If you’re interested, my blog post “Why Go to the Museum?” was recently reposted on the SFWA blog. If you missed it the first time, feel free to go over and take a look!
Having my post reposted made me think about the importance, for a writer, of being engaged with the writing world – the world of other writers.
We don’t necessarily think of writers as engaged, do we? We think of Marcel Proust in his cork-lined room, the solitary genius sequestered from the world. We don’t necessarily think of writing as a collaborative activity. And yet – I think of the fact that Proust translated the works of John Ruskin into French. There’s a way in which, if you’re a writer, you have to be engaged with the world of other writers, whether past or present – and so much the better if both. You have to allow yourself to be influenced, to feel the words of other writers, their ideas, their style, affecting you, forcing you to think about what you’re doing. That’s not going to the museum – that is, in a sense, going to the library, even if it’s just your own personal library.
But I, personally, need more than that as well. I need to spend time with other writers, sit down with them, talk to them, find out what they’re doing. I need to hear about their projects and their lives, exchange manuscripts with them. That’s what I get from being on facebook, reading writers’ blogs, going to conventions. And from maintaining personal relationships, even if it means I’m emailing friends I only see once a year. It’s also what I get from being a member of SFWA. (My dues are due at the end of this month. Note to self: pay SFWA dues!)
Because writing is, almost always, a collaborative activity. When I wrote “Miss Emily Gray,” I collaborated with Henry James. When I wrote “Pug,” which is coming out in Asimov’s Science Fiction, I collaborated with Jane Austen. We are all writing mash-ups, all the time. Most of them are just more subtle than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But talking to other writers, reading what other writers are working on this year, in this century of ours, gives me a sense of my own possibilities. There’s a piece of advice writers are often given, which is to pay no attention to how your contemporaries are doing. That will just, we are told, create discontent. But I do pay attention, and I pay attention specifically to writers who are doing things I’m not, at least not yet. I’m thinking of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne M. Valente, and Christopher Barzak. Nnedi and I went to Clarion together, and over the years I’ve seen her publish short stories, then novels – amazing, inventive novels that address important social issues, even though they are also rousing adventure stories. I met Cat years ago in an airport, while we were both headed to Wiscon. I’ve seen her create a world for herself, a fascinating world in which she writes poetic novels that are unlike anyone else’s, puts on fabulous shows with S.J. Tucker, and wears the most fantastic clothing. I met Chris at Clarion, although he had already graduated; he was just back to visit. I read a story of his back then, and it’s been fascinating to watch him refine the style he had into something so direct, lyrical, and affecting. His stories seem to speak directly to you (at least, they do to me). Nnedi, Cat, and Chris are all being successful in their own ways, and watching them makes me think about what I want to do, how I want to be successful. Because their successes reflect their individual personalities, and so I have to think about what I can do that reflects mine. I could not be successful in their ways. But they give me a sense of the possibilities out there.
(If you haven’t read their stories, you’ll find links to their websites on this page. Go buy their books! You still need to buy presents, don’t you? If not for others, then for yourself.)
But I called this post “Engaging the World,” and that sort of engagement is not a passive activity. It doesn’t mean simply paying attention to what other writers are doing. It means going out there (which many writers are not very good at doing – many of us are like deer, and prefer to stay in the shadows at the edge of the forest), joining organizations, being on panels at conventions. Putting your own ideas in front of the world, being willing to say what you think. Especially about writing, about where it is nowadays, where it needs to go. That takes a certain level of courage, because you will be contradicted and someone, and maybe a lot of someones, will say you’re wrong. And you may be.
But I think it’s important for writers to be engaged, with the world of other writers and, beyond that, with the world of their readers. Because the readers are what it’s all about, finally. (If you’re a reader, you’re what this is all about, finally. If I don’t reach you, if I don’t engage with you, I’ve failed.)
Reading this post over, trying to correct misspellings, mistakes, I realize how much more random it is than my usual posts. That’s because there’s a thought behind it that I haven’t expressed, that I’ve withheld from you. It is this. I met a writer recently, one of the most talented I’ve met, who is not engaged in this way. And who, therefore, is not in touch with other writers or readers, and misses opportunities to make his writing stronger, and misses publication opportunities, and opportunities to bring his writing to readers who would enjoy it, be touched by it. He will never read this post, because he doesn’t read such things, so it’s as though I’m writing it completely in private, even though it can be read by the entire world. And so this post is a form of mourning for missed opportunities, for him and other writers I’ve known like him who are not engaged, and do not know their own possibilities. And it is a reminder to myself, and to you who are reading this, to engage, even when we feel like curling up in bed, under the fuzzy blanket (pictured in my last post, if you remember).
I think this is good advice for many people. But I think it also sort of recapitulates the MFA program writers vs. other writers debate. There is no one way that works for everyone, and the success-through-embracing-the-popular-channel can become a bit incestuous. Some of us are meant for the forest and will benefit only marginally by distorting our own natures in an attempt to do what works for other, more gregarious, extroverted writers.
I think it is inarguable, for example, that in this day and age a writer is well served to be engaged in the marketing aspects of his or her work. Some writers are superb at talking about their books, give great interviews, and love to go on book-signing tours that take them around the world, meeting thousands (if they’re lucky) of readers and potential buyers. Others are not and will largely be wasting their time, whatever their publisher might think. Some, particularly those with limited time/attention to devote to their writing, will be better served by focusing on it exclusively. I have a hard time seeing Emily Dickinson or Kafka or Dick acting as their own marketers. As in so much of life, I think the key is to know yourself, play to your own strengths, and acknowledge the limits of your ability or interest. Writers don’t all write the same way (nor would we want them to); it follows that they won’t do anything else the same either.
I know you are specifically addressing a more one-to-one type of engagement with other practitioners of the craft. The networking/marketing angle is something of a pet peeve, because I see an increasing number of people (including some who should know better) pushing it aggressively as a one-size-fits-all solution lately. I agree that contact with other writers is a valuable resource. Unfortunately, it’s not one that all of us have (aside from reading writers’ blogs). Be grateful that you do (and I’m not suggesting that they just fell into your lap–it’s clear that you’ve worked hard to put yourself into situations where you can have them).
I absolutely agree with this: “As in so much of life, I think the key is to know yourself, play to your own strengths, and acknowledge the limits of your ability or interest.” I think that whatever you do as a writer has to come out of who you are. I always try to think about generic things like readings that way. This is a reading, everyone does readings, but how do I do a reading? What do I do differently that comes out of who I am? (So, I pass out chocolates, and I used to always create something, a booklet with a new story or something like that, to pass out at readings.) I am grateful, believe me! I have a lot of opportunities that other people don’t have, although you’re also right that I’ve created many of those opportunities or put myself in a position to have them. Having this blog is one of those opportunities. (I have the time, I have the resources to keep up a blog. I’m also foregoing other activities to write here, but that’s an easy choice, I’d much rather be doing this than all sorts of other things.) And I hope this is individual as well, and an expression of who I am as a writer . . .