I recently visited the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and by pure happenstance, came upon a reading by two of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis and Jonathan Safran Foer. As you probably know, there are two types of readings: 1) the kind where people simply read their work (and where there’s probably an open mic), and 2) the kind where authors show up to sell their books. Generally, most authors conducting the second kind of reading repay the attendees’ attention and financial support by signing books and chitchatting with them.
While Lydia Davis was warm and attentive after the reading, Foer was completely the opposite. While I was speaking with Davis, Foer grabbed his book out of my hand, signed it, and handed it back to me without even looking up once. I stood to the side and asked if I could ask him a question, to which he nodded.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling. “Do you think writers need an MFA?”
He sighed and leaned back, casting a sideways glance at Davis, who was busy talking to the bookstore employee managing the autograph line. Foer grabbed the book of the person behind me and said, not looking at me, “Did Kafka have an MFA? Did Kafka have an MFA?"
Foer himself doesn’t have an MFA, but he must consider it important as he teaches in the MFA program at NYU. As such, he should probably know that Kafka wrote before MFA programs were even a thing. I stood there, his signed book in my hand, waiting for more, but he took the book from the next person and dismissed me with a slight wave of his hand.
No, he didn’t owe me anything. Maybe he had a bad day. Perhaps he was just your everyday asshole, except he started his reading by talking about the importance of the literary community. He said that if there was one bookstore left in the world, it should probably be Shakespeare and Company and how deeply honored he was to be part of the bookstore’s community. He must’ve used the word “community” at least five times in those first few minutes.
And yet here I was, a part of that literary community he just spoke about, trying to pick the brain of someone who existed in a place I want to someday be, and I was being disposed of as though I was the terrible first draft of a novel that would never be published.
As I walked back across the Seine, all I could think about was about what being a community means. And above all, it means being generous. And as I thought about all the literary communities I’d been in, all the classes, all the workshops, all the back and forth online reading of drafts, I realized that if I was being honest, I’d have to say generosity wouldn't be the first word that came to mind.
Take writing workshops, for example. It’s a completely vulnerable thing, putting your work out there. When our pieces are being workshopped, we sit in anxious anticipation of the feedback we’re going to receive. Some of us want validation, but most of all, we want critical feedback. And despite that, when we respond to someone else’s work, or provide marginalia to their draft, we don’t take the time to really read their story, to think about their story. We usually do these in a rush. An afterhought. If you’ve had to grade this type of feedback, then you know. Most feedback is mediocre at best. We want sincere, critical feedback to our work but are unwilling to provide the same to others.
Why is this? Is it because the core of what we do – the act of writing – is a solitary endeavor? The solitude of the writer is such an ingrained myth that most of us think being alone is necessary. But as writers, knowing how vulnerable writing can be, how alone it can sometimes be, you’d think we’d be more open to provide help and feedback whenever we can. All words are important, not just our own.
So here are a few suggestions to play a better role in the literary community:
1) Submit to literary magazines.
This is the easiest thing to do. You’re already writing stories, so submit them. Enough with that fear of rejection. Rejection sucks, sure, but literary magazines have readers and readers need something to read, which they can’t do unless you submit. So submit.
2) Subscribe to and buy literary magazines and books.
Look, we all know that money is an issue for a lot of us, but think about where you’re spending your money. Forgoing one Oprah Chai Latte a week would be enough to buy one or two literary magazines a month, not to mention the free e-zines out there. On top of that, you can get a better idea of what’s going on in the lit world now. If writing is important to you, getting a hold of a wide range of lit mags and books is imperative. If you can't buy lit mags and books, edit for one.
3) Write to authors.
Do this. If you read something you like in a literary journal or a blog or whatever, send the author a note. Tell them why you loved it. Tell them why it affected you. Let them know that their words reached someone. Let them know they impacted the world in some way. Let them know they’re not alone.
4) Participate for real in workshops.
Writers can be solipsistic. We’d rather get to writing our own stories than reading someone else’s. Understandable. But these people are trying to do the same thing you’re doing. They’re going through the same struggle. So if you’re in a workshop (and you should be in a workshop or other type of writing group), provide the same time and respect to their stories that you want for yours. Not only might you learn something from reading their work, you might develop relationships and networks along the way.
5) Don’t be an ass.
If you’re lucky enough to be someone whose books people actually want to buy, whose autograph people actually want, then don’t be an ass. Got that?
Millions of other bloggers and authors have written on this subject. For that, I am sorry. But from what I’ve gleaned they all appear to say the same thing: read more. Read and read and read. The more you read, the better you write. And just as important: write. Practice writing. Write at least an hour a day. Schedule a time every day to write. Get into a routine of writing. Make it happen. If you want to get good at something, you have to exercise, so write as often as you can. I’m simplifying here, but you get the point.
This post is not one of those posts.
Although reading and writing more can and does help improve writing, it’s not the only way, or the best way, to improve your craft.
Here’s what you need to do:
Step One: Put down that writing implement
Whether it be pencil or pen or typewriter or phone or tablet or computer, put it away. Stop writing. Just stop it, right now. This may sound counterintuitive, but bear with me.
Step Two: Go outside
Seriously, do it. Stand up, open the door, and go outside. I know the outside with its Sun and light and nature and elements can be scary as hell, but just try it.
Step Three: Do something besides write
This is the apex of all art: you have to do other things. As a writer, you can’t just write and write and write, and read, but do nothing else. How can you write about the smell of rain if you stay inside all the time thinking about the smell of rain but never actually smelling the rain when it pours? Or how can you find the right words to describe how it feels when you first think you might love someone, if you’ve never been twitterpated before? With what feels like a limitless conglomeration of words to choose from, how do you know which is the right one for the sense or feeling you want to get across? This goes for all writing. And all art. In order to create, you have to experience.
Step Four (kind of): Try other art forms
Step four is a continuation of Step Three. You don’t actually have to go outside, so for all those Heliophobes out there, fear not (but it sure is nice out there in the big open air). I have found one of the best ways for me to improve my writing is to try other forms of art, other forms of expression. What better way to re-think or re-see a character or scene or experience than by capturing it in a different medium? Whether painting or sculpture or sewing or jewelry making or carpentry or landscape design or film or photography, whatever you find that you love, spend some time on that. Let that art form influence and improve your writing. After all, that’s what writing is all about.
Improving yourself, your community, and hopefully this little blue marble.