Interview by Courtney Leigh
A conversation between Courtney and Lori A. May, whose The Write Crowd was just released.
Courtney Leigh: The complete title of your book is The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life. You spend a good amount of time toward the beginning describing the exact meaning of “literary citizenship,” but for those unfamiliar, how would you describe it? And for you, what makes it important enough to write a book about?
Lori A. May: Literary citizenship essentially boils down to community engagement—what writers, readers, and other booklovers can do to support the literary community in their own backyards, nationally, and beyond. It’s a little different for all of us depending on interests, time, and other commitments, but could include volunteering at a non-profit arts center, running a reading series, hosting a book club, setting up chairs and distributing flyers for others that host events, or being the go-to person for recommended reads. A literary citizen needn’t contribute much time, money, or other resources to help make things happen in the community. Personal passion and helping others is what it’s really about.
I’ve seen so many wonderful projects come out of the community from a simple idea and a lot of heart. I’ve benefited from the efforts and involvement of peers and strangers alike. That’s why I felt compelled to share ideas and inspiration in The Write Crowd. From poetry in public places to writers helping other writers, the lit community thrives when we put our creative energies into it and there is no end to what can come of our efforts. I hope, in sharing examples of success, that readers will be inspired to look at their surrounding communities and consider how to invest a bit more in our writing and reading circles.
I’ve seen so many wonderful projects come out of the community from a simple idea and a lot of heart.
Oooh, I love this! I think that “sharing examples of success” is extremely vital. Because I’ll admit, I’m pretty antisocial, and when I read some of your recommendations, I found myself thinking, “I am not brave enough or adventurous enough to do this.” What sort of baby steps do you recommend for timid people like me?
Antisocial, shy, or otherwise “hermit” writers and readers certainly can find a place in the community as a literary citizen. That is exactly why I think this book is exciting, with all the examples and tips for those who prefer to be “armchair literary citizens” from the comfort of their own homes. For those who shy away from larger social situations, there is a great deal to be done as literary citizens like writing reviews of books and lit journals, either formally for media outlets or more informally for blogs and online retailers. Thanks to our virtual culture, non-profits, publishers, and other art centers happily utilize volunteers and staff who work from home with activities such as marketing and business assistance, design and copyediting, and event planning. Even the socially challenged can feel engaged in their jammies by helping others with their activities! An interested literary citizen can create opportunities for others in as many ways as the more outwardly social. It comes down to a person’s interests and passions and finding the right mix of activity. The simplest form of community support is in sharing excitement for books and authors with others. That can be accomplished anywhere, anytime.
Each chapter focuses on different ways to create a niche for oneself within the writing community, but one thing that keeps surfacing—both from you and from your contributors—is that we shouldn’t go into this expecting anything in return. Even though there usually are benefits, literary citizenship should come from a place of genuine love and enthusiasm for the written word and for those who create it. What has been your personal experience with jealousies or disappointments within the writing community, and how did you work through it? How do we keep these expectations in check?
I think writing is like anything else in that you get what you give—but I don’t think it’s a fair objective to put effort into the community for the sole purpose of personal gain. Where I think we all benefit, though, is in feeling a part of something larger than ourselves, larger than our own writing, and in being a member of the community. Getting to know others, feeling the camaraderie and support of peers, and meeting new people is what I consider a benefit and a darn good one. I say it repeatedly in the book, but writing is a solitary act. It’s in connecting with others—readers, peers, mentors—that we take the private act into the public sphere and our work, our presence, comes alive for others, as theirs does for us. That’s magical. That’s making a connection and an impact.
As far as disappointments and jealousies, I don’t think of writing as a competitive sport. We all experience disappointment either through rejection or hurdles in the creative process or any number of ways we may feel defeated in creating art or making progress but that’s precisely why I think community engagement is so important. It’s in supporting others through the highs and lows that we connect and thrive. It’s in having a support network to get us through our own disappointments that makes literary citizenship so valuable in reminding us that we’re not alone in this journey. So, I think, when faced with another’s success, instead of allowing jealousy to take its hold, why not ask for advice? Asking peers how to push past a difficult place in the work, or asking a seasoned writer how to dig out of a funk, whatever the case may be, a strong network of peers and community members can be a highly motivational tool. Learning from others, seeking out advice, and emulating what seems to work for another are all ways we can gain value from being actively involved with like-minded peers. We’re all in this together, we all face the same blank first page, but we should each only be in competition with ourselves, you know?
…I don’t think of writing as a competitive sport.
I know exactly what you mean. And I firmly believe in the idea that within a tight, healthy community, one person’s success means success for the whole community. I feel like that concept is a big part of The Write Crowd, and it was one of the things that I really gravitated toward while reading the book. If someone visits your website and reads through your “About” section, they’ll soon find out that you don’t just talk the talk. You’ve published fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, informative nonfiction, short stories, novels. On top of this, you review other people’s work professionally. You attend and speak at literary events. You teach emerging writers about the craft. You are immersed in not one, not two, but several writing communities. How do you 1) find the time to do all of this while continuing to produce good writing and 2) keep yourself balanced and not pulled in too many directions?
First, thank you for all of the above. I really do believe in immersing one’s self in the community and I know we all have different interests but there’s so much to be said for working outside of one’s comfort zone, main genre, etc. I also recognize there is only so much a person can do on a given day, and balance is something I’m always keeping in check personally, and encouraging for others, too. For my own life, writing and otherwise, it’s about designating the important stuff first: my own writing time, my family life, and the personal quiet space needed to think, read, write, and enjoy food, coffee, and travel. While I advocate being involved in the community, I do think a writer needs to put her own needs first. When we put our writing and personal needs first, we have more to give, both to ourselves and in reaching out to others.
Some weeks, that means I spend more time at my desk than others, other times I am more social and outwardly involved. It is definitely hard to say no to opportunities or activities, but I can’t be everywhere and I can’t do it all. I have no illusion about that! My first priority is lifestyle—self-care, family time, travel—and the writing comes second, community soon after. I’m a better writer and teacher when I feed my creative and balance needs first. I think we all are. My encouragement, then, is to find a way to be involved in the community that works for you. Maybe that means limiting events and activities to once a week, once a month, maybe once every two or three months. It’s quality and not quantity that matters in the long run. Whatever we do in the community, and for others, should feel like a natural extension of our writing lives, not a burden. Self-care is important!
Whatever we do in the community, and for others, should feel like a natural extension of our writing lives, not a burden. Self-care is important!
You make it sound so easy! I know it’s a challenge, but everything you say is true. I think the real key is figuring out what works for you. After you have that mastered, things seem to run a bit more smoothly. Or maybe we never truly “master” it, and it’s an ongoing process of figuring out what balance looks like. In the book, one of your low-level commitment suggestions is for writers to simply start a blog that reviews the work of others. This sort of contribution to the literary community goes hand in hand with this question of the value and necessity of social media. I’m of the opinion that it’s pretty much essential for writers to put themselves out there on at least one social media platform. Personally, I adore social media. I just got snapchat last night and it’s ridiculous and I love it and I’m like, “Why did I wait this long to get it???” On the flip side of that, I have some writer friends who throw up their hands and say, “I’m too old to figure this out!” Or “I know I should do the twittering and the tumblring, but I just don’t get it. What’s the gosh darn point?” How would you persuade these people that participating in social media has value for them as a writer and as a literary citizen?
Truth be told, I don’t try to persuade regarding social media. I definitely encourage and try to share the value of it—as you just mentioned—but at the end of the day, if a person hates being online, doesn’t like to socialize this way and can’t connect on a human level through this medium, then there is little value to just being online. Social media is social. Its success is in connecting with others. It works when the participant takes the time to engage with others, listen as much as talk, share others’ posts as much as their own, and not see this as an explicit means to selling books or championing one’s platform. Those things are necessarily part of a writer’s presence on social media, to share publications and successes, but if a writer starts a social media account for the sole purpose of touting one’s publications and selling to others, the audience engagement factor will be disappointing.
Social media is like real life in this regard. No one likes a hard sell and readers respond better to true connections and getting to know the authors behind the work. So, then, what I hope to encourage is to find one venue online that works for you. Maybe that’s Facebook, maybe blogging, but whatever the choice it must be authentic to who you are and how you will use it. Or else you won’t use it and then what is the point? Blogging can indeed be effective as a means to communicate, a venue for reviewing and discussing books, and as a place to explore craft. I also think those interested in sharing reviews of books can just as easily post mini reviews on GoodReads, Amazon, B&N, and all the indie bookseller sites. Reviews can be posted just about anywhere books are sold or discussed, so a person can absolutely accomplish these things without committing to a blog. It’s exactly what you said—it’s about figuring out what works for you.
Your passion for genuine engagement with others really shines through. I’d love to talk a little bit more about the process of putting together a book like The Write Crowd. It’s nonfiction, which is our specialty here at Hippocampus, but of course, it’s an informative piece of nonfiction. I know it’s probably difficult to sum up into a single response, but what does your overall process look like for a project like this? Where did you start? How did you decide on the structure? Did you always know you would have quotes from others within the literary community? How is it both similar and different from other types of nonfiction that you’ve worked on?
The structure and form is certainly different from my other nonfiction works, in that I write narrative nonfiction more freely. Whether memoir or otherwise, my narrative pieces tend to flow in a more intuitive way, as creative writing often does, without step-by-step planning. For The Write Crowd, I created an outline of what I hoped to cover and used that for my book proposal. Once the editor and publisher gave the outline a thumbs-up, I went about researching each topic, broadening the scope of each chapter’s focus, and calling on others for their experiences. Much of how I shaped the final manuscript is a result of my conversations with other writers, editors, readers, and community organizers. What they offered in their experiences and advice very much influenced the arch of each chapter, but I kept to my initially proposed chapter outline.
My intention was to start with a bit of history, relate topical experiences and approaches of literary citizenship, and build from small commitments to larger, while allowing reader interpretation along the way. For practical nonfiction like this book, and The Low-Residency MFA Handbook, I find drafting an outline to be very beneficial, but for more narrative or more personal work, I tend to let the story lead me where it needs to go and then to consider any structural tweaking.
You have several quotes from many contributors throughout the book. Did you have a clear idea of who you wanted to appear in the book before you outlined? Or did the contributors present themselves more organically once you got into the writing of it?
When I started out, and during the outline process, I had some idea of who I wanted to interview, but maybe only about fifty percent. As I moved forward with the manuscript, fleshing out each chapter, I sought out or discovered other interviewees who had interesting experiences to share. Some interviewees led me to others I hadn’t thought of or been aware of, too, so that was lovely. I wanted to be open to discovery during my process and allow for that organic development to take place. I met a lot of lovely people along the way!
What a fun way to make new writer friends! And a perfect example of literary citizenship at work. We encourage our readers to buy The Write Crowd and read it in full. But! Could you give us a couple quick ideas for finding a niche in the creative nonfiction community? Donna already took the “start your own online literary journal” idea, but are there a couple more suggestions up your sleeve?
Donna has indeed done an amazing thing with Hippocampus! There is room, of course, for more creative nonfiction-focused publications, but that’s not the only way to broaden and strengthen the CNF community. I recently participated in a flash fiction reading series and I’d love to see more of that for nonfiction. There’s something magical about shorter pieces being shared on the stage. It’s like poetry in the way a well-paced piece can enliven the audience while holding attention spans. If a series like this already exists in a reader’s neighborhood, I’d suggest getting involved by helping host or helping promote and broaden the audience. Speaking of audience, I think podcasts and video can also work well for shorter pieces of nonfiction. Basically, anything that involves the audience and promotes literary connections fits the bill! Plus, there are so many lovely organizations that focus on nonfiction—Creative Nonfiction, NonfictioNOW, the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society in Canada, and more—that could probably use volunteers for events and behind-the-scenes work. I think opportunities are there for all levels of engagement.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and generous responses. You’ve inspired me to brainstorm ways I could improve my support of the literary community here in Austin. Do you have any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with us about literary citizenship?
Thanks, Courtney. You’ve given me plenty to think about as well! The writing community—and all that is shared in The Write Crowd—is perhaps best seen as a buffet of opportunity. There is so much to choose from, get involved in, become passionate about. But it’s not possible to do it all, and no one should feel obliged to try to do it all. I do my best when I pick and choose activities for a stretch of time, see what works for my schedule, and engage with what feels most enjoyable and manageable to me. I hope readers will consider their various options, what interests them most, and take it step by step. Any involvement in the community has value! And what you or I choose to do may indeed inspire others, and that’s really what it’s about—being involved and helping others get involved.[boxer set=”leigh”]