(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!