How to Be Part of a Literary Community:
What I’ve Learned about Literary Etiquette
As AWP is now less than two weeks away, the number of requests I’ve gotten from writers asking for help (with events, with venues, with readings, with everything) is both heartening and dismaying. I want to help writers in any way I can, but I’m only one person, so there’s only so much reach/pull I have and there’s only so much I’m willing or able to do.
The requests–some from writers I know, more often from writers I don’t know–got me thinking about the literary community, both local and online, and I want to put forth what I’ve learned as a writer who didn’t have what most people would consider a traditional literary background.
So, here are my thoughts on how to be part of a literary community. I will sometimes focus on Boston because that’s where I live, but I believe these observations are applicable regardless of location.
1/Pay attention (a note about submission guidelines).
This would seem obvious. We’re writers. We’re always paying attention, right? Well, no. We’re people before we’re writers. When people get overexcited or overwhelmed, we don’t necessarily behave as thoughtfully as we would otherwise. We go to readings and we don’t listen. We submit work to journals we’ve never read. We get excited about the idea of being a reader/writer without putting in the effort.
These are generalizations, yes, but I’m starting with a general point as based on the behavior I see most often. Also, I’ve been writing fiction since I was eighteen. I’ve been careless and stupid and thoughtless about my career and I’ve seen carelessness, stupidity, and thoughtlessness in other writers far older and more experienced than I.
I’ve received multiple e-mails from writers (some of them established) who want to read at Literary Firsts and, instead of sending work, they send me a list of writers who they’re friends with.
And, yes, I get it. I understand that nepotism exists. I understand that no system is based entirely on merit. However, when you want an editor or events coordinator to support your work, show them that you’re professional enough to follow guidelines and polite enough to offer them the respect you would offer a complete stranger.
In other words, if you want to get published somewhere or read at a series, read the submission guidelines before you submit. Every reading series and publication has submission guidelines that someone took time to write. If you read them and you don’t want to follow them, then don’t submit work to that journal or that series. But if you do decide to submit work, follow the guidelines.
2/Be patient and respectful.
As writers, we should all write more than we do. We should be writing or revising or thinking about one of the two.
But we get wrapped up in proving ourselves and having our work seen by as many people as possible, including all our friends and their friends’ friends, and everyone on the internet, and people who don’t even like to read.
So we send an e-mail to an editor or a curator. And we wait.
And that is where that should end.
However, that’s not always the case. I’ve received monthly correspondence from writers who just copy and paste the last e-mail they sent me, which I haven’t responded to because I haven’t had time to write a thoughtful response. Every editor/curator has their own pace in responding to e-mails, but if I don’t respond immediately to an e-mail, it’s not because I haven’t read it. It’s because I want to give it my full attention.
If you write to an editor or curator and he or she doesn’t respond in a timely fashion (let’s say, six months), feel free to send a follow-up note. Add a personal touch saying that you contacted before.
If that still doesn’t work, consider your best effort put forward and call it a day. Find something else to do (like writing something new or reading something new or reading something you loved the first time and will likely love the second time around). Be patient and show respect. Editors love both. I promise.
Patience and respect, by the way, should also be spent on yourself. Your current work-in-progress will feel like a fragile limb until it’s done (and, even then, it will feel like your offspring). Being patient and respectful with your own time and effort will make it easier to be patient and respectful with your hopefully soon-to-be collaborators.
3a/If you can’t be reliable, accept that about yourself.
You want to talk about your work. Of course you do. And, as part of a community, people will want to hear about it. Eventually, someone will say they want to read what you’ve written.
You will be excited. You will be nervous. You will send them your work–
–or you won’t.
If this person is a friend, no sweat. They’ll understand.
If this person is an editor, you may consider sweating.
That is, when someone is relying on you for a project, be it a piece for a literary journal, a performance for a festival, or some more obvious form of collaboration, be forthcoming about your time constraints. If something comes up, that’s okay. That happens to everyone. But if you’re regularly late with things, don’t get upset if you get dropped from an issue or a project.
There will be other opportunities. By all means, when things go awry, communicate your interest in taking part in something later. Learning to say no (see point 4) means saying it to editors and collaborators. Saying no isn’t the same as saying never. And I guarantee that your cohorts will appreciate your honesty.
4/Remember that failure isn’t always failure.
You will miss a deadline. You will not read guidelines closely enough. You will screw something up. You will feel awful. You will feel excluded. You will receive rejections.
But the best thing you can do is learn from all of these drawbacks. Learn how to be a more critical editor of your own work. Learn how to manage your time more effectively. Learn how to say no when your back’s against the wall on a piece that’s due soon, but your friends are begging you to go out.
Learn what you’re willing to give up (and you will give things up, be it time, money, or both) in order to succeed.
And learn how to fail gracefully. The sooner you do, the sooner you can gracefully resume.
We all have the dour writer friend. Dour Writer Friend doesn’t send work out. Dour Writer Friend goes to a lot of readings and mopes in the back. Dour Writer Friend is almost always (annoyingly) an incredibly astute reader despite his or her dourness. Dour Writer Friend hates his or her own writing, even though it has glimpses of brilliance, because Dour Writer Friend compares his or her own writing to the best writers you can think of (and better).
Sometimes, you want to strangle Dour Writer Friend, but never more than when Dour Writer Friend gets pissy about your Hardworking Writer Friends’ successes.
Dour Writer Friend will say, “Where’s Dour Writer Friend’s interview in the local paper?”
Dour Writer Friend will ask, “Why hasn’t anyone published Dour Writer Friend’s amazing poetry/short story manuscript?”
Instead of saying, DOUR WRITER FRIEND, I HATE IT WHEN YOU’RE DOUR, remember that Dour Writer Friend never learned how to be generous, but you did. Remind Dour Writer Friend that all your Hardworking Writer Friends have been busting their respective asses to get their work seen. Gently encourage Dour Writer Friend to get off his or her own dour ass and do something to get published/chosen/other-positive-verbed.
You know how to do this. You’ll know what to say when the time comes.
And if you are Dour Writer Friend, see point 2 about patience and respect.
6/Allow yourself to be affected, but don’t resort to affectation.
Read and read and read until you find a story or poem or writer who knocks you over where you stand. Let a writer’s words get under your skin. Let them stick with you. Allow yourself to be moved by your contemporaries.
But don’t feign it if you don’t feel it. There are scads of writers whose work my friends love that I feel nothing over. There are tons of people I know who refuse to be moved by my favorite writers’ work, not even when I read what I consider to be the best of the best aloud to them, in my own apartment, with tea and snacks around.
Not even then.
But that’s okay. Honestly.
Because I refuse to take part in fakery. And you should too.
But when you do feel it, when you find something mind-blowing, send me an e-mail because I want to know.
7/Go to literary events.
You are part of a community whether you know it or not. And that community includes other people. So go meet them. If you’re new to the area, go to readings/release parties and introduce yourself. Readings are chatty. Parties moreso. You may not even have to mention that you’re a writer–people might automatically assume. Either way, just go and see what people are doing and working on. Meet other writers and compare processes. Meet other writers and don’t talk about writing at all. Meet other writers because it’ll make you feel like you’re part of something outside your own head (which is exactly what your work becomes once it’s published).
A warning: If you happen to meet someone who’s a jerk (and it will probably happen eventually), don’t let that experience stand for every potential writer you might meet. Writers are insightful, deep-thinking people. Some of them happen to use that insight for lesser reasons.
That is not your fault.
Be approachable, but don’t be a doormat. Have fun with your career (and be serious when the time/project calls for it). And, when you’re ready, see point 8.
8/Make your own opportunities.
I’m not from Boston. I’m from a valley about an hour north of Philadelphia (a very long hour). It’s not a booming land of opportunity, but I tried before I left to contact people and further my writing.
I was met with encouragement until people read my work (I was writing racy stuff back then). So, because I was so frequently faced with resistance, I left. I moved to a new place, a place I found inspiring and relaxing and, within a year, I’d founded a small press and literary journal. I moved to a bigger city (which I hated), but when I came back to Boston, I knew what I wanted to do–I wanted to found a reading series and move my online journal to print and publish more books, and write more books.
So I did. Do not be mistaken into thinking that I just waltzed up to life and said, “Hey, why don’t you hand me something?” I did this with help from amazing collaborators and the best partner a writer/editor could ask for. But it had to start with an idea.
So have a plan and see it through. You will suffer setbacks. You will host events that no one attends. Host them anyway. Love every minute, regardless of who shows up (see note 6). Keep doing what you do because someone will eventually notice and those someones will be your allies.
9/Learn how to discuss books you didn’t like
9a/Admit that you want something from the books you read.
Not everyone agrees on what, exactly, is worth reading. We’re all reading all the time and these things we call books are so full of ideas that give readers other ideas and, besides that, they give readers inspiration, not necessarily to write, but to live and to experience things and to make things happen (see point 8).
But we rarely talk about it. I’m not sure why. I have theories. I think it has to do with fear of exposing what you don’t know. Readers are a smart bunch. We don’t want to seem like we’re missing something; we don’t want to admit that we’ve potentially overlooked something brilliant, so we curb the issue, saying things like, “I didn’t finish that book” or “That book sucked” or “I didn’t even bother.”
We could instead say, “I hated that book because I expected it to be ______” or “I wanted the book to be more ________.”
We all have expectations about books. It’s okay to have them. It’s actually great to have them. It means you’re discerning. The sooner you admit to having expectations and guidelines on what you read, the sooner you can extend beyond them. I promise you’ll be happier you did. See below.
10/Read work that scares you.
This last part is about how to enrich the literary community you’re in all the time–literary community, party of one.
I have only one suggestion, but it’s mighty:
Read work you’re afraid of. Read work that makes you think. Read at least one book a year that sends you looking for a dictionary. Read work that expands what you thought was true. Read work that gives you great, swelling ideas.
Then impart them on the world. It’s the best thing you can do for your mental health. And it’s splendid literary etiquette.