Nurturing the literary ecosystem

Give a hoot, read a book!
Give a hoot, read a book!

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.