(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!
The following was first published as a guest post by Cognoscenti, WBURs ideas and opinions blog (8/14/2013).
Call me old-fashioned, but the last thing I’d want by my deathbed is a narrator.
In case you missed the story, NPR’s Scott Simon recently made the decision to broadcast his mother’s final days from her hospital room, one tweet at a time. Now, I’ve no doubt there’s ample precedent: These days, people update their followers in real-time about anything from labor contractions to hiccup remedies. But Simon has 1.3 million followers, and these tweets captured some serious attention across the Twittersphere.
First, a necessary caveat:
This is not a piece about Simon or the quality of his grief or anything else related to his sad circumstances. Rather it is a commentary on what seems to me to be a disturbing phenomenon in our society, whereby our communication technologies are increasingly commandeering what have historically been intimate human experiences.
According to The New York Times, Simon did not begin his deathbed vigil with a “project” in mind. When he began tweeting he did not know his mother’s hospitalization would end in her passing. His first tweet, a quick missive from the ER, was presumably a one-off — not freighted with the intention of more to come.
But more did come. More than a week’s worth, in fact, during which time Simon’s mother continued to decline. And while his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
Yes, we are writers. And yes, whether we write novels or blogposts or stand-up jokes or tweets, we are doing what we somehow need to do — processing our world through our words. Most of us will go there for succor when we need to, and many will feel unburdened by the very act of capturing the experience — pinning it down to the sheet like some kind of rare, exquisite butterfly. For me, it is one of the greatest blessings of being a writer, a metaphorical safety-valve through which pain or grief can magically release. One has only to think of poet Donald Hall’s “Without,” a tribute to his dying wife Jane Kenyon:
we lived in, two decades
by the pond, has transformed
into a single unstoppable day,
gray in the dwelling-place
But here’s the thing. I have been through the kind of vigil Simon describes, with several loved ones now. I have lived in that weird, insulated, windowless time-capsule, marking time according to blood work and respirations and the slow, hideous purpling of toes. I have logged the long hours in hospital chairs, chain-drunk its lousy coffee. I have breathed the smell of death. And I have no doubt that I am not yet done, that there will be more such vigils in my future, the hardest yet to come. But I also know that I will need to be present: clear-eyed; open to the raw, weeping edges of life.
Because there is a difference, I think, between being in the moment — participating in it fully — and stepping outside to report on it. The issue goes way beyond the deathbed vigil. Think of that video you just had to have of your kid celebrating his 5th birthday. These days, people tweet pictures of their dinner before they eat it, as though broadcasting their food trumps the act of enjoying it. We spend hours trolling our Twitter feeds instead of opening our eyes to the toddler quietly tugging at our sleeves.
To me, it is all an issue of timing. Of reflection versus reporting. I want to believe that Donald Hall wrote his poems in the evenings, when his wife was sound asleep, not thinking about his phrasing in the middle of a particularly painful blood draw.
While his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
So yes: The biggest part of me is not so much appalled as saddened by this new iteration of public over-sharing. I do not direct any of this at Simon himself: I know the impulse to reach out, to share the burden, even if that takes on new meanings as time goes by. I am not even specifically railing against Twitter, although it does strike me as a particularly insidious and intrusive form of communication. What I am most concerned with here is the fact that technology has once again afforded us a way to distance ourselves from the very substance of our lives — to put some other “thing” between us and our loved ones. For me, Simon’s experience simply affords an opportunity to pose a wider-angle lens on what is changing in our increasingly fragmented, technology-bound experience.
Twitter, I would maintain, is a zone. A place that is decidedly not where you are. A state of mind in which you’re always looking out for the next 140 character windfall, something you can scavenge out of this experience or that, like a photographer so intent on a picture that he neglects to take in the scene.
Wherever it is, whatever it is, it’s not a place I want to be when grief comes to call.
(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), May 15, 2013)
Shortly after I started writing poetry, in my mid-40’s, an editor looking at my work asked me what it felt like, to write a poem. At the time it seemed like some kind of test. I was not a student of poetry, and he was clearly looking for a certain kind of response. But I answered in the only way I knew how: “Like falling backwards off a cliff,” I said. The words formed themselves, much as the poems I’d been writing had: a rush, breathless and terrifying, something that happened to me rather than by me, something I couldn’t stop and couldn’t see coming, like the end. And when I finally landed after all that free-falling, I’d find the thing I didn’t know I was looking for in the first place. Not just the poem but the answer to the poem, the final puzzle piece.
This, for me, has always been the ecstasy of writing. I write because it is the way I come to know who I am, where I am in the context of my experience. It is my portal of entry, my journey down under. In post-Freudian psychology, connections abound between the underworld and the subconscious, that domain of the psyche that lies beneath the surface. The Ancient Greeks believed that our very dreams ascended from this lower region, even though that world itself was off-limits: the portals were secret – hidden deep in caverns and lakes – the descent itself arduous and forbidding. Hercules did it, but then he was Hercules. As writers, our own downward paths can also be hard to find, bedeviled and fraught. Often we follow them at significant emotional and psychological costs. But they are our way in, our route to what James Hillman would call our “authentic selves.” And while the descent is both terror and rapture, the completion then becomes the resolution of the two, a kind of deep knowing that brings its own deep satisfaction. It is a funny kind of paradox: in order to know, we must walk into the unknown.
And up until a few months ago these were the places I’d go. Just about every day I’d sit back in my chair and stare out at the trees and wait for something to happen. It didn’t matter what was out there; I wasn’t really looking. I’d film my eyes, wait for the thing to slide slantwise into view. That was all it took, really – that quiet, the stillness. Those first few accidental words. And once they’d found me I was off, tripping down the ladder of the poem like water down a sudden, steep outcropping of rock.
But lately the trees out my window have receded. In their place I see only my own reflection. With a first novel and two poetry collections out this year, I have been trying to do what writers also do these days – the other work. At the suggestion of my publicist, I am on Facebook and Goodreads, tumbling and tweeting, trying to “connect” with “friends” I don’t even know. I have “followers” – a term which never fails to crack me up – and for the most part I have no idea who they are or how they found me or why they’re tracking me in the first place. (One recent follower on twitter is listed as “Redhead. Massage therapist. Healer.”) I don’t know what Pinterest is, but somehow I have a feeling that somebody’s going to fill me in. These things are important, I am told, and I am smart enough to understand that what I saw fit to put out into the world deserves the chance to find its readership. Yes, I write for myself, but yes, I also write to communicate. The words emerge with some unspecified “other” in mind – some distal ear at the end of the connection.
But here’s the hitch: I am not this other person. I do not like social media. I don’t like how it makes me feel (oily) or how it makes me act (manic). I don’t like that when I’m “in it” I exist wholly on the surface of things, or that my sense of my own being has somehow gotten tangled up with endless threads of following and being followed, friend-ing and being friend-ed. I am patently ashamed of all the checking I now do: checking my email, checking my Facebook, my Twitter, my Goodreads; the activity on my author page. I have found that there is a grotesquely addictive quality to these rituals, as though with each “Like” or “ReTweet” or “Share” I garner, microquantities of high-grade narcotics are somehow dripped into the feel-good section of my brain. Twitter, of course, is the most addling and addictive of all. It makes the world both so big and so trivial you could drown in all that truncated verbage.
I hate that when the first real spring day happened just a week or two ago, I never even set foot outside.
But perhaps worst of all, I feel the need to apologize to my friends and colleagues for taking up their i-space, wasting their time with endless iterations of “Here I am!” I want them to know that living on this other side shortens my attention span and steals my stillness, dashes any hope of slipping down into my own private underworld. But I also want them to know that writing is my job, that I see it that way, that I do it with diligence and with ardor, that I wake up every morning and sit in my chair and put words onto page and that for many, many (many) years, I’ve earned virtually nothing for it. That my husband has had to shoulder the load because this thing I do does nothing to pay the bills. That publicity may be the seedy underside of writing, but if we believe in what we write – believe that it matters in some way to someone – we have no choice in this bewildering world of publishing but to push it out there. That this is not what we are – not even what most of us are remotely comfortable with – but that it is the other half of the job.
So these days, I rarely stare out my windows or fall backwards off cliffs. For the time being I am not looking to be transported, and I worry sometimes I may not even know how anymore once this is all over. The trees are still there, dressing up and down as the seasons change, but they will have to wait a while longer. I have not stopped loving them. I have only learned that every once in awhile I must make certain offerings to them. And I feel hopeful that after a year or so of this, they will open their arms – and welcome me back.