Cathy Day is the author of two books: Comeback Season, a non-fiction novel (Free Press 2008) and The Circus in Winter, a short-story cycle (Harcourt 2004). Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in The Millions, Fiction Writer’s Review, and Ninth Letter. She lives in Indiana and teaches at Ball State University. She blogs about novel writing and teaching novel writing at The Big Thing.
I’ve been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years now, and here’s something I’ve observed: what brings most people to the creative writing classroom or the writing conference isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community.
Deep down, we know that not everyone who signs up for the class or the conference will become a traditionally published writer. Well, so what? What if they become agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, book club members, teachers, librarians, readers, or parents of all of the above?
My students attend MFA programs, yes, and they publish, yes, but they aren’t my only “success stories.” Some are literary agents; in fact, Rebecca’s agent, Michelle Brower, is a former student of mine. They subscribe to lots of literary magazines. They have founded and edit magazines, too. They’re editors. They write for newspapers and work in arts administration. They maintain blogs. They review books. They volunteer at literary festivals. They participate in community theatre. They become teachers who teach creative writing. Most importantly, they are lifelong readers.
How do I know all this? Well, there’s this thing called Facebook…
Lately, I’ve started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn’t just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call “literary citizenship.” I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.
Here are a few of my working principles of Literary Citizenship:
1.) Write “charming notes” to writers. (I got this phrase from Carolyn See.) Anytime you read something you like, tell the author. Send them an email. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Not all writers are reachable, so you might have to write an old fashioned letter and send it to the publisher or, if they teach somewhere, to their university address. You don’t have to gush or say something super smart. Just tell them you read something, you liked it. They may not respond, but believe me, they will read it.
2.) Interview writers. Take charming notes a step farther and ask the writer if you can do an interview. These days, they’re usually done via email. Approach this professionally, even if you are a fan. Write up questions (I prefer getting one question at a time, but some prefer getting them all at once). Let the writer talk. Writers love to talk. Submit the interview to an appropriate print or online magazine. Spread the word. There are many, many outlets, some paying. I really like the interviews published by Fiction Writer’s Review, like this one.
3.) Talk up (informally) or review (formally) books you like. Start with your personal network. Then say something on Goodreads. Then Amazon.com or B&N. Then try starting a book review blog. Or a book review radio show, like a former student of mine, Sarah Blake. Submit your reviews to newspapers and magazines, print or online. God knows, the world needs more book reviewers. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two writer/teacher/reviewers I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews. Remember: no matter what happens to traditional publishing, readers will always need trusted filters to help them know what is worth paying attention to and what’s not. Become that trusted filter.
4.) If you want to be published in journals, you must read and support them. Period. If it’s a print journal, subscribe. If it’s an online journal, talk them up, maybe even volunteer to read. One of my favorite writers, Dan Chaon, had this to say about journals: The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories. You can read his incredibly practical advice here.
5.) If you want to publish books, buy books. I don’t want to fight about big-box stores (evil!) vs. indie bookstores (good!) or about libraries (great!) or how truly broke you are (I know! I’ve been there, too!) or which e-reader is “better” for the writer or the independent book seller (argh!). I just want you to buy books. Period. It makes me angry to see the lengths relatively well-off people will go to avoid buying a book. Especially considering how much they are willing to spend on entertainment, education, or business-related expenses. If you’re a writer, you can file a Schedule C: Profit or Loss from a Business, and books and magazine subscriptions are tax deductible.
6.) Be passionate about books and writing, because passion is infectious. When I moved back home again to Indiana this past summer, my husband and I set out to buy bookshelves. The first furniture store we entered didn’t even carry bookshelves, the second carried only a single type, and the third (which we bought, because they were on sale) were really intended to be decorative shelves, not book shelves. Mind you, I wasn’t really surprised by this. I grew up here, after all. If you find yourself in a literary desert, rather than fuss and complain about it, create an oasis. Maintain a library in your home. Share books with your friends, co-workers, children, and community. Start a book club. Start a writing group. Volunteer to run a reading series at your local library. Take a picture of your bookshelves and put them on Facebook. Commit to buying 20 books a year for the rest of your life.
Question: What is the secret to getting published?
Answer: Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued.