A Guru . . . Say What?

A good workshop makes you think. Last weekend, I spent the day listening to Susan Wiggs talk about her life as a traditionally published author of commercial fiction. Wiggs is an engaging speaker. With three decades of writing experience under her belt, she had plenty of anecdotes to share. And she posed three questions to us.

Question one: who are your writing gurus?

Say, what?

Now, to be fair, the word guru threw me. It doesn’t always conjure up positive imagery. I either think of Jim Jones, the cult leader who inspired people to mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, or I go in the other direction, to Buddha, who inspires in the opposite way. Whether they’re positive or negative, people follow gurus. Those followers adhere to the guru’s beliefs. They stop thinking for themselves.

That wasn’t what Susan had in mind and I knew it, but I had trouble getting past it. By the end of the day, I still hadn’t come up with anyone I could name as a writing guru. When I got home, I pulled up the definition of guru. 1. A religious teacher or spiritual guide. 2. A teacher and intellectual guide. 3. A person with knowledge or expertise.

And so I continued to think. Many writers are experts in their field. I’m lucky enough to call some of them friends. Maybe that’s why they didn’t fit. They were more friend than guru. I looked at the books on my keeper shelf. A few names stood out, but none of those names resonated as gurus either.

For me, a guru needs to inspire on both a professional and personal level. A guru should be someone I’d want to share a meal with. Someone whose fundamental values I not only respect but would be happy to emulate. I’d want any guru of mine to be big-hearted and warm. Forgiving and empathetic. Fierce and thought-provoking. And given Susan’s criteria they had to be writers.

I mulled for several days. Finally, three names came to mind.

Anne Lamott. Author of Bird by Bird and Help, Thanks, Wow, Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer as well as a political activist, public speaker and writing teacher. Why Lamott? She’s honest. She’s real. She’s humble. And she’s not afraid to use the ‘G’ word. Her belief in God, her spirituality, is a cornerstone of her writing. She’s wildly funny, incredibly down-to-earth and hugely knowledgeable about all things writing. She’d probably make some self-deprecating crack about being considered a guru, but she is one to me. If you haven’t seen it, check out her Ted talk on writing and life: https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing

Jane Yolen. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards and many others, Yolen has written over 300 fantasy, science fiction and children’s books. She’s also a poet, a writing teacher and a book reviewer. Why Yolen? Like Lamott, she too is honest, and real, and humble. As well as sharing her writing with the world, she shares her life on social media. Here’s a recent Yolen tweet: This see-saw day – a rejection of a mss., a sale to Turkey. An old friend dies suddenly. Two younger friends get good news from doctors. Life. She is not all sunshine and flowers. She knows the light coexists with the dark, and she’s not afraid to point it out. Her Facebook author page is filled with tips for writers, personal anecdotes (she shares both acceptances and rejections; yes, she still gets rejections), general encouragement and a healthy dose of political activism.

Jann Arden. Okay, so she’s known primarily as an award-winning singer but Arden is also a writer. Her prose voice is as gifted and as uniquely identifiable as her singing voice. Titles to look for include If I Knew, Don’t You Think I’d Tell You or her memoir Falling Backwards. Like Yolen and Lamott, Arden is also refreshingly honest (some would say too honest; if you’ve been to her concerts you’ll know what I mean), grounded in reality and humble. She’s living a creative life at the same time as she’s supporting her mother and watching her slide slowly into the fog of Alzheimer’s. She knows plenty about living with challenges, about struggling to get where you want to go, and she seems to get that fame is best used as a tool and not used to define a life.

It took me a little while but I found three writers I would be happy to call my gurus. All three of these women have plenty to say about living a creative life. That alone is enough to make them stand out. But it’s the spin they put on that creative life that seals the deal for me. You rarely see Lamott, Yolen or Arden pushing product . . . talking sales . . . hyping someone else’s work in an obvious ‘I’ll do yours and you do mine’ kind of way. Yes, they promote, and, yes, they talk about sales, tours, new books or new albums. But they do it in such a way that it’s only part of a well-rounded life. They stay real. They stay honest. They stay humble.

As all good gurus should.