(This post was originally published by Beyond The Margins, 3/28/14)
I was never the kid that was supposed to be a writer. Not much of a reader, I never ran off behind some mythical shed to pen lines of poetry into a dog-eared notebook. I loved TV and cops-and-robbers. I was good at math and baking and monkey-at-bat, a tree-climber of the highest order.
As I grew older, I became a capable writer, which is to say I learned grammar. Thanks to Mrs. Kilbourne, seventh-grade English, I still know instinctively where a comma is needed and when a clause should be followed by one. I understand the importance of topic sentences and parallel structure. I have always been able to parse with the best of them.
But somehow for me it never went any further. I never really thrilled to Willa or Herman; I approached every short-story assignment as one might the executioner’s block. Before I started writing my novel, at around 40, I had no experience writing fiction at all. I’d never had the inclination or courage, and I’d fashioned a life that just didn’t demand it.
All of which has landed me in a rather odd place these many years out, with a novel and three poetry collections but little in the way of real community. These days most people come by their publication credits rightly: they major in English, they do their workgroups and conferences and fiction writing classes. They get their MFAs, their PhDs. And by virtue of these shared experiences, they come up in the writing world with their cohorts and their mentors, the people they’ve come to know from the inside out through the endless, soul-baring process of workshopping.
And then, because they have to pay off their loans and make a living, most of these newly-minted writers do that other thing they’re qualified to do: they teach. And then they have their teaching colleagues and their students and the senior faculty, and – come AWP time – they all head out together in great big convoys to celebrate books and publishing and the creative process and all that it means to be part of the great, humming community of letters…right?
This has not been my experience. In the world of the literary arts, I’m a bit of an
anomaly outlier freak.
Like a few stragglers I’ve met along the way, I’m not really a part of any writing community. For me, a trip to AWP feels a little like crashing a party to which I’m not invited. Before my novel was picked up, I scarcely knew any published fiction writers, and I’d never taken a fiction writing class or had a short story published. Beyond a few of the name-brands, I didn’t know the presses or the literary journals. In the world of debut novelists, I was a veritable dinosaur: aged-out and out-teched, so far out of the mainstream that much of the time I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The whole drawn-out ordeal of self-promotion by social media sent me into full-on PTSD.
The thing is, I know there are others out there like me. A lot, I suspect. I met a few of you at AWP last year, sitting alone at coffee tables with your noses stuck deep in your catalogues. Our reasons for arriving here in our own time in our own way are many and varied. Many of us do not have the financial wherewithal until a later stage in life. Some don’t feel the inclination or urgency to write until they’re really given the opportunity to try. Some are pressed into it by great trauma or loss. And still others don’t have the confidence to put their voices out there until — at long last — they do.
Whatever the reason or the entry point, those of us going it alone often find ourselves at an enormous disadvantage on multiple fronts. There are the conferences we don’t hear about, and the contest deadlines we miss. There are the shortcuts we never learned, and the blurbs and recommendations we have to scrounge. There are all the rules we don’t know – from social media to grant protocol to contract negotiations. There is know-how and how-to and who-knows-who. There is the lack of both camaraderie when we’re trying to write and that all-important “street crew” when we’re trying to promote. There are so many things we discover each and every day — small and large, personal and professional – that we spend years of hours gnashing our teeth and grumbling to ourselves if only I had known!
Having lived this experience for more than a few years now, and having made some small progress in finding bits and pieces of community (including, recently, this generous one at BTM), I offer here a few simple suggestions to those trying to reach out and connect:
Acquaint yourself with the established literary community. You may not be of it, but you certainly can learnfrom it. Join local literary associations and go to events. If you don’t know what they are, find out. Your local library is often a good place to start.
Subscribe to journals – Poets and Writers is certainly a good place to start, but there are dozens of magazines on the art and craft of writing and publishing.
Get yourself out to readings, and talks about craft. Ask questions. Introduce yourself to speakers.
Take or audit a class at a local college or writing center, even if you feel that you’re beyond it. At the very least, it may stoke your creative fire; at best, it may lead to writing buddies or workshop groups beyond the end-point of the course.
Go on-line. There are more on-line writers communities than you can count. Figure out which ones speak to you. When you read something you respond to, leave a comment. Sometimes it can lead to a wider dialogue, which opens the door to on-line relationships with other writing professionals.
If you’re twitter-savvy, by all means tweet! Follow those individuals and organizations that are speaking to the issues about which you’re most interested.
Finally, when you find yourself holding the microphone, talk about how you got there as a writer. You may find many others coming up afterwards to share their stories. I’ve even recently thought about proposing a panel for next year’s AWP designed specifically for those of us without any significant affiliation. I’d be willing to bet they’d need a very large room….
And, beyond all this, read, read, read! Anything and everything you can get your hands on. It may not mean you’re flying to AWP next year with 20 or 30 of your closest colleagues, but it will help keep you abreast of the major conversations going on in literature and publishing today. And that’s no small thing.
There are writers who were always meant to be writers, and then there are the stragglers who land here, blinking in the headlights, trying to fathom what has conspired to lead us to this place. To those of you, I say: do your homework. And see you next year at AWP!
(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), June 26, 2013)
The countdown to launch has begun – your first novel! – and everyone around you, from your hair-stylist to your therapist to your Zumba instructor, is hopped up and ready. Your kids are actually telling you how proud they are of you(!), and people you haven’t seen since childhood are suddenly friend-ing you on Facebook. The principal from your old high school just called: he’d like you to come give next year’s commencement address.
And your parents! Oh, God, your parents are kvelling. The Amazon page is up. They’ve pre-ordered 30 copies and invited both the family Rabbi and Great Aunt Ida to the launch. Their daughter, the poet, has finally written something their friends will actually read! It’s everything an author could hope for: the buzz, the goodwill, the respect from friends and colleagues far and wide – that sense of having finally reached some long-elusive station in life…
“So, there’s this little scene on page 45,” you stammer.
Your father says he knows the owner of a local TV station.
“You know, the book may not be for everyone.”
He smiles, hard and bright. “We’ve scheduled a small party for you at the club.”
“I mean, there’s some serious… sex in it.”
Still with the smile, but just a heartbeat too long.
So. There’s sex and then there’s sex. We all know this. There’s the quiet grazing of a moonlit breast and then there’s the—
Well, we don’t have to go there.
But the point is, many of us do go there, at least in our novels, and it’s often so counter to what our friends and loved ones may be expecting from us that dread can appropriately be added to the long list of pre-debut emotions. But isn’t that what story-telling is all about? – that freedom to imagine ourselves into anything, or anyone, or any situation. It affords us the opportunity to expand our own physical/emotional boundaries, combine one truth with another, take the measure of what we are and what we know and jumble it all up like so many Sunday casseroles. Take your sexual inhibitions, add a little of his passive-aggressiveness and her flat feet, throw in my tattoo. Toss them all together and what you come up with is someone authentically other, behaving – and canoodling – in ways that only this new individual can behave.
Admittedly, it’s hard for readers not to impose their own knowledge of a writer on the reading of his/her work. How many people are able to read Sylvia Plath without bringing her tragic life-story to the task? And the closer the relationship with the writer, the trickier it gets. When the writer happens to be you and the readers some of your nearest and dearest, the dynamic can be downright explosive. There will be those who automatically equate your narrator’s voice with your own and those who see themselves in what you’ve written. Still others may feel scandalized by your character’s behaviors or hurt by their words. Imagine, for example, that you’ve chosen to read a passage about a character’s nasty break-up with her husband and your newly (messily) divorced neighbor happens to be at your reading. Or your main character has an affair with his hot-looking sister-in-law and your hot-looking sister-in-law’s husband shows up?
I’m just sayin’. There’s plenty of room for simmering indignation. People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it – correctly or incorrectly – as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you’ve heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family.
Your husband may want a divorce.
The thing is: fiction liberates us to be NOT who-we-are. Or to be who we might be if only our hair was red or our mother was an opera star or the chickens were dying of swollen head syndrome…if our guilt wasn’t crippling or our cancer had metastasized…if our father was Haitian or our house was condemned or our sinuses blocked. In other words, fiction invites us to step away from our earthbound selves and take flight – in the bedroom or on the soccer field or at the top of the Empire State Building. And while there’s no way to side-step all of the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that may arise, it’s helpful to remember that nobody but you – and sometimes not even you – will ever know for sure just whose bad breath has been paired with whose overbearing boss.
So go ahead – read that sex scene. Read it loud and clear. Read it ’til you blush and your audience starts to look at their shoes. But when the Q&A comes around, do yourself a favor. Ask yourself your own first question – How do I come up with my characters? – and then answer it!
I am Kim Triedman, and I am a blogging virgin.
You’ll have to bear with me. I’m inclined to take this a little slow at first. Put on a little Al Green maybe, even a glass of wine to calm the nerves. The year is young. We’re just on the right side of winter. There’s plenty of time yet to get down to the nitty gritty…
The fact is, this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. This is not who I am. I am a writer, and like many of you out there, I could argue that my passions are being subverted. Certainly I am submitting to peer pressure of the highest order, putting the right side of my brain on sabbatical to humor the left. Compromising myself for the sake of the almighty…….book? It doesn’t take much squinting to see myself lemming-like: joining the ever-ballooning ranks of the newly-published, spinning blog entries like so much cotton candy, filling my head with that quick, nasty sugar-high of immediate gratification.
Now here’s the place where I could blame my publicist. (And maybe I will…just for a minute…I mean, Twitter?? Platform?? Reaching out to my audience??) But truth be told, this is not where I want to go with this. My publicist, Sharon Bially, is nothing but smart and savvy, and I am nothing but glad to have her save me from most of what she spends her days doing exceptionally well on my behalf. I appreciate the learning curve I’m not having to scale on my own by virtue of her instincts and know-how. And in some dark place I have to admit that I signed onto this unholy task when I wrote that first word I wanted someone someday to read. When I conjured up a whole world from one childhood summer. When the first page of my novel insisted itself onto the page. When a poem fell like a perfect plum into my lap. If you’re a writer, you can fill in your own blanks – that moment when you realize that you’re throwing your voice out there into the world…in search of someone to hear it.
So no, I’m going to stop complaining about the fact that I have no time to sit on my front stoop and hear my voices anymore (that sounds more alarming than it is!). And I’m going to stop ranting about facebook and twitter and visibility and reach and target audience and just being that person I don’t want to be. I’m going to try and be gracious now and appreciate the blessing of my forthcoming books.
I’m going to do up my hair and gloss my lips and break out the hooker heels.
I’m going to write a blog.