Calling yourself a writer in 2017 means a lot more to the public and the literary world than that you write.
That title now means you’ve chosen to be caught in a spider web of connectedness. It means you slogged through a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing so that you aren’t lacking that credit in your bio. It means you attend workshops and lectures to “network”—in other words, politely exploiting human relationships for your own advancement. It means you schmooze. It means you write five-star Amazon reviews for books you didn’t like, all in the hope that their authors will reciprocate. It means you have a website and blog (guilty). It means you waste hours having transitory cotton-candy exchanges with lit-lovers on social media, especially the Trump-infected Nazi farm that is Twitter.
I once heard author Rick Robinson tell an audience about a trip he took to the capital of American corporate publishing, New York City. At a dinner one night, another guest heard Robinson was an author and began drilling him: How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Facebook friends? Robinson then learned the guest was a vice president at a certain major publishing house.
That VP never asked Robinson what he wrote. He just wanted to know how big of a promotional apparatus Robinson had.
I know what the literary gurus will say, and have already said—that the days when a writer could hole up in her bedroom and win immortality for her genius belong to Emily Dickinson. But consider writers like Anjali Enjeti. She admits to readers of The Atlantic that while the connected-writer model has helped her become a journalist, it has failed to do what she hoped it would: find a publisher for her books. All the $250 conferences she has gone to? Didn’t do it. The $5,000 she has spent on book doctors editing her work? Nope. The $26,000 she spent on an MFA?
Writers are human. To write good work, they need the kind of deep, spirit-to-spirit relationships that the social-circus can never give them. They also need as much time to write as they can get. Hashtag #amwriting. Even though you’re not.
One brilliant heretic not yielding to this trend is Kentucky author C.E. Morgan. Morgan has published two literary novels, All The Living and The Sport of Kings, and won lucrative awards. Yet I admire Morgan for more than her fiction—it’s for her ethos as a writer. She doesn’t tour the circus like many successful (and unsuccessful) writers do.
She has no website. And thus no blog. She has no MFA. She also has no social media presence. She is a writer in the 21st century and, I believe, remains fully human.
The frenetic slavery of self-promotion may not serve a writer’s humanity, but genuine community will. What does that look like? It looks like folks meeting at a library for a writers group; going to an actual friend’s reading at a bookstore; seeking a critique from a trusted colleague. Put differently, it means finding ways to care about others, to grow as a writer. It means being authentic.
There’s actually something practical behind this—true friends will sell your work better than anybody else! I have seen this happen in the career of a friend who published her poetry collection with a small press. She set up a Facebook page where she posted every few weeks. She arranged some readings. Two years later, her book is still selling copies (it surprises even her publisher).
The difference in her case was that her promotion focused on authentic relationships. No billboards, no aggressive “networking.” The circle of friends she has cultivated over the years, just by being herself, has put that collection into more hands than the circus ever could. That’s a sliver of what being real can do for a writer.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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