In the latest installment of my podcast, “Inexplicable Need: An Interview with Shaun Haurin,” I get into a heated discussion with a former student about how to address a former professor and also about the title of one of my favorite short story collections. I then interview Shaun Haurin, the author of the collection, and find out that I was wrong. The podcast also includes a pair of readings from the book in question, Public Displays of Affectation.
Here’s one last passage that didn’t make it to the final version of The Grievers. The official publication date is a week from today.
Heading back to my office I ran into a fellow grad student who asked how I was doing. Fine, I said, except for the fact that a friend of mine had killed himself. We were riding the elevator, just the two of us. Two lights were out, and a third was flickering over an obscene message that someone had scratched into the paint years earlier. In the mail room, we both peered into empty mail slots and went our separate ways—she to her office on the eighth floor and I to mine down the hall where a man in mismatched shades of black sat waiting for me on a bench outside my door. Back when I was single, I might not have realized that his turtleneck and trousers clashed with each other, but if a year of wedded bliss had taught me anything it was that I should never, under any circumstances, wear two articles of clothing that are nearly the same color. Though I was initially inclined to balk at this rule, Karen set me straight in front of a room full of people when she leaned over a piano and repeatedly struck a high C in tandem with its corresponding sharp to produce a sound reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho. That’s what I was dressed like, she said as all the women in the room burst into applause and the men knitted their eyebrows.
Eyeing the stranger up and down, I made one or two quick passes in front of my office before attempting a final approach. In addition to his dissonant blacks, the man wore army boots and had his hair pulled back in a stumpy ponytail. Though my first guess was that he might be a former student seeking vengeance over a less than stellar grade, a second glance gave me the impression that he might be a sales rep from one of the massive textbook conglomerates that hounded me day and night to use their anthologies. Either way, I didn’t feel a whole hell of a lot like talking to the guy, so I faked to the left and then to the right before dashing into my office.
“No thanks,” I said, closing the door behind me.
“Rick Beecham sent me.”
I opened the door an inch and put my eye to the crack. The stranger was standing now, looking back at me, clutching a moderately thick stack of papers. Behind me the telephone was ringing.
I was talking to a musician recently, and he mentioned that one question he always gets from young musicians is something along the lines of “How can I break into the music industry?”
My friend’s response was pithy and insightful: “You wouldn’t ask how to break into my house, would you?”
His point was basically that the music industry isn’t something that aspiring musicians need to break into. More to the point, thinking about the music industry — or any industry, for that matter — in terms of “breaking in” is actually counterproductive.
Sure, the phrase “breaking in” is just an expression, but it says a lot about how we think of creative endeavors and the industries that surround them. With respect to the music industry, “breaking in” suggests that it’s a closed system, armed to the teeth against intruders. This mindset places the artist and the industry in direct opposition to each other and creates the impression that the only way “in” is through forced entry, deceit, or some other form of chicanery.
It’s much more constructive, my friend said, to think of the industry as a community — complete with its own rules, language, expectations, and rituals. Rather than worrying about breaking in, the aspiring musician should be making an effort to learn the rules of the community, an endeavor that involves meeting other musicians, talking to them about the craft, and taking every opportunity to participate in that community that avails itself.
Given my own interests, I couldn’t help drawing a comparison between music and writing, and concluding that the same ideas hold true. Whenever I speak at a conference or talk to my students about writing, the idea of “breaking in” inevitably pops up. In fact, I’ve seen panels with names like “Breaking into YA” or “Breaking into Creative Nonfiction” listed on a lot of conference programs. And like my musician friend, my experience suggests that thinking about writing — and even publishing — in terms of “breaking in” can be highly counterproductive. Instead, I’d like to propose that we think of writing in terms of good citizenship.
A good citizen is someone who makes the conscious decision to be a part of a community — to engage with a body of individuals who share common values and goals. Along these lines, a good citizen doesn’t participate in a community solely for the sake of self-interest. Rather, a good citizen recognizes value in giving to the community. In terms of writing, the first thing a good citizen should ask isn’t “What can you do for me?” but, in the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s appropriation of Kahlil Gibran, “What can I do for you? What can I bring to the table? How can we learn from each other?”
For me, being part of a community has meant many things. Blogging, of course, is high on the list. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve met many writers whose work I admire and from whom I’ve learned quite a bit. Along similar lines, reviewing books has exposed me to a wide range of authors and writing styles I would not have otherwise enjoyed.
On a more personal level, joining writers’ groups and getting involved with writing conferences has given me many opportunities to discuss both the craft and business of writing with other writers at all stages of their careers. In short, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if not for the fact that I actively sought out opportunities to participate in the larger community of writers.
Granted, any success I’ve had in terms of writing and publishing has been modest. If you’re shooting for a New York Times bestseller, you’ll probably have to take a more aggressive approach to your writing career. At the same time, though, I’d venture to guess that many (if not most) successful writers got to where they are today not by imagining themselves as outsiders trying to break in, but by actively engaging with the writing community in any way that they could.