Best Worst Year: Episode 35 (Or, People Like Us*)

It’s no longer enough to write. I don’t think it ever was, which is probably a good instinct to have. I’m not sure if all I wanted to do was write that I’d still be writing, at least publicly, or maybe I would’ve been even more myopic than I am now and be a literary darling–probably not. I think the longer you write and are putting yourself out there with journals, and school. and performance, the quicker you have to come to terms with the idea that it can’t be all about you. Ego has to be checked. The lit world is small enough and doesn’t have room for it–there’s not a room big enough for all the talented writers I’ve met in the last twenty years, but the ones who are still standing are the ones who know that there’s something larger than their own work at stake. The writers who don’t get that will be the people who sit next to you in the bar, the waiting room, or on a plane/train/bus/pack mule who’ll tell you that they “used to write, but XYZ…” The excuses are prescriptive, coming from nothing as much as a take-out menu’s worth of thought–some more legitimate than others. Ultimately, this is fine. Not everyone is cut out to write, make no money, get little acclaim, and possibly wind up taking a fine-edged walk between vices in order to fortify yourself against disappointment. There are some days, five rejection letters deep and a trip to Coinstar later, where I wonder if it’s too late for law school or to open a roller disco.

It’s not enough to be a writer. It’s community. When I first started writing it was a way for me to reach out, to be involved in some larger discussion I knew was out there waiting for me but didn’t know how to access. Art is connection and communication. Good art encourages that dialog and hopefully provides us with common ground to understand people decidedly different from us. Art breaks down barriers, not in conformity of thought, but in valuing the divergent. What connects us is the passion, not the common taste. Moreover, the more disparate the taste, the better we are for it–knowing what we don’t like and being able to articulate that in a meaningful way is as important as knowing what we love. It is our capacity to understand the need for diversity which strengthens a community. In order for all of our art to move forward, the community must be a consideration. If you don’t have an audience, or peers, or anyone, then who’ll be there to listen, to challenge, to foster your growth?

It’s not enough for me to be in my bedroom anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. I think part of the reason I have been fortunate enough to find a place in the writing world is because I understand the importance of community. At this point in my life, I can’t believe that I get to spend my days talking about writing, reading, and ultimately championing people’s work. Being able to read and publish talented writers is beyond what I thought it would mean to me when I was seventeen and on the other side of the desk exclusively. Back then, it was enough to fight for the margin width of a page, or for five minutes at an open mic. That’s not to say those things aren’t important to me now, but the older I get, providing a place or space for others to be heard becomes much more valuable.

It’s not enough to be lucky. I was lucky. Growing up with mentors and parents and friends who gave me permission to write has made all the difference. If I never felt comfortable or safe enough to be vulnerable then I would probably be a totally different person. What has been the quiet contract in all of this, and the lesson not lost on me, is that by being given this freedom and opportunity, it becomes my responsibility to provide that for someone else. We need to be responsible for one another. For writers to only take and not give dilutes the pool and ultimately drains a community. It does make it twice as hard at times, because suddenly, we’re thinking about someone other than ourselves. (And let’s be honest, being a writer, getting outside our skins has sometimes been difficult hurdle, especially when you’re as short as me.) We cannot wait for other people to discover us, or provide us a space to read, or to support us. We have to support one another. Sure, the higher the profile, the more success, the more people will come out and the bigger the bandwagon. That’s fine. Someone once told me “money follows success.” I don’t know if that’s wholly true for the writing world, but the more we are able to provide for our community of writers, the better we are going to be for it. Yes, it means carving a space into an already too-busy schedule in order to find a space for ourselves in the active community, but its value goes beyond us and our time constraints. The question, much like the question behind wanting to be a successful anything, is just what are you willing to do to make it happen?

It’s not enough to say you’re going to do something. With social media, most of us rely too much on the like/share/post activism to be a part of the community. Sometimes, it is all we have time for, but sometimes, it’s just we’re too damn lazy. How we justify what we do is a matter for you and the mirror. The measure of our success lies not in what we did for ourselves, but what opportunity we provide for everyone.

It’s not just about towns like Tunkhannock or Springfield. When I think about the small towns which gave me backbone, friction, and fulcrum, I think about how badly community is needed there, but it goes beyond just the young writers who need a safe place to develop and grow. It’s also about the larger communities which writing intersects. Fostering change and conversation is about reaching beyond our own space and putting ourselves out to places who don’t even know they need us as part of their conversation. Conversely, we cannot know what we are capable of as a community and what we can create personally until we see the divergent boundaries as points to converge. In order to get here, we as a writing community must understand our responsibility to one another, as well as our responsibility to world around us.

It’s not that easy. I know this. When I think about Anis Mogjani coming to Scranton this Sunday for a reading with the Breaking Ground Poets, I hope there’s a good turnout. It is after all, our responsibility.

_________________________

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. His latest work: A Passage for Trumpet will be available later this year from Unlimited. All the proceeds from his chapbook will be donated to the Breaking Ground Poets.

*Thank you, Rachel Reichle, for letting me steal your title.

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