Monday, February 2, 2015

On Literary Citizenship & Lori A. May's New Book, "The Write Crowd"

“As writers, we need one another.  We need readers and reviewers, editors and cheerleaders for the highs and lows that invariably come with writing. While the life of a writer continually buoys with the unpredictable waves of publishing, emerging writers especially need mentorship and guidance to weather those uncertainties.”~Lori A. May, The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “literary citizenship” lately, inspired by Lori’s new, excellent book and writer Cathy Day’s exploration of the topic, but also as a direct result of my recent experience after I announced my good news, that my manuscript won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published in the fall by University of Pittsburgh Press.  I was awed by the outpouring of good wishes, even realizing the inherent complexity of sharing and responding to this sort of good news…I think I’m not revealing any secrets when I note that I’ve congratulated someone on winning a contest that I had entered and NOT won and that that is a complex feeling indeed, especially depending on your relationship to the author.  I also know that I’ve been mired in deep troughs where it was an act of immense strength to simply click that “like” button and not burst into messy sobs.  And, not to be all gloom and doom, I also very definitely know that feeling of congratulating someone with a pure and simple, “Yes! This good writing news proves that all’s right with the world!”

So I thought I would understand the swirl of congratulations coming my way.  But I felt utterly humbled when someone I don’t know all that well congratulated me, telling me he was happy about my news, “ecstatic really, as you are always helping out other writers.”  I almost cried, because that seemed like the nicest compliment anyone could give me.  And whether it is a true statement or not in my case, I do know that at a certain point in my professional life, I decided that “helping out other writers” was going to be an important part of my mission. 

I think that’s why I was so taken with The Write Crowd which is a blueprint for

~why one might undertake such a mission;
~how to go about it, and;
~the benefits that will accrue once you start seeing yourself as part of a larger community of writers, and not just a part, but a FORCE, really.  We feel powerless in much of our writing life, waiting around for editors to decide our fates—but here’s where we do have muscle and agency.

It isn’t that hard to participate in a mindful, giving way to build and improve our community, and it doesn’t even cost money (though springing for a writer’s lunch tab is always welcome, if you’re in a financial positon to do so…not to mention buying books in hardcover, subscribing to journals, and endowing writing prizes!).

As Lori writes, “When we embrace the community, we gain a better understanding of the creative world in which we participate.” So, yes, being more involved will help our bottom line, whether that bottom line at the moment is selling more copies of our novel by speaking to a book club for free or wanting to understand the submission process from the editor’s eye so volunteering to screen manuscripts at a journal.

But beyond the seemingly “practical” considerations of working to build and participate in our greater writing world, May also notes that, 

“It’s not mandatory to encourage fellow writers or to encourage an emerging voice….No one should expect to earn a book contract because of contacts made in their literary circles. No one should think that being nice to a few folks will make them a bestseller. And, yet, giving something back to the literary community and to the community at large still feels good. You can’t help but feel more valued as a writer when others are excited about your presence….Success, too, is not just about publishing. Witnessing the artistic growth and development of your peers in its own reward. That’s success; that’s gratifying on its own level and sometimes more rewarding than seeing a publication credit.”

Honestly, if you are living the writing life and somehow aren’t considering your personal approach to literary citizenship, you’re doing yourself a major disservice and, if I can be crass, your writing career and life in the community is going to be pretty shitty (and, to be super-crass, personally, I’m not interested in knowing you).  I know, I know: maybe you’re the Literary Genius who will be magically plucked from nowhere and everyone will put up with your crap just because.  Maybe every day you sit down to write, finely-wrought unicorns appear on the page.

Just in case you’re not and they don’t, though, I would suggest thinking about and carefully planning your role in our community.  Not, what can the literary world do for you, but what can YOU do for ALL of us?

May offers a wide range of suggestions, and I’ll just share a few of her ideas:
  • Tell people about the books you love (and I’ll add: not just your own books!).
  • Encourage other writers by attending their readings or welcoming a writer new to town.
  • Write thank you notes…to event organizers, to journal editors, to authors you admire.
  • Write book reviews.
  • Use your online presence to promote other writers.
  • Start a journal.
  • Start an organization.
  • Honestly, there are a zillion things you can do once you put your mind to it.

Maybe this all sounds daunting.  Maybe it all sounds like a lot of work.  That’s what’s ultimately so great about May’s book, that she walks us through the options so we can formulate a plan for being a better literary citizen.

I promise you that after you read May’s book, you’ll feel that something—maybe only one thing, but something!—is achievable for you with whatever limits you have on your time, energy, and finances.  I promise you that Lori will feel like the friend who has all the secrets about how to accomplish that one thing, the friend whispering in your ear, “What a fabulous idea! You totally should do that! You totally can!”

And I personally promise you that not only will you be a better person for doing that one thing or those many things, but that you—little ole YOU—will make our community a vastly better place.  Thank you in advance.

By Lori A. May
Bloomsbury | 194 pages

More information about Lori A. May:
Additional resources about literary citizenship via Lori A. May:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.