After the workshop, I got an email from one of the participants, Fredrick Marion. I’m always thrilled when the inner critic takes visual form, gets post office box, and becomes capable of receiving a Dear Inner Critic letter. Kudos to the writers who make that happen. Here’s Fredrick’s letter…Enjoy!
I got an email from a writer friend who is working on a complicated memoir. She is stuck in the process. In her email, she described the self-doubt that crept in after witnessing a commercial agent dispensing what I consider toxic advice at a workshop. When another writer at the workshop described her own work-in-progress to the agent, because the described work falls outside the expected form for a self-help book, the agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.
To repeat: The agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.
When I think of this, a cliché tingles the back of my neck (clichés are based in truth, right?): the hair at the nape prickles, a shortcut for anger. Thanks, Agent. Way to shut a writer down! Here’s an adaptation of what I wrote back to my friend:
DISBELIEVE WHAT THAT AGENT SAID! WHATEVER MESHUGAS THE AGENT SAID, WRITE THE AGENT’S WORDS ON A PIECE OF PAPER AND THEN BURN IT!!!!!! KISS THAT ADVICE GOODBYE! That agent only has experience with commercial, old school, traditional publishing, and there is room for SO MUCH MORE in the world of writing. That agent doesn’t know everything! NO ONE knows everything!
From all I understand about writing a complicated memoir, you are in exactly the right spot—excavating the words, memories, feelings, and then shaping and giving it form is a messy and idiosyncratic experience. I know it’s incredibly rough. (I have sprawling, passionate fragments that I might some day shape into a whole memoir, but I’m not yet ready. Even the questions I have to uncover and ask in that process are too intimidating for now.) One message that emerged from all the writers at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop this summer is that EVERYONE operates in the world of self-doubt. EVEN keynoter Andre Dubus III said as much, and so did everyone else presenting. (“The faster I write, the more I’m able to outrun my self-doubt,” said writer Gayle Brandeis. I want to tattoo that line inside my eyelids.)
I’m coming to understand that self-doubt is our fuel.
Self-doubt keeps us honest and also helps us do the work. A paradox, because self-doubt can also cripple the writer. Many writers (more seasoned and articulate than I am) write about the plague of self-doubt. My advice (which I give freely to myself, yet have a hard time taking) is to acknowledge the self-doubt, realize that it’s part of the process, whether you’re writing work based on your direct experiences, or creating fictional worlds. Tie it up in a bundle, give it a name, and then laugh at it. Let it be your fuel.
Trudge through the snowstorm of self-doubt, and do the work (she tells herself).
Last Saturday, at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop seminar, Paths to Publication, my understanding about the revolution in publishing deepened. The thread through the day showed how the conversation has shifted: even those in traditional publishing now acknowledge (rather gracefully) that self-publishing is no longer simply what we used to know as vanity publishing and that there are about a thousand smart and thoughtful ways to do whatever a writer wants to do. This kind of event—involving agents, editors, and people who help others self-publish—would not have been as collegial and open even a couple years ago. It might have been because the people in the room were generous and respectful of each other, but I also think it has to do with the changing marketplace, and with the idea of literary citizenship.
Presenter Cathy Day teaches a course in literary citizenship at Ball State University. Day encountered the term on Dinty W. Moore’s post at Brevity. Though I’ve been thinking about literary citizenship for a while, and doing my part when I make time for it, the conversation on Saturday opened up how I had been thinking about the quest for a publisher. And beyond that, opened up how I had been thinking about what it is to be part of a literary community, to walk in the landscape of creative writing.
My epiphany, coming after the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle (my first ever AWP conference) is interesting timing. I’ve been a lurker in the world of words. Depending on the day and my mood, I blame this tendency to lurk on being an introvert, or not knowing everyone, or not being connected, or being a slow reader, or not having read everything that I know somehow I should have read. (For instance, I feel a sense of shame when I look at the end of Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer where she provides a four page list entitled, “Books To Be Read Immediately.”) At age 47, there are many areas in my life where I have grown comfortable taking charge, and where I feel a sense of balance. Approaching the public with my work is not one of them. But I woke on Saturday morning (before the AWW seminar) with a new clarity: 1) I want my work to be read, and 2) I don’t want to be at the mercy of others to make that happen. I’m not sure what these two facts will manifest. (Stay tuned.)
And as the day went on, I realized that getting published (which sometimes seems like the only thing, as a thirsty plant needs water) is a relatively small part of the work of a literary life. Yes, it’s nice to have recognition, and not to feel invisible. But there’s more to it than that. “Ask not what you can to do get published. Ask what you can do for books,” read Cathy Day’s first slide in her presentation on literary citizenship. A great place to start reframing things…
Literary citizenship seems a bit like taking care of the planet. But it goes beyond a literary version of Woodsy Owl’s “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” It’s not just avoiding throwing a beer can out of your car window, and it goes beyond picking up the cigarette butts you see on the sidewalk. It’s composting, and taking the humus to the community garden. Earnest literary citizenship is a deeper way to care for the environment of books and words, and it is not self-serving, unless we think of maintaining the environment of books as a good thing in itself, and good for us humans (which it is). It’s giving thought (beyond our own writing) to what we give to the world, what we leave behind for future generations of readers…and it’s really about sustaining and contributing to a community.
(“We make the world. We make it!” I wrote a long time ago in a post here. It’s just now sinking in that this applies not just to the world but also to the world of books and words. We have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of work to do. But what else would I rather be doing?)
I’m grateful for all the presenters at Saturday’s AWW publishing seminar for a wonderful day: Jeff Herman, Deborah Herman, Kirby Gann, David Braughler, Steve Saus, and Cathy Day. As often happens at AWW events, early in the day, a sort of narrative thread emerged: Do your work, connect with others, practice the good form of nurturing books and supporting the community of writers, read the small print, you can do anything. Make something happen.
And finally after a long, oppressive winter, it’s spring.
Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop. I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.
Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).
Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life. Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person. What else is life, if not that?
There’s a nice article posted in the American Chronicle about the partnership between Antioch University McGregor and the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW). You can read it here.
For my part, the work of the summer course was challenging and exhilarating. I hope to teach it again next year. It’s a really good workshop, too, even if you don’t want academic credit. You can read more about the AWW here.
There was a lot of discussion at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about the chestnut, “write what you know.” Zakes Mda gave a lovely keynote speech, and talked about the idea of writing what you don’t know, or maybe more accurately, writing what you want to know.
I think that the idea of writing what you know is too often taken too literally. People write fiction which is autobiography, veiled by the sheerest curtain: so that setting, plot, characters, dialogue, and just about everything else is (to borrow a phrase from the ubiquitous Law and Order TV shows) “ripped from the headlines” of their lives. When I talk to other writers about this, the more savvy people agree that yes, it behooves a writer to write from a basis of emotional or psychological truth. The idea of authenticity is everywhere these days, and the word is overused, but it fits here, I think. However, having some core of authenticity does not necessarily mean transposing your real life to fiction. No matter how interesting the “headlines” of someone’s life might be, the world and the world of words would be better if people would use more imagination.
So I’ve been thinking about various angles on this problem, both in fiction and nonfiction.
I attended a memoir workshop last week at the AWW. I submitted a piece of nonfiction, more of a personal essay than memoir. In the piece, there is a person whose name I did not use; let’s call this person the villain of my story. Part of the reason I chose not to use the villain’s name had to do with protecting myself. But the story I told is mine, and the reason I decided to tell it has mainly to do with not hiding secrets.
As I understand it, here are my options:
1. Put the essay or whatever it is aside, congratulate myself for the courage and catharsis of writing it, and get back to work on my novel.
2. Change names and call it nonfiction.
3. Change names and call it fiction. (This has zero appeal. See above about not hiding secrets.)
4. Name the person and open myself to unknown and unpleasant reactions.
I get mad thinking about how, in order to tell my story, to be free enough to write it and safe enough to publish it, I have to not tell it all. Or more accurately, I get mad that I can’t name a real villain.
So whose story is this? If I experienced it, do I own it? Is it mine? If it’s mine, why can’t I tell everything? Who do these facts belong to, if not me?
I don’t particularly like the term “networking” unless you’re talking about computer cables and fiber optics. When talking about meeting, working with, and being real with other real humans, “networking” sounds mechanical and shallow. But whatever we call it, connecting with others who care about the written word makes me feel like I’ve just woken from a great night’s sleep, brain rested, abundant sunshine in the forecast.
I spent last week at the Antioch Writers Workshop, among writers, editors, teachers, and readers who care about the nerdy things I care about, like near-perfect metaphors, mining memory, and squashing clichés. Midweek, that thing happened when time feels like it’s accelerating, and I realized the workshop would be over soon. I got really sad, because I want to spend more time among people who concern themselves with words, sentences, images.
I’ve known, worked with, and adored various writers for a while now, many of whom prop me up when I’m drooping. Many are my beloved people. And last week, I met and mingled with others who, I hope, will expand this constellation.
I am trying to convince myself that sending thank you notes is not on a continuum with stalking, and that if I received a handmade card from another writer, I would be glad.