Take stock of your writing life with these eight questions

Using Roxane Gay’s 2013 AWP article as inspiration, I answered these questions for myself as an exercise of reflection in this somewhat solitary practice of writing. If you’re a writer looking to take stock of your own progress and engagement with writing, I encourage you to try this for yourself! It required me to put into words what I had been struggling to communicate with my friends and family regarding the third draft of my WIP and my new stationary writing life.

1. Are you a good literary citizen?

Lindsay on a bus in Denver

It’s safe to say that, a few weeks after I arrived in Denver, I was nailing literary citizenship. In July, I was eager to be done with gainful employment and in control of my schedule. I took advantage of all the literary events I had access to now being in one place, especially such a lively literary scene. No doubt I attended too many events to still be productive with my own writing. I spent hours on the bus or in Lyft rides going across town to events even mildly considered literary. It wasn’t sustainable nor always a great return on investment, but I felt like I was doing what a writer—one bound for success—is supposed to do.

In August, I paid to become a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, ironic timing given I had access to a free membership throughout grad school. Registering for their March conference promised access, continued education, and an external deadline for my third revision. Who knows what such a conference may provide for a hopeful author, I say with equal parts skepticism and enthusiasm.

After years of spouting the merits of putting students in the instructor role, I already consider everyone I meet as a potential colleague or teacher. Fantasy writers? Tell me your secrets for world-building. Poets? What’s your writing routine? Playwrights? School me on how often you submit. Memoirists whose work doesn’t speak to me? Speak to me of the lessons you’ve learned from writing about your life. At the risk of sounding insane or boastful, I know how to extract new revelations from a broken record, so I know, in that respect, I am a fulfilling my role as a willing participant in this industry’s classroom. I feel enriched and furthered with every single conversation.

After a few months, being an engaged literary citizen started to feel imbalanced; I was too focused on consuming and not creating. But autumn necessitated a redirection of focus toward travels, visitors, and finding a new home. Thus, my literary citizenship took a hit. I still attended every event I could in support of authors I knew and gave them props via social media (freshly knowing how valuable numbers are for getting represented or published). I continued to read competitive titles from the library and use that information in my ever-expanding book proposal. But my WIP revision almost came to a halt. And when you lose momentum while working on your least powerful chapters, you’re looking at a steep climb uphill out of that unproductive valley.

Now that I have set up my home, I’ve been doing things I’ve always assumed to be settled writer etiquette. I subscribed to The New Yorker (after comparing mag and journal rankings) and Poets & Writers (to follow the meta writer conversation), and I now I’m looking for a journal whose content and style fit mine. Feeling the need to have my job antennae up, I researched publishing houses locally for whom I can volunteer or work in the hope of learning how books are made (when a manuscript and an agent love each other very much). And of course I don’t have to restrict myself geographically in that search, for remote jobs in writing are entirely conceivable.

Yes, my settled writer life became less about being a physically-present citizen but striking a better balance between consuming and creating, prioritizing my goals for citizenship: revision and publication to add my story to the marketplace.

But if we’re going back to citizenship, the word reminds of the sum, not its parts. Creative writing is often solitary, but individuals make up the collective group of wordsmiths and storytellers. Something tells me that Roxane Gay put this question up top for a reason; writers are enriched by being active in a greater whole, and writing promises more punch and purpose when it’s not approached like a crafters at home in a vacuum.

What I need to work on is inserting myself more into those literary events by reading at open mics: a very obvious way to blend consumption and creation. I will also admit that my book-buying habits are not conducive to supporting writers in general (used bookstores, ebooks, and libraries), though I do make it a point to buy work from authors I know (ideally presale). My old reasoning of “no bookshelves, no books” is no longer valid, so I need to start doing unto authors as I would want them to do to me.

Writing session with my friend Matt Hill while traveling together in Morocco

Writing session with my friend Matt Hill while traveling together in Morocco

Another way I hope to improve my outreach and citizenship is through my Facebook Fan Page—to develop it as a resource for readers and writers, not just a mechanism for self-promotion. This post is an example of that intention: a personal reflection inspired by another writer, facing outward to provide solitary writers with a more social experience of their developing practice. I had no use for a page like this until I turned my Instagram into a business account, thus requiring a FFP. I need to stick to my premise of sharing thoughts on reading and writing, noting moments of literary travel, and highlighting others in the writing community. I will continue to take a slow and steady approach to inviting others to “like,” only if I think they care to support my work and will like the content.

Talk about a long first answer...

2. Are you more invested in the business of publishing than the practice of writing?

Currently, yes. And my excuse? I am attempting to engage with writing life in the ways I couldn’t during my MFA.

When I started my degree program in 2016, I saw myself as student first, reader second, and writer third. It’s hard to isolate the effects of being employed and nomadic at that time, but I know it made me fearful of performing well in the eyes of my advisors and less focused on the personal act of writing. I didn’t have a lot of time, and I didn’t want to look stupid. It took time to realize that reading and critical writing were secondary to doing the real work of putting my story on paper, regardless of how rough it comes out at first.

A strong piece of long form journalism that distracted me from my manuscript this summer

A strong piece of long form journalism that distracted me from my manuscript this summer

I’ve been mostly abandoning this aspect of writing life since September 1 out of a need to find housing and build my “nest.” But I can’t blame that distraction entirely. I’ve also allowed the memory of my previous revisions to intimidate me and stall my attack of the weaker parts of the book. I need to review my advisor’s notes from my second revision, and I should have stuck more closely to my SMART goal of completing line editing in September (hell, December!). Routine is what I need, now that I’m in one place with the improved prospect of such.

So, yes. I’ve been prioritizing the business side by strategizing with social media, networking, researching the publishing industry, and developing my book proposal before the manuscript is even done. The few recent times I got engrossed with writing were wildly satisfying and reminded me of why I pursue this profession. Much like I stalled in my third term of school when I hit my weak chapters, I need to remember to jump into the work wherever the energy leads me. Yet another lesson I’ve already learned before that I need to be reminded of in practice.

Lastly on this point, I don’t have the mindset that publishing is a zero sum industry. I think there’s room for everyone, and one person’s success does not necessarily detract from my own. This is how I’m approaching any outreach or self-promotion as well as supporting others like me. I’m looking for ways that the business of publishing can directly benefit my writing practice and expand my perspective as I go along, not to mention support others in the process…because I can’t stop trying to be a teacher.

3. Is your writing ready to be submitted? Will you stand behind your work not only today, but well into the future?

My afternoon view while editing

My afternoon view while editing

No, it’s far from ready. Though I believe the third revision will be leaps and bounds better than the previous two, I feel like I’m on the cusp of perspective that will support the development of a book that will stand the test of time, not to mention reflect how I truly feel about my Fiji experience and why I think the book needs to be published—to contribute to the current dialogue surrounding globalism, culture, class, and privilege. I’m trying to find the balance between political opinion and processing emotions and actions. I’m trying to let time bear the expected fruit of wisdom that will improve the current state of my edits.

In the original post that inspired my ramble, Roxane Gay states: “Ask yourself, ‘Does this writing represent the best I can do in this time and place?’ If the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, sit with the writing until it is.” As I sit with my WIP, I’m stacking books beside me that may lasso closer the perspective I seek. I’m exposing myself to every opportunity in which I can be enriched by other writers and not only know their odysseys through the industry but their internal odysseys towards reaching those resounding yeses.

4. Are you willing to be critiqued and/or edited?

Yes, by someone who understands the stakes of getting my story right in perpetuity. By someone who has a clear view of my intended effect. By someone who can communicate creative restraints and isn’t afraid to experiment with form. By someone who takes the time to honor what I honor about my story.

For this reason, I know a writing group would help me immensely. Not just any group of writers but people who are attempting to write with vulnerability and weight. I’m not sure how to accumulate such a group, but I’m positive it would score us all major literary citizen points.

Interested?

5. How will you deal with failure?

Well, it depends.

If we’re talking about receiving rejections for journal submissions, I tell myself I’m looking forward to my first rejection. I tell myself it will be a milestone that proves I’m pursuing challenges. I tell myself it will embolden me to write better and submit more. We shall see if this holds true when the time comes.

If we’re talking about indifference or distaste for my WIP, I’m not sure how well I’ll take criticism of my writing (or my person given the autobiographical nature of my story). Throughout the experience of putting it on paper, I’ve already dragged myself through the proverbial coals. I’ve tried to be my own worst critic and hold myself to the highest and widest standards. But much like I defend my small town from the maledictions of others while complaining about it under my breath, I imagine I will commence receiving criticism with paper-thin skin. I’d like to imagine that’s universal and that eventually an author becomes numbed and disaffected by opinions they don’t initially value. All I know is that it will be a process, and it will promise yet another sine wave of emotions. It will necessitate many reminders of Om.

6. Are you reading diversely?

Books at Tattered Cover

In terms of author demographics, since July I’ve read works by an Antiguan-American, a Vietnamese, a Lebanese-American, and five white Americans. Of the eight, five were female. Is this an adequately diverse author list given my current reading needs? I could definitely do better to include more Pacific Islanders and individuals navigating their emotions during post-colonialism. However, I do believe my WIP is benefitting from seeing how other Americans process national identity while overseas, and perspective and diction are major pros for reading works by other nationals.

Since I am writing what could be called either narrative nonfiction or memoir, I started out quite biased to that genre. And when I dared to venture into fiction, it reached me like a breath of fresh air. I don’t know why I veer away from fiction periodically. Recovering from that singular focus feels like snapping to after drifting into the highway’s shoulder. If I’m looking to improve my craft and mining GoodReads for stories like mine, I can’t forget those things can be hiding in different genres.

7. Are you taking risks?

I think writing a first book is inherently a risk, not to mention the choice to capture one of my least proud period of life on paper.

8. Do you believe in your writing?

It’s possible that I hold many of my experiences abroad in too high a regard. Perhaps I see them the way a child often remembers mundanity as grandeur. This comes to mind anytime my self-critic side looms large, but even when I hold my first book’s contents up to a more realistic measuring stick, I come away feeling confident that my story is worth telling. I know the themes to be relatable and relevant, even with an unrelatable plot and an obscure setting.

And on those good days—the peaks of my emotional sine wave—I feel emboldened by my story, as if it were a VIP pass admitting me back stage, as if it’s truly a horse of a different color; not just the story but how I am able to pick words and craft sentences on those lucid days where good craft feels within reach.

But this question wasn’t about my content. At least not entirely. Do I believe in my own writing? My own ability to pick the right words and construct original sentences and structure a powerful story to translate the blips and swirls I can see in my own mind. The answer is I do...as long as I calculate that belief as:

formula for belief in my writing success

I believe in my writing as long as I work to keep my pursuit of writing aloft, like a beach ball or a heavy balloon. I believe I have the capacity to deserve being a writer and being read. But I must summon that capacity actively, and with the time it requires, to meet my own high expectations.

Was this reflection useful or illuminating for you? Are you a writer who benefits from hearing the experience of other writers, making the solitary more shared?