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).