A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?
Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.
The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.
In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.
For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.
Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.
I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.
Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.
Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.
She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”
“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.
“Make the scene ugly.”
Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.
Was I wrong? Of course not.
Was she wrong? Of course not.
“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.
“What kind of fiction do you write?”
Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.
When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”
That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.
I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”
Ha! Take that!
Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?
Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.
We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.
Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.
Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.
In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.
I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.
However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.
Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.
Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.