Literary Citizenship

I’ve been waiting for the right time to make this post, because it means a lot to me.  I chose tonight because today I visited my college for the first time since graduating. I caught a glimpse of who I was, right as I was leaving the college. I saw myself full of emotion and excitement for the world.

One of the biggest reasons I became this person was due to learning the wonderful phrase: Literary Citizenship. 

For those of you who have never heard the phrase before, I’ll say that it’s more of a vague philosophy than a concrete definition, and that many writers you meet will have slightly different interpretations. My beginner’s description might be something like: One part of living as a self-identified writer is trying your best, whenever possible, to help make this world a better place for readers and writers. It involves becoming a part of, or building and nourishing, a literary community. 

The first time I heard the phrase “Literary Citizenship” was when one of my favorite professors began talking about designing a course with the title. I think the course was first described to me as a class designed for outstanding writers who wanted to learn how to live as a writer beyond just the writing and publishing part. This, of course, interested me greatly, because I had every intention of living as a writer and I knew the course would be full of great students. 

Once I began the semester, a dialogue was opened about what the phrase really meant. The course was an active one with more practical application rather than theoretical musing.

We started by learning how to write book reviews. It was a great exercise, because when I’m really into a book, I can’t stop talking about it anyway, but the form of the review brought a level of creativity and professionalism to it. I needed to think about what voice would best reach the audience who would most be interested in that particular book, but still be honest to my own personal voice when writing. Most importantly, though, writing a book review is doing something helpful for other readers and writers. 

This past summer, another person from my class wrote an in-depth review of a book she was reading, which you can find here

This was followed up with the author of the book tweeting her. 

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By writing a book review, you help promote an author’s book, and if it’s a non-famous writer, you can actually make a difference in that person’s sales and in their emotional state. It’s pretty clear to me that this book review made the author’s day. And it also helped direct people to the book who may have never known about it before. 

Literary Citizenship is all about these types of interactions. You do something that promotes someone else’s work in the literary community, and it benefits everyone in a ripple effect. 

One of our big projects as a class was a Cash Mob on the River’s End Bookstore in Oswego. The idea behind this was to help promote an awesome local bookstore by having everyone flash mob the store at the same time and buy a book (or something smaller if that’s all they could afford). It turned out to be a fabulous success and brought out writers and readers all over the community.

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That same bookstore hosts the release the campus literary journal, Great Lake Review, promotes local authors work all the time through readings and signings, and recently hosted the book launch of Laura Donnelly’s new book of poetry, Watershed

The bookstores, the writers, and the readers all have opportunities to help each other. You can think of it as good karma, or you can think of it as recognizing all members of the literary world as an extended family.

Through the rest of the class, we literary citizens in training did a variety of awesome things including, but not limited to: 

  • creating The Hub, which became a resource for creative writers in college
  • starting multiple blogs like this one
  • interviewing and presenting narratives of identity of Oswego students
  • organizing a rocking poetry slam
  • teaching a class on writing using tarot cards
  • decorating the campus center with poetry
  • creating promotional materials for the creative writing major 
  • designing creative writing courses to teach
  • organizing an online writing circle

And those were just some of our successes. 

It was an enormously beneficial class, not only in that we were actually benefitting each other and the community in concrete ways, but in that it was satisfying. The idea of literary citizenship became almost spiritual to me because it gave my life so much purpose. 

We ended up much more than a class. By the end, reading Cathy Day’s blog post I honestly took the words to heart. 

“In a few days, my department will graduate 20 newly minted creative writing majors. Maybe you’re one of them.

When I graduated from college in 1991, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Today there are 592.

Let’s pretend that 20 students per per program is the average nationwide.

So if you take 20 students times 592, that means that every year, about 12,000 creative writing undergraduates are being loosed upon the world.

You’re a member of a small army. What will you fight for?”

 

I was ready to charge into battle with motivation as my weapon and love of the literary community as my cause. Hurrah! 

It’s not to say, though, that there are no criticisms of the philosophy. You can find many of them by now I’m sure. The arguments that made me pause made the point that in a time when so many writers are not being paid enough for their work, this movement is expecting them to constantly pour energy into promoting other work, organizing events, and buying books, journals, and writing by other people. It is requiring even more from our writers, many of whom are not compensated nor even recognized for their efforts. 

This criticism is not without weight. Especially after graduation, paying off college debt and trying to save for things like car insurance, apartments, and basic needs… being a good literary citizen is challenging at best. How often can a young writer responsibly afford to subscribe to journals? How much time can someone take away from their job search to organize cash mobs? Perhaps most tricky— how do we all form these concrete communities like we had in class now that we’ve all dispersed? How do we work together if we don’t know anyone? 

It’s a lot to ask of young, lonely people to keep giving energy, no matter how often people surrounding them suggest there are  better uses of their time. It’s a lot to ask of young, poor people to keep spending money to promote each other, when maybe they should be more focused on climbing out of debt. 

But at the same time, this movement exists because there are so many lonely, poor people who keep writing anyway. Writers from all points in history and from all areas have continued to write, no matter how much that was asking from them. Writers have written in tiny apartments, on the streets, and in prisons. Writers have written even when it meant working around long work days and raising families. Writers have written even when they knew they could be put to death for what they wrote. And readers have read under all those same conditions. 

I went to see Neil Gaiman the past spring. Many people know of him, even if they haven’t read any of his books, just for his brilliant speech: Make Good ArtThe first time I watched it, early in the morning before class with an overwhelming lifetime towering above me, I cried. He made it so clear that all the struggle was worthwhile, that writing was something that gave life purpose. No matter how bad things got, you just needed to keep writing. Make good art. 

And so, when I finally got the chance to see him, I was a little surprised that he confessed his own struggles with feeling that what he did mattered. With all that was happening in the world, was writing stories really making any difference? Was his impact at all important or improving the world? 

He told a story of hearing about times when people could be killed for reading, and they kept books anyway. People kept them hidden, learned the words, and shared stories in secret at night. People have risked their lives for stories, books, and the ability to read, and knowing that, really letting it sink in, made him think that maybe writers were doing something important. Something that was significant to human life. 

And it is. Writing and reading is so, so important. But we’re told all the time that it’s not. We’re told it’s trivial, or that calling ourselves writers and poets is stupid and idealistic. People urge us to consider getting real majors or real jobs as if they aren’t negating part of our identity. And so, even successful writers need reassurance that what they’re doing is worth something. No matter how many rejection letters toughen our skin, we are an insecure bunch. We’re lonely people, and we need connection. We need to know our words reach other people. 

Writers persist no matter how difficult the world is, which is why Literary Citizenship is important. It allows all these individuals, struggling to be heard, to come together and listen to each other. We can, and must, expend the effort to say “Your words add to this world.” We need to stick together, because we’re the only resource any of us have. 

Who will help us if not each other? Who should we spend our energy on if not each other? We, as a group, are not insignificant, no matter how lost and out of place we may individually feel. 

What greater gift can we give than reminding each other that we are important? What greater gift can we receive than purpose? 

Who will tell young writers their words matter if we won’t? 

Today, Stephanie Vanderslice spoke in the Living Writers Series on the topic of Literary Citizenship, and I went back to college to listen and visit. Instead of defining Literary Citizenship, she told a story about an author giving a boy a copy of his book along with his email address. The boy said he didn’t like reading, but once the author gave him the book for free and asked him to email with any questions about writing he wanted, the boy said he’d show his friends the book. 

She went on to list other forms of Literary Citizenship. 

  • Reading to children in your life
  • Finding ways to get books to kids who need them
  • Donating to book drives
  • Teaching creative writing in prisons
  • Starting creative writing workshops in nursing homes
  • After school writing tutoring
  • Encouraging people who are writing

All of these led back to her main theme that we have all been given the gift of the literary world. At some point in our past, someone introduced us to stories, books, and writing, and we have been hopelessly in love ever since. And we have the power to give that gift to other people. We can introduce children to books. We can show young writers how to write and read what they have to say. We can give people an invitation to this world and open the doors. 

“We can all do this for someone. Literary Citizenship is perpetuating literary culture in a world where its lights are dimming.” 

-Stephanie Vanderslice

And so, I try. Visiting today, I caught a glimpse of myself as I was leaving my professor’s class— full of emotion and excitement for the world. I’ve struggled with maintaining that confidence and hope. I struggle with feeling like I have any meaningful influence on the world, on other writers, or on the next generation of readers. But I try to remember how important this is, and I do what I can. 

It’s not always much. 

I promote the work that I enjoy reading, even if that only means speaking well of it in my conversations and posts online. I critique work for my friends and try my best to encourage every writer I meet. I’m planning a short story reading and poetry slam for young writers in the fall months. I hope to attend more lectures soon.

I try to be the best teacher I can be. I tell my students, “email me if you ever want someone to read your work” because I want them to know: your words are important. What you have to say is so, so important. 

I understand the criticism. Much of it, I believe, comes from an underlying fear that we can’t help anyone. That what we’re doing might not matter. It comes from frustration, exhaustion, and loneliness. But whether or not writers are doing more work for no pay, we shouldn’t be criticizing writers for it.

This is our method of survival. We need to work hard to build communities because we’re the only ones who will. We need this because it gives our lives purpose when we so often struggle with doubt. Literary Citizenship is a way for us to stick together. 

And let me say this clearly, because I think it is one of the most important messages of Literary Citizenship: You matter. Your book reviews keep authors writing. The class you teach or the poetry slam you organized or the literary journal you edit for gives people voice. You buying books from local bookstores helps the author, the bookstore, and the next writer who releases their book there. Your donated books help foster a generation of readers. What you do makes a difference, no matter how small your actions. 

What you do matters. 

 


 

My professor introduced me to this phrase “Literary Citizenship” and it changed my life. And so I want to conclude with a quote from her article that defines what it means to be a literary citizen in a beautiful, concise way: 

 

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Grandiloquent Language

There is a point in many people’s lives when they are faced with a text that is packed full of long or unfamiliar words. This often happens when reading very old literature or philosophical texts, but it might be an academic essay or a particularly difficult poem. Whenever it happens, it has a similar effect: the reader feels like an idiot.

These texts leave us struggling with understanding words in a way we haven’t since we first learned language as a child. Word by word, the line slows down, the shapes of letters becoming more apparent on the page, and we become painfully aware of how much mental energy it actually takes to read. There are no context clues because the surrounding words are as incomprehensible as the word we first paused on. Soon, even the grammatical structure of the line seems strange and wrong. There is a foreignness to the moment, as if we are completely lost in a parallel world. A small, perhaps irrational, panic spikes in the back of the brain— what if I don’t understand my own language? What if I can’t comprehend or communicate? Am I isolated from other people? 

It sounds extreme, but I believe that these moments truly tap into a special sort of fear, at least the first time they happen. Humans are social beings. We need companionship and interaction with each other. Our form of communication that we call ‘language’ is so important to us as a species that when we feel that our ability to use it is threatened, even just for a moment, somewhere a fear whispers that it will cost us our communities and loved ones.

There are a few responses to this feeling, and each has the power to forever shape someone’s writing.

1. “The Dictionary”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to you not trying hard enough, and dedicate your life to learning new words.

This is a pretty good reaction, because it has the potential to really expand your vocabulary. These are the sorts of people who actually own a physical dictionary, buy word-of-the-day calendars, or set themselves up with a screensaver that displays them definitions. They subscribe to facebook groups that post pictures of obscure words (which may or may not be real) and try to work some of these into conversation occasionally.

Most of the time, those who fall into this category don’t end up writing extremely difficult texts, but do tend to include a greater amount of challenging words in their work along with plenty of context so readers can learn them too. Many authors fall into this category, and you can recognize them as the ones who seem to teach you new words all the time as you read their work.

(Small warning: Occasionally those with “The Dictionary” reaction will get caught on a new word and try to work it into everything, so there is a minor risk of them structuring ideas around their words instead of the other way around. This happened to me after learning the words “disgruntled” and “indubitably” as a child, and I’m sure I became unbearably obnoxious for a while.)

2. “The Thesaurus” Decide that not understanding the text is due to you being spectacularly stupid and incapable, and dedicate your life to attempting to hide this from everyone else who must just be inherently smarter and perfectly able to navigate thick tangles of obscure words. 

This reaction is what makes English teachers pull their hair out and frustrates Stephen King.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

These people will write papers and then open up a thesaurus and substitute every word possible with a synonym that’s more difficult to read (and often doesn’t even share the same meaning or connotation). These are the ones that change every “use” to “utilize” and “praise” to “approbation.” They will make their sentences as long as possible and are known for packing papers with enough fluff to fill a nursery of toy bears.

For some, it becomes a game. They feel that they’re expected to shove these words into their writing, and so they play along, feeling that they have outsmarted the system. You can see this sort of reaction from Calvin.

Image                                              (Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson)

Their goal is no longer to communicate their ideas but to convince others that they have a command of grandiloquent language.

Unfortunately, it often convinces people of the opposite, because the goal of language is communication, and readers often can’t understand what in the world these writers are trying to say. This happens a lot in lower level essay writing courses, but I’m sure some go on writing this way forever. I imagine a dangerous loop could form where they feel stupid, use big words to feel smart, someone points out they used the words incorrectly, and then they feel stupid again.

“The Thesaurus” response is often caused by embarrassment or a secret lack of confidence, and is incredibly destructive. It’s one of those situations where fear leads directly to bad writing.


3. “The Hemingway”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to the writer of the text being incapable of expressing their ideas clearly and dedicating your life to proving that all of life’s complexities of thought, emotion, and experience can be expressed in plain vocabulary. 

This reaction leads to writing that is accessible to all sorts of readers. It doesn’t always mean that these writers don’t have a good vocabulary, but they usually believe that the simpler a sentence can be constructed, the better.

These people will look at essays with lines like, “The researcher discovered that female individuals have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to preface their statements with expressions which allow for additional possibilities or indicate a lack of commitment to their position” and correct it to “The researcher found that women are more likely to hedge their speech.”

They are likely to make the actual reading easy so that the reader’s focus can be on the complexity of the ideas explored. The reaction is named after the famous author because he is known for simple sentence structure and the use of accessible vocabulary. Plenty of other authors take this approach too, but Hemingway is famous for it.

The heart of this reaction is summed up in this exchange between Faulkner (who appears to have had a “Dictionary” reaction) and Hemingway:

“[Hemingway] had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary”

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Not everyone necessarily falls into one of the three categories, of course. Life is too complicated for that. For example, I believe it’s possible for a “Thesaurus” reaction to become a “Dictionary” or “Hemingway” response with a little reassurance.

Some texts are just plain difficult, and it doesn’t make anyone stupid for not understanding them immediately. People can have all sorts of creative ideas without also having a large vocabulary.

I think one of the best strategies to help make this shift with students is to encourage developing and exploring their ideas, using whatever vocabulary they currently have.

To anyone who is faced with feelings of doubt about your vocabulary while writing, my advice is to work with the tools you have. You can go looking for words as something fun to do when you aren’t writing, but during the actual writing process, try to explain your thoughts as best you can using the words with which you’re already comfortable. Reading more in between writing (even books that are just fun to read and would never be described as “challenging”) will probably build and round out your vocabulary on their own without you ever needing to memorize words from the dictionary.

Blending of multiple reactions is possible, too. I think that I myself am often “The Hemingway” in philosophy and “The Dictionary” in practice. While I believe that all ideas can be expressed simply, I am, after all, writing this blog about how much I love learning about words.