The first time I heard the old saw about what it's really like being a writer was in the days when I pounded out my mental scribbles on somebody else's 1930s Royal, a manual typewriter. It was before I'd imagined becoming a journalist or activist or made plans for much of anything really. I wasn't yet old enough to get a driver's license. As a requirement of probation from "reform" school, I had taken an after-school and weekends job as a gopher at a newspaper-cum-printshop. My boss of nine months had become a mentor, and I spent many non-working hours at the shop, doing homework, reading his books and learning how to run various printing presses.
The assignment was a book review that my English teacher had commanded be at least three full pages. I had read the book, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and liked it immensely, so much so that I read it again, the first time I had ever read a book twice. But now I was paralyzed. Not least because getting decent grades was another requirement of my probation and I was flunking English. So I sat in a corner of my boss's office while he worked on his ledgers, staring at the blank sheet of paper I had rolled into the Royal and hoping, I guess, that the words would magically appear. After about 30 minutes of this, in which my sighs grew ever louder, he came up behind me and said:
"You're learning the first thing about writing."
"But I'm not writing anything."
"One step at a time, Tim. To write well, you must sit in front of the typewriter until beads of blood pop out on your forehead. Then you know you're ready to begin."
Hearing that broke the logjam in my head. The review, which wound up being four double-spaced pages, went through many drafts as my boss taught me another crucial lesson: rewrites. Given my previous output, the teacher was suspicious, but she gave me an A.
That experience impelled me to pay it forward, to spend a portion of the past four decades mentoring writers and would-be writers. It always makes me smile when I see others do the same. Which is why I am heartened by the emergence here of the "Buddy System" and the New Diarists Group. Its mission is mentoring, getting would-be diarists past their beads-of-blood point and honing their skills by pairing them with experienced diarists who feel more comfortable transforming thoughts into publicly visible pixels. Since teaching is often the best teacher, I suspect the mentors will see improvements in their own writing from this process.
The Buddy System's roll-out announcement came in smileycreek's Welcome New Users diary at the beginning of this week, where you can find all the details about participating that I am not going to repeat here. But the project's genesis came about last year, a consequence of the experiences of a Kossack who will celebrate a six-month anniversary at the site next Sunday, nomandates.
Here's a bit of what she told me regarding the whys of the Buddy System and New Diarists Group. It started after she had written her first-ever diary promoting December's life-time subscription drive:
After my diary posted, My Spin helped by alphabetizing the list so that I could copy and paste it, Clem Yeobright helped by creating a list with links, [Dr] Erich [Bloodaxe RN] helped by pointing out that the music video I had embedded was too large, and on and on. The most ridiculous moment was when I had to post a comment in my own diary asking Onomastic to explain how to edit my diary now that it was posted! LOL!! I clearly needed a lot of help, and the community was supportive.
After the group moved on to the next list diary, I had time to think, and I wished that I had made more of an effort to learn how to link to other diaries, comments, member profiles; how to embed a picture or a video in a diary or a comment; how to make boxes. … I wish I had had the courage to post a diary sooner and watch it roll down the recent list into oblivion.
At the same time, I was noticing apologetic comments in the list diaries, comments indicating that the authors felt less “deserving” of a gift sub than others because they had not yet written a diary or their first attempts had received little notice. I also noticed a general anxiety that their first diary would do things the “wrong” way and would get attacked as a result.
So I posted a comment to smileycreek explaining that I thought new diarists needed a safe space to practice their diary-writing skills. And here we are today.
Notice all that collaboration? Community at work.
Even if you're one of the lucky people who needs no help in crafting a good essay, and even if you've been around a while, you're likely to find lots of useful information in the output of the New Diarists Group. For example, Dragon5616's New Diarists: Scratch Paper, Widgets, and Future Blues is filled with good ideas about how to make diary-writing easier from the "technical" side of things.
If you're newly registered and want to make the best of the experience, or if you've been here since forever and want to mentor someone else, or if you're somewhere in between, I encourage you to join.
To those who initiated and are running the Buddy System, as we say out here in Los Angeles: Awesome. Totally.