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Literary Citizenship

Literary Citizenship has been topic circulating for some time now among writers, and popping up as a subject for discussion at writers’ conferences and in writers’ groups.  Although the concept has fuzzy edges – in other words, it doesn’t possess a clear and singular definition that everyone agrees on, I think we all have a sense of what it entails.  After some thought, here’s my take:

Unless employed full-time at a newspaper or print journal, we writers work almost exclusively alone.  We put in long, solitary hours at our desks or favorite writing spot putting word to page, researching, revising, thinking.  Our work thrives in isolation, nurtured in quiet moments and pregnant pauses.  We lose focus and grow irritated when our space is invaded by noisy intruders — phones ringing, sirens blaring, dogs barking, spouses reminding us that we promised to take out the trash an hour ago.  The very last thing we want is to be engaged in conversation with another human being.  After all, with all those important conversations happening inside our heads (“I’ve got, like, way too many adjectives in that sentence, and I should rename my ‘Bobby Smith’ character ‘Carmina Burana’.”), we don’t have the time or the inclination to have a one-on-one with a live person, let alone a crowd of them.

But what about those times when you’re not writing?  What about those rejections that keep piling up? What about those periods when nothing clicks on the page/screen/tablet? What about those moments when we wonder if anyone out there cares and is reading the results of our hard labor?  Those can be pretty tough and lonely times.

Solution (drumroll) = Literary Citizenship!

For me Literary Citizenship means putting myself in a position to engage, encourage, share, learn, critique and be critiqued by other writers.  Certainly writer’s conferences are good places to start; but, in most cases, as inspirational and helpful as they are, the sessions are short-lived and the contacts fleeting.  So, better yet is to join a writer’s group — and that is what I’ve done.  It isn’t a large group, but it really works well, with a core of good people who are enthusiastic about the craft and honest in their opinions.  And, it allows me to participate in the creative process with a community of like-minded individuals who otherwise may not cross paths.

This is for all of you out there who love to write, but feel that you’re not considered, by yourself or by others, to be a REAL writer because you haven’t — dare I say it — published.  I can’t tell you how many times a person has discovered that I’m a writer, then says something to the effect, “I write, too, but I haven’t published anything, so I guess I’m not a real writer.”

My quick reply: “Hey, not true!”

Writing and publishing are solely related on the basis of cause and effect: publishing (in any format) isn’t possible, by definition, unless there is writing to print.  However, at its very core, writing is an art form with inherent meaning and validity. By extrapolation. as with any art form, the person producing the art doesn’t need to have the product of their efforts publicly displayed to be considered an artist, whether they be painter, photographer, singer, instrumentalist or writer.

The best example I can put forward in support of this argument is journal writing.  Many people keep personal journals.  They may make entries everyday or every week or intermittently, but they write.  Most of these personal journals will never be shared with another person, let alone published for general consumption.  But, I believe if we were to get a peek at these pages we’d find that, not only is the person growing and maturing as an individual over time, but they are growing and maturing as a writer, as well — learning through doing, honing and refining their ability to express themselves through the written word.

And, that is what a writer does.

So, if you’re writing because you love it and are gratified to see your thoughts come to life on the page (even if that page is the screen on your word processor), and you strive to craft better ways of expressing yourself in the art medium of words, sentences and paragraphs, then you are a writer – yes, a real writer, in every definition of the word.

OK, for weeks you’ve been sweating bullets, straining the gray matter and pulling out your hair (if you have any left). You’ve written, rewritten, eliminated pesky adjectives, corrected passive voice, made the beginning the end and the end the beginning, experimented with characters, voices, tenses and settings. But no matter what you’ve tried, the story you have stirring through your brain won’t tell itself. So, now you’re looking in the realistic, objective mirror of your mind and asking, “Is it time to give up on this story and relegate it to the shredder?”

My simple answer is, “No!”  Or better still, “Not entirely.”

Ideas for stories come to us from every conceivable direction. They usually start off in some small way, finding their genesis in something we’ve read, a thought that’s touched us deeply, an event that is too precious or hilarious to pass without comment, a person who’s strength, dignity, disability or insanity strike us as unusual and worthy of closer examination — the list is nearly endless. From there we encapsulate fragments of that initial inspiration into words, which we then weave together into sentences and paragraphs to present, what we hope will be, an engaging story.

However, there are occasions when, even given our best efforts, we can’t seem get down on paper what we have in our heads. So, what to do?  Certainly, I don’t have all the answers and I’m not qualified to be a Writers Therapist (as much as I believe it would help me to have one), but here’s my strategy:

1.  Set the draft aside.  Ignore it for two to four weeks.  Write on another subject, preferably unrelated to the one giving you fits.  If you’ve been doing humor, try tragedy.  If it’s been fiction, try memoir.  Seriously, try something, anything, different.  Allow your mind to twist and turn with a new set of writing problems to solve.  Then, return to your original project.  See what happens.  You may be surprised at what a refreshed perspective can bring out of you and show up on the page.

2.  If, upon returning from hiatus, things are not progressing as you’d wished, try radical surgery: change your voice, delete a character, characters or scene, redefine your purpose.  Why is it important that the story be told in the 3rd person?  How does this (or any other) character add to and propel the story forward?  When the last word is read, what point did you hope to convey, highlight or debunk?

3.  OK, nothing has worked.  It’s time to permanently let this story go.  However, before you do, read through it carefully piece by piece, sentence by sentence, not with an eye for the story, but for the nuggets you’ve imbedded in it.  I’m betting you’ll find something worth keeping for inclusion in a new story: a word play, a sweet sentence, a joke, a character’s idiosyncracy, an alliteration that rolls off the tongue.  Snip them out, write them down, keep them safe for the perfect moment — which will come.

4,  Keep writing, ’cause after all, you know you have other stories to tell.

Don’t Stop Submitting

Being a writer is hard business. You do most of the work alone. Whatever you’re writing about swirls around in your head all waking hours, interferes with your personal life and sometimes invades your dreams. You’re rarely satisfied with what you’ve originally written, spending exponential amounts of time above and beyond rewriting, deconstructing, rearranging, inserting, trimming (murdering adjectives/incinerating adverbs) – and agonizing. And when you think you’re done with a piece — all polished, spell-checked and formatted, you submit (and somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind this is done on bended knee and prayers to the literary deities).

What happens next, in almost all cases, is… rejection! Usually this is accomplished via the standard form letter/e-mail — “Thank you for your story. However we have not chosen to include your work in our magazine.” This sentence is often followed by, “Please understand, we receive ten g’zillion submissions each year and are unable to make specific comments on each piece. Good luck with your writing.”  Kind of cold, but think about the poor editors. They probably do have to sort and read through ten g’zillion submissions, and if they took time to write a nice, personal note to each writer whose work they rejected they’d never have time to publish anything!

Now, If you happen to be lucky, you’ll get a bit of feedback. This is always good, even if the comments are negative, because you’re given some idea why your story didn’t work for them. This could be as simple as it wasn’t the right genre or word length, to as complex as the story wasn’t fully developed or was poorly structured. If it’s the former, do more homework before submitting. If it’s the latter (or something similar) reconsider your story in light of their criticism. After all, these editors know a thing or two about writing. If it takes some of the sting away, think of these criticisms as ‘post-it notes’: small reminders of what you need to do to become a better writer.

Most important of all, don’t get too discouraged. Getting a piece of writing rejected isn’t a failure. Nobody gave you an ‘F’ or a ‘D’. What the rejection means is, “We are returning your work because we believe you can do better with it.” Take the rejection as an opportunity to improve your craft: to do better research about where you’re sending your writing; and, to do a better job writing.

But more than all that keep writing, keep improving and keep submitting your work.

Handling Criticism

Unless one chooses to write only for oneself, keeping one’s writing hidden under the house, at the back of the refrigerator behind the leftover chicken vendaloo, or in a Swiss bank’s safety deposit box, criticism is an unavoidable part of the writing craft.  And for most writers, this is perhaps the most difficult part of offering our thoughts to the world for the simple reason that writing is such a deeply personal endeavor. Putting our thoughts out there for scrutiny feels as if we’re exposing our minds, if not our souls, and given how fragile we perceive both minds and souls to be, that’s a pretty scary proposition. But I think most of our problem in handling criticism comes about because we let our egos get the best of us and perceive all criticism to be some form of personal attack.  By doing so, we miss a golden opportunity to grow as writers.

I think there are three basic types of criticism: personal (yes, I don’t deny it happens), preferential, and practiced.

Quite honestly, personal criticism is not criticism at all. Personal criticism is symptomatic of an unsavory and thinly-veiled emotion, like jealousy or envy.  Listen closely to what’s being said.  Is the conversation really about your writing? If it isn’t, then you can be pretty sure that the critics’ real problem is that they just don’t like you, and by extrapolation your spouse, your pet, your politics, etc., and that you just happen to be a writer is part of the package they detest. Their criticism is as useless as flattery is empty. Solution: smile, ignore their blathering, ”write them off” – move on!

Preferential criticism is a little harder to define, but quite common. No one likes everything. We all have different tastes and preferences, from food to fashion to writing. In writing this is particularly true of fiction. Some people are enamored with fantasies — others despise them.  Some readers really dig stream-of-consciousness pieces — others admit they are simply confused by the structure and avoid the genre. Again, it’s important to listen closely to what’s being said. The person may not be ‘all that into’ what you’re writing about or they may not find your writing style engaging.  If it’s the former, there’s little you can do about it.  But if it is the latter, an opportunity for growth is presented.  Ask what it is about your style that puts them off. For instance, does it have something to do with your use of the first person, your use of adjectives, a lack of clarity, an absence of humor?  Then, especially if it is a short piece, experiment with a rewrite taking into consideration the gist of their criticism. You may be surprised at what shows up on the page. You may be delighted – you may be horrified.  But you’ll come away with a better sense of how you write and why you write as you do.  You might even discover that you are a more flexible writer than you imagined.

The best criticism, of course, is practiced criticism, and by ‘practiced’ I mean from someone who practices the writing craft. Practiced criticism speaks directly to the nuts, bolts, widgets and gizmos of our craft. When a person takes the time to discuss your writing in detail about the details, you need to put your ego aside and take note, because it isn’t about you – it’s an appraisal of how effectively the words you’ve chosen or the order in which they occur express and move forward the subject of your writing. if someone can help you hone your craft, teach you about avoiding passive voice, how to use strong nouns, develop delightful characters and build story arc, listen.  They aren’t doing so to bruise your ego — they’re there to assist you in perfecting your craft (and we are all short of perfection).

As writers, we are all enriched by good writing.  When criticism comes, set you ego aside, and you will open the door to becoming a better writer.

Power in Words

If you pull back a few moments and think about words in an objective sense — and I’m thinking specifically spoken words, you quickly discover that they are an unusual part of our world. Spoken words are not independent bodies or objects (like tables chairs, mountains, water, etc.) nor are they representational artifacts (like pictographs or petroglyphs) nor visual prompts (where each letter indicates a particular type of vocalization). Such characteristics are those of written words — you can point to them, see them, they represent something and you respond to the prompt by making the appropriate sound indicated by the specific symbol However, each spoken word is a complex blend of sound, formed by an individual through the precisely timed manipulation of muscle contractions, dental settings and controlled respirations, to project vibrations (pressure waves) through the air to convey something meaningful to another individual and/or group (i.e., they are not arbitrary noises, like sneezes or coughs). So far so good. However, by taking one more step beyond the obvious to examine the genesis of the spoken word, something fascinating emerges, especially in the context of traditional societies, who convey meaning from one generation to the next exclusively through spoken words (societies often simplistically referred to as ‘prehistoric,’ but more precisely described as ‘preliterate’). You often hear writers speak about the power of the written word, how words can move people emotionally or to action. But in preliterate societies, spoken words have power in them. Spoken words are creators, not descriptors — they possess something of the essence of the thing embedded in them. A perfect example is the Sami yoik – a song style that contains words and meaningful sounds. When a Sami imagines a bear and yoiks bear, they are not singing about the creature, they are singing the creature. with this same thought in mind, a Sami never utters the specific word for bear, especially during a bear hunt, even though that word is known and available. To do so brings the essence of the beast into play. Using its name brings it into the conversation — warns it of your intentions. That is why the Sami make allusions to the animal via similes and metaphors. One refers to the bear as, “Honeyed-pawed One,” or “Old Man of the Forest,” or “Shaggy-Coat.” Listening to a traditional speaker, you’ll notice that the words are usually spoken evenly and with deliberation. Knowing every word has power in it, means that the person speaking must be thoughtful. To do otherwise would be foolish and disrespectful of the power of creation.

Hello world!

This is my blog on WordPress.  For other information concerning  my writing and writing philosophy visit my website at: JaywingFuller.com

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