Letters of recommendation have always been the bane of my existence. If I could clearly remember my college application process (I can't) I probably applied to the schools I did because they didn't require letters of recommendation. I know I passed over a few scholarships because I didn't want to get LORs. And that was probably the time in my life that I was most socially engaged and had people willing to write me letters.
Of course, I didn't see it that way. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Or maybe behind myself. I want to talk about what happened yesterday.
Yesterday I was looking for various writing competitions and publications to help me kickstart this stagnant writing career when I came across an awesome seminar. It's held in Sozopal, Bulgaria, one of two conferences/writing events I could find held in Bulgaria each year. (Well, for adults. There are many more options for high school and college kids). The seminar seemed great. It has room for ten people: five Bulgarian writers and five English writers. It has both Bulgarian and English writers leading workshops and helping writers one-on-one.
Perfect! I want to go! I wouldn't have to travel abroad. I would get to meet writers. It's short, so I wouldn't have to leave my kids behind for two weeks or a month. Ideal.
Except the last requirement. A letter of recommendation from a professional in the fiction publishing industry.
Full stop. Turn around. Exit application.
How am I supposed to get a LOR from an industry professional when I want to go to this event to… meet industry professionals?
Last night I sat in my room, thinking about this conundrum and how the system (in any country) values and supports the "traditional" path. LORs are an archaic form of social proof saying you are rooted into a community. That you can jump through the proper hoops and you are social.
Then I came across a forum on social anxiety and one of the threads was all about how to build relationships for LORs and how to ask for them when the time comes.
Something clicked. Something about how completely unfair LORs are for people with social anxiety. How much harder these people have to work for what comes easy for many others. And I realized that this is just another way that my anxiety and depression- or rather, the way the world does not accommodate it- holds me back.
Now let's go back to high school. In high school I was active in band and orchestra (to a fault), I did track, I thrived on interactive, in-depth projects. In other words, my teachers knew me. But I didn't feel like I had a connection or relationship with them. Not only could I not form relationships due to my anxiety (which back them was called "shyness" because I didn't have a word for the feeling of deep aversion to speaking to people), but I couldn't recognize when a connection was formed because of my depression. Because of this, I couldn't imagine asking for a LOR. So I didn't.
In college, things got worse. I got lost in cohorts of thousands of students. I didn't take two classes with the same teacher. I made the mistake of switching universities (and community colleges) four times. This left me with absolutely no social proof of my abilities. I had the grades (3.85 GPA). I had the skills. I could write a killer essay, do a research project. Anything except LOR.
Then I moved to Bulgaria, and my professional/academic connections were severed completely. Part of this was because of my choices. But part of it was because as an adult, I was no longer forced into social situations. Expected to be able to take care of myself, I was left to sink further into my depression and anxiety, until I got to the point that I could barely hold conversations with others. While phone calls had always been difficult, even emailing became a heart-pounding activity.
I am finally getting medical help for these issues. I am realizing that they are not "normal" and can be "fixed." But in many ways, the damage has been done. Building up social structures around me at age 34 is nearly impossible. Finding ways to get academic or literary LOR is time consuming and expensive. I can pay an editor to look over my book and they might write me a letter. I can pay to take a course to hopefully get a LOR. Honestly, these are things I cannot afford financially or time-wise at the moment. Which shows how mental illness and a lack of wealth can be compounded. Because if I was wealthy, I could keep paying for opportunities until I was able to capitalize on one.
I am not saying we should get rid of LORs completely. Some people shine in their social ability. For some people, a LOR is the determining factor that allows them to advance in a sphere or enter a project. We should definitely allow space to express social proof, and we should value those who can build relationships and get amazing LORs.
But we should not require LORs, or be very critical about why and when we require them. Instead of requiring a LOR, leave the option of one. Instead of requiring three, leave the option for three. Perhaps someone will have one or two, and that will be sufficient. Perhaps someone will have none, but their work samples will blow your mind.
Perhaps, then, I could be going to this workshop, becoming part of the community, and adding to society instead of being auto-rejected.