A Zebra in a Herd of Mustangs

Photo of zebra with horses

This past weekend, as many of you likely know, I attended the Willamette Writers Conference. It wasn’t my first time attending (I went last year under the guise of just being an attendee), but it was my first time attending as faculty. That, in and of itself, added a layer of terror and anxiety. But there was one thing in particular I found myself struggling with, not because of anyone at the conference (seriously, everyone I met and had the opportunity to interact with were friendly and awesome, and I highly recommend going if you have the chance), but because of a set of deeply entrenched scars that are the product of my battle with elitism in the arts.

This particular demon surfaced in the form of a tweet that some of you probably saw:

And obviously, it inspired the title of this post. But it’s not as negative as you might think. Instead, I’m going to show my fellow zebras exactly why it’s okay to be slightly left of center, why conformity is over-rated, and why there is value in every experience you bring to the table, whether it be literary or not.

The world of publishing is a strange, slightly archaic one, full of tradition and whispered secrets and closed doors. The Old Guard would have you believe that in order to be successful as an editor or agent or author, you have to follow the traditional path — earn a degree in creative writing or literature or publishing, put in your dues serving other literary people coffee (or publishing short story after short story) while living in a closet in New York, and eventually, maybe, you might actually get your foot in the door.

I don’t have a literary degree.

In fact, my path to a career in publishing is probably the most circuitous, winding thing ever. (You can read all about how I became an editor at that link there.) And I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one. Like the invasive species the Old Guard would paint us as, non-literary backgrounds are slowly infesting the halls of publishing and forcing an industry that’s fiercely protected its traditions for hundreds of years to do the very thing it fears most — change.

And I, for one, think that’s fantastic. However, those of us without literary degrees face something the rest of you don’t: a perceived judgment and condescension. Snobbery, if you will. (Note that I said “perceived.” Most of the time, the person with the literary degree isn’t actually judging or condescending; it’s our own insecurity demon and sense of inadequacy getting in the way.) What makes us worthy of competing with those who have the “proper” training? What could we possibly know about the business of writing and selling books without a certificate of accreditation from a prestigious university?

Turns out, quite a lot. In fact, I would hazard that some of us without literary degrees might even understand the business better than some who have them.

Now, before anyone gets all offended, I want to set the record straight. Following the traditional path to a career in publishing is perfectly fine. I have nothing against English degrees and actually loved everything about college (I often daydream about going back). And I’m certainly not saying that everyone who has a literary degree is a pretentious snob. What I’m commenting on is the internalized perception of snobbery many of us “non-literary” folks wrestle with. It may not be as insidious as some forms of prejudice, but it definitely hovers on the border.

Let’s veer away from that dark topic, though, and get to the point of today’s post: having a literary degree is not a requirement for success in publishing. In fact, if you look closely at your background, you just might find that every skill set you’ve learned, from formal education to working that crappy day job, has added something to your bag of tricks.

For example, here’s how my life stacks up:

  • Being home-schooled through grade school/high school/college gave me an ability to learn from my surroundings, to be resourceful in finding answers, and an understanding of deadlines and self-motivation.

  • Battling depression and anxiety has taught me empathy, self-awareness, and inner strength in the face of negativity and seemingly insurmountable odds.

  • A background in film (animation) has given me a different vocabulary with which to talk about story, POV, narrative tense, and other mechanics of literature normally obscured behind jargon.

  • Similarly, my experience in video games has given me a way to understand and impart things like non-linear storytelling, cause-and-effect in narration, and crafting the all-important stakes that drive a plot.

  • The Martial Arts instilled the concepts of humility, integrity, respect, dedication, perseverance, and the joy of giving back to a community.

  • Running a martial arts demo team taught me how to create a curriculum, how to manage a team, how to listen to others and address concerns without undermining the integrity of the whole, and how to teach.

  • Going up against the Old Guard in the martial arts world taught me to believe in myself, in my own innate talent and skills, even when I was repeatedly shut out and faced with a lack of validation or acknowledgment.

  • Working in sales has taught me how to network and how to understand the business side of production costs, profit margins, distribution, sales proposals/purchase orders and even marketing.

Yes, it’s an eclectic arsenal, but wrap it all together and it’s what makes me, well, me. One of my best friends called me a powerhouse the other day (which is seriously one of the best compliments ever!) and it started me thinking about myself differently, trying to see myself not through the lens of my own insecurity and fear of coming up short in the presence of my peers, but through her eyes. And you know what I realized? I may be a zebra among mustangs with my odd mixture of experiences and non-literary background, but I’m actually kind of proud of that. And when it comes down to it, I can keep pace with my non-striped cohorts.

So, to everyone who’s ever felt like they weren’t good enough to be where they are, that they were too different to fight for their dreams, that they’d never be accepted by the Old Guard, I say this: Wear your stripes proudly, my fellow zebras. Embrace what makes you different. Own what sets you apart. It’s not a weakness, and its just as beautiful. Believe in your stripes, slay that insecurity demon and feeling of inadequacy, and you just might find that the mustangs around you aren’t running away, but are instead running with you.


9 thoughts on “A Zebra in a Herd of Mustangs

    • I had a feeling it might be. I don’t often like to do the serious, emotion-baring type post, but when my experiences can provide comfort or inspiration to others, sometimes it’s necessary. So I’m glad it resonated with you. Mission accomplished. Haha. 🙂

  1. This post is intelligently encouraging, and such an important statement for any artist. We are in an interesting moment in publishing and storytelling. Thank you for your leadership within this moment of expansion and inclusion as well as excellence. Great post.

  2. Okay. Now for my more meaningful comment. I think a lot of us came to writing by way of a path other than college English major and creative writing. I find it gratifying that you take the time to acknowledge that in this post.

    There is no doubt that I would have enjoyed those programs a great deal, but at that time, my life focused elsewhere. I also love how you point out the different twists and turns of your life, which make you the person you are today. It’s really important for people to see that, because like you, many of us have questioned ourselves. When I first began writing on a serious level, I found it difficult to understand what I might have to offer the world of literature. I asked myself what right I had to enter a world where I hadn’t put the time in? But having patience, an open mind, a honed work ethic, and a positive view of the world, (all things I got from my unique life’s trajectory) I think I’ll get there.

    So again, thanks for posting this. It validates many of us.

    • That was my hope — that it would offer comfort and encouragement to others struggling with the same demons. So often, it seems, the world of publishing hides behind illusion and mystique, like the Wizard from Wizard of Oz. And that can create a perception of cliques that leaves those of us without the preferred pedigree feeling ostracized and alone, even when we aren’t.

      Anyway, thank you for commenting. I always enjoy your thoughtful responses and support. 🙂

  3. I absolutely adore meeting new people on campus, particularly those who aren’t in the same college (or going for the same degree) as I am. Likewise, I love when I meet people in the literary field who don’t have a literary background. If there’s too many people who come from the “same” (term used loosely) place, then how can we expect to grow and see more diversity? It’s so nice to hear you write about your experiences and how they apply to what you’re doing now, Kisa; the fact that you broke them down to prove how they apply to your current work proves that you know what you’re doing, but I think it also helps others to see how their own experiences might be more helpful than they think.

    Wonderful post!

    • Thank you, Rae! I wasn’t necessarily trying to prove my own worth, but I suppose that could be a handy by-product. Haha. The second half of your statement, about helping others learn to see the value in their own experiences, is exactly what I intended, though. And so far, it seems I’ve accomplished it. I’m also happy to hear from someone who does have the “formal” training background, and that you see the value in it as well. I feel like this next generation of publishing professionals will be a lot more open-minded than some of the infamous Old Guard.

      Definitely keep your optimistic, positive outlook on things. It will take you far in this industry. 🙂

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