout our lives. I too hope that something was "going on" for the mystery woman, as to excuse her, but also know how too easily people blithely hurt with words and never ever even notice. I guess the important thing here is that although she hurt you, she didn't derail you. And for that, we are so glad. 🙂

  8. Aw – so sweet of you Kristina! That's another good lesson: never let another person derail you, especially with careless words!

  9. Really great post, Jeffe. I'm sorry you were hurt, and I understand the feeling of being ambushed by tears you try desperately not to let fall. You might be right–perhaps she was having a bad day–but still. She could've been a tad more careful about taking it out on others.

    Or maybe she was just a b!tch. In which case, scr3w her. And, as Kristina said, thank goodness she didn't derail you. 🙂

  10. Brilliant post and a good reminder all around. Maybe she just assumed you were one of those "Oh, I'd love to write a book someday. In my spare time." sorts of people. You know – the ones who assume you just sit down and fart the words on to the page and send it off.


    Maybe her pet cat died.

    Good lesson, though.

  11. LOL, Linda – I like your philosophy!

    Thanks, Allison. I guess we never know who people are on the inside. Neither the askers, nor the answerers.

  12. Sorry this happened to you, Jeffe. I've noticed that I am sometimes not as encouraging as I could be/should be when others tell me they want to write. No, I don't snipe at strangers or children–and smack me if I ever do. However, when people like my brother or friends who have never attempted to write anything start talking about their book ideas and how they'll break into publishing, I find it hard to bite my tongue and be encouraging. I know that most of the time they are merely searching for a way to leave their mark or a new direction in life, but it's still tough to be patient and kind. This is a good reminder of why I need to be regardless of who it is.

  13. I hear you, Keena. That kind of conversation is hard to listen to and does make me impatient. Always working on the patience and kindness thing!

  14. I've never understood people who try to crush others dreams. It's shameful and harmful.

    It's hard to tell new writers the difficult road of publishing but I think if they're asking, they truly want to know and it's up to us to give it the best light possible. We're all in this together, right?

    I love your posts. 🙂

  15. Aw, MM – you're so sweet! (And congrats on selling the Christmas story!) Yes, I agree – we can be honest and open about the challenges, but also encouraging. Lots of pie to go around…

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