Let's talk about community. Let's talk about generosity. In mid-March, I sent out my biannual "news" note, an email of updates that goes out to about 450 folks hand-sifted from all the correspondence I've accumulated over the previous six months. It's an exhaustive gesture, because I assemble the list from scratch each time and because I edit and re-edit for tone. I live in fear of sending out a note that does nothing beyond informing 450 people that I respect that I, somewhere along the way, have become a self-promoting jackass.
Per usual, I received one reply for every four sent--100 new emails in one day. Most were brief and congratulatory, in the tradition (now ubiquitous on blogs and Facebook status updates) of cheering-on a fellow writer. One such note came from Kristin, a poet and blogger who lives within driving distance of my upcoming reading at Books & Books. As a cursory aside, I confided I was nervous about making the best of my time in Miami, hit Send, and figured that was it.
Within six hours I had a response that listed all the creative writing programs and poetry nonprofits in the area, in some cases with specific contact info, suggestions for places where I might be able to snag a tandem reading, and anecdotal tips on the literary scene and the Miami Book Fair. Within six hours, a woman I have never met took the time to unlock a city for me. Within six hours, I found faith that I could put on a good reading, with a good crowd. "See you in May!" she said--though she'll have to make a 45 minute trip to get there, and that's before traffic and road construction.
I believe her remark is not just casual cheer, but a promise she will keep. Sometimes, you get these reminders: we live in a sweet and generous world.
In 1983, Lewis Hyde wrote an influential book called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. If you've ever heard poetry referred to as a "gift economy," this is the root; Margaret Atwood called it "the best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. A masterpiece." You can get a better sense of Hyde's persona (and how his philosophies have been updated 30 years later) from this New York Times profile, but allow me to indulge in simplifying summary: In a culture overwhelmingly governed by commercial models, in which success is measured by getting rather than disbursing, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that works of art art (writing, painting, music, etc.) must be treated as a Gift.
What does this mean?
1) Your art cannot be regarded as something made (a "self-made man" compliment is a signifier of a market economy), but as something received, via earthly harvest, gift of the muses, or what-have-you.
2) Your art's spirit is only kept alive by its continued donation. (Hyde has a lot of interesting examples of this principle drawn from anthropological studies of tribal cultures.)
3) Artists must recognize that their gift is not well supported by market forces; a community that values art should (and usually will) develop nonmarket ways to organize the exchange and distribution of their art.
How does this relate back to my exchange with Kristin? Look, I know I am preaching to the choir when it comes to treating our writing--our poems, our stories, our essays--as gifts. Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one here expects or demands the big bucks.
That said. As we move through the world as writers, we accumulate other resources: media or review contacts, leads on first book contests, ways to rally a crowd. What I love about Kristin's email is that she views these things as a gift, while there are too many of us--even here--that think of these things as commodities. We call these resources "earned" or "hard-won," and we hesitate before sharing them freely. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about skill sets. I have no problem with the proliferation of MFA programs, nor the monetizing of She Writes Author Services and Webinars. I am talking about are discrete texts and data.
Ask yourself: would you be as quick to send a fellow poet/friend your hand-assembled list of book contests, sorted by deadline, as you would the draft of your latest sonnet? If not, why not?
What's on my mind tonight--the fire lit by Kristin's spark of generosity--is going beyond the level of positive but casual flattery for those writers I believe in. If our creative words comprise a gift, so do our vocabulary of resources. I've tried to do that with many of my blog entries, both here and elsewhere, yet there's more to be done. Here's what I am thinking:
If you're just starting out, and like me you're trying to obsessively chart your publishing options, realize that Excel spreadsheets and lists--no matter how well curated initially--wither and die if kept in captivity. Let them loose! They thrive in the open air.
If a peer nervously asks you to review a personal essay for a fellowship that you, too, are applying for, help her out. Be sincere. Give her the type and quality of feedback you'd want to get.
If you're at a point in your career when you can make the introduction for a younger writer, for god's sake, make that intro. There are not enough mentors in this world.
Network, network, network. What are we weaving, here? A net to keep us separate, each on our little court of competition? Or a net strong enough to lift us all up?
Causes Sandra Beasley Supports
Virginia Center for Creative Arts, The Writer's Center, Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, Food Allergy Initiative.