Whenever I drive to my real local library or the Barnes & Noble near my house, I’m always disappointed I can find a parking space so easily. Trust me, I love convenience. But where is everyone? What are they doing that’s more fun than browsing the shelves? Every man keeps a few secrets from his wife, and here’s one of my key ones: the line at the library checkout desk is never that long. Sure, I said I was just returning some of our kids’ books, but that shouldn’t have taken forty-five minutes. I’ll let you know, dear reader: I wasn’t really waiting that whole time. I was checking out three more books on behavioral economics, and I’m not even sure why. (But maybe there’s something in these books that can explain it!)
Early last month, PEN International publicly condemned the killing of Thai poet Mainueng K. Kunthee. The poet had been shot to death on April 23rd, presumably because of his public criticisms of the monarchy and Thailand’s lèse majesté law. Known as a poet of the people, Kunthee was immensely popular; his work “spoke of social justice, the rights of the poor, and in protest of laws against free expression.”
After Kunthee’s death, free expression became even more suppressed in Thailand–thus the PEN condemnation six weeks later. “PEN International is deeply concerned for the safety of writers, academics and activists in Thailand,” the report states, “who are increasingly at risk of attack and imprisonment solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions…”
PEN’s report and condemnation recirculated the story on June 10th, with write-ups in LA Times and The Poetry Foundation, among others. As it happens, three days later, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Poetry: Who Needs It?”–in which the author summarizes and laments the overarching neglect–if not general loathing–of poetry today.
Last year, I was talking to a romance novelist who self-publishes her books. She had decided to go this route after submitting a manuscript directly to Harlequin and not hearing back from them for months.
What forced her hand was that she had kids, she had been working part-time, and her husband had just been laid off. If she could make a thousand dollars over the life of the book, she figured, that was better than sitting in the slush pile, and it was cash she could use for groceries.
In fact, she made a few thousand dollars. She kept writing and publishing and that turned into a few thousand a month, and then tens of thousands of dollars a month. By the end of the first two years she had made well over a million dollars on ebooks. I just checked, and she’s still ranked in the top twenty on Amazon for romance novelists. (She isn’t just lucky; she happens to write the best sex scenes I’ve read anywhere, by any writer.)
I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.
When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.
One morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.
Leaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:
We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…
Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?
Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.
But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-”activist” writers can take to dive in:
- Identify Our Stories
- Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
- Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”
If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenix had the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.
Writers at the Phoenix didn’t get paid much, but they were able to hone their skills so finely because writing was all they did—or, rather, writing was all they had to do. Writers sure didn’t live in the lap of luxury, but they also didn’t need to teach high school English, they didn’t need to bartend or work construction or temp in a high rise office—they only needed to write.
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on literary hoaxes.
We promise this post contains no hoaxes. It’s not a joke, like this infamous stunt pulled on April Fools’ Day in 2001 in Copenhagen regarding their new metro system:
All fake train wrecks aside, there have been many literary hoaxes over the years (yes, you’ve been fooled, this post contains many hoaxes). Which ones have you fallen for?
Plate VI from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
It took, it seemed, only a few seconds for the first response to appear. My heart plummeted as more appeared in my Twitter feed, each increasingly indignant, ticking off like a plunging stock exchange. I knew there had not been enough time for any of the commenters to actually read the article I linked to; they were simply responding to the post.
For many reasons—professional and deferential—I won’t repeat the exact content of the post, but it was the kind of thing that starts flame wars like dry underbrush. Blame it on laziness and a communal obsession with drama, but provocation sells. There is an art form to highlighting the main points of an article in 140 characters, especially one of a satirical nature, but if you do it “right” you have the chance to reach a potentially unsuspecting audience. At its best, a Twitter feed plays out like snatches of witty conversation heard on a subway while reading the newspaper. At its worst, it’s crude, manipulative.
So, I had a few options: I could write a rebuttal for the joke made in poor taste. Maybe accept that stirring controversy is not such a bad thing for web site numbers. Or, simply delete the tweet and hope no one noticed the blunder.
As Christopher Hitchens said in Love, Poverty, and War, “There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.” The thing is, I deleted the post.
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on writer’s block.
There’s a lot to be said about writer’s block, but I can’t think of how to articulate it right now…So I’ll let the masters of their craft do it. Let these posts help you recognize writer’s block and fend it off.
- A New Year’s resolution, a writing routine, a battle against writer’s block. Fan Wu chimes in.
- Greg Shutz explains his paradox of productivity. “My reliance on routine leaves my writing life fragile, prone to periods of drought.”
From Around the Web:
- How can we enhance divergent thinking? (That’s a good thing.) Read “How To Get Unstuck: The Psychology of Writer’s Block,” from Poets & Writers.
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on submitting and getting published.
What’s the trick? Twitter? A Facebook page? Hiring an agent? All of the above? What are the best ways to market your writing in an ever-competitive writing market? Our writers and writers from around the web divulge their marketing strategies and concerns.
- A.J. Kandathil gleans valuable knowledge from Liz Lemon about pitching her ideas and more in “Episodia 1.1: Making Comedy and Paper with Liz Lemon.”
- “Finding an honest, understanding, capable, experienced, devoted, and supportive agent is as hard as finding a spouse,” writes Fan Wu in “Being Published, and Then…”