This solitary writer

It’s the last week of my online summer course in freelance writing, a course I’ve taught now for four summers in a row. Students are frantically working through revisions for their final projects, pieces of literary journalism, a genre they are mostly uncomfortable with, but they’ve also been finishing up a semester-long platform building assignment. You can’t succeed as a freelancer without platform, I told them again and again when first assigning the project, but of course they didn’t believe me. Not because they think they know best, or because they’re lazy—on the whole I find students to be intelligent and engaged—but because they internalized the idea somewhere that writing is a solitary endeavor.

Which, okay. We all know the stereotype: writer sits in his room, either smoking a cigarette or drinking some type of whiskey (or both), hair untidy, clothes that perhaps haven’t been changed in a day or two, tapping out tortured sentences on his typewriter. The walls are papered with rejection letters, and there’s a window or maybe not, but the writer is unequivocally alone.

But writing, even creative writing, isn’t like that anymore, if indeed it ever was. It certainly isn’t that way for freelance writers, and it takes me some time to break through the preconceived notions to what the career really is.

I leave the following note on the assignment sheet:

For many of you, starting this assignment will be stressful. It’s unfamiliar and, in many ways, vague. But building your platform is often something you figure out as you go along, and there is no one right way to do it. So dive into this assignment, take a few risks, and see what happens.

This year, the students really took my advice. I didn’t receive any panicked emails asking if they were doing it right, didn’t have any student ask me where he or she should start, as if there were some secret formula that I was just refusing to share. The stress was still there, but they trusted me—at least enough to give it a try, and today I finally got to see the full results of that trust.

“I have to put myself out there if I’m ever hoping to be heard,” said one student in her final platform reflection. “As crazy as it may seem,” said another, “I feel as if I know myself better upon completing these activities. I think it has something to do with acknowledging the connection between professional self and personal self.” And they’re both right. So very right.

We don’t write in a vacuum, and like it or not, we have (or aspire to have) an audience. Sure, some people write for themselves, but anyone looking at publishing has to care about audience, even if only marginally, but it goes beyond even our readers. We, writers, are part of communities, both personal and professional. We share our work with each other, blurb and review each other’s publications. We share books we love on social media, and if we’re published, we interact with our audience: through book tours, interviews, signings, etc.

My students aren’t thinking about book tours, of course. Or, if they are, it’s not in the context of the writing they’re doing in my class, where they write a guest blog post, a piece for a community publication, and a piece of literary journalism. No book deals there, but they do get published.

They have courage, my students.

It’s something I don’t have. Interacting with those that the writing career requires you to interact with…it’s never been my forte. I have a go at it every few months, but then some trouble arises, and I fall away again. My students, of course, would have their grade penalized if they did the same thing, but I honestly believe that some of them, perhaps many, would continue on without that extra motivation.

They believe in themselves, my students.

For the assignment, I give my students two lists of platform building activities (here and here) and ask them to complete three tasks per week for a total of seven weeks. There are simple things on the lists: create an email signature, find a mentor, get business cards, start commenting. I’ve had multiple students select each of those four examples, though I haven’t done any of them myself. Sometimes I start those or other projects, but I give up when I get scared. I have business card designs saved to my computer, for instance, but I’ve never printed them. I’ve had people willing to mentor me and I let the connections die for fear of being annoying, of asking for too much.

They aren’t frauds, my students.

I never fully believed in the solitary writer stereotype. From a young age, I loved to share my work. In fifth grade, I wrote ten-page stories about space travel, and when my teacher asked who wanted to read their work to the class, I volunteered. Ten minutes later she had to gently interrupt me because I showed no signs of stopping. I was embarrassed when I sat down, but I kept writing those stories. I kept volunteering to read. In fifth grade, I would have jumped at the chance to do those platform building activities.

I’m not sure when the bright-eyed passion died for me, but I haven’t submitted in over a year. I can’t stand showing my work anymore. I stopped writing book reviews, too, though I had a guaranteed acceptance there. If I have to pick a moment it all ended for me, I’d tie it to the end of graduate school, or perhaps to the beginning of my teaching career. The first deprived me of a for-sure community (they told me, back then, that I would have to develop my own community; I didn’t) and the second exposed me to an academic community, to seemingly endless students and endless papers (they told me, back then, that I would burn out if I wasn’t careful; I wasn’t).

It could be, of course, that I’m making a false comparison here. In their reflections my students speak of new habits formed, but I can’t deny I’ve forced them into those habits and into community, both in the class and beyond, and maybe once those constants become variables again, they’ll become like me. Not all of them though. Probably not all of them. Some of them, I’m sure, are the real deal. Like the student today who shared that she had already published two pieces this summer. I, of course, have published, have submitted none.

To be in this business, you have to love what you do, and I did—I do, even, if we’re talking more about having done it rather than actually doing it. But that’s always been easier for me when I had a community to share it with, when I felt as if I were part of something bigger. So I have no reasons for why I turn my back on that community again and again and again. I’ve become that solitary writer, in a way. Only, in my reality there’s no cigarette smoke, and there’s rarely whiskey. I change my clothes on a regular basis. There are many windows and all my rejections are saved in a folder in my email. I have a computer instead of a typewriter, but it sits on the other side of the room.

8 Comments

  • nicole says:

    Keep fighting for it, Kathryn. You may not be submitting as often as you’d like, but here you are in the game. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back once in awhile. :-)

  • Laura says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Kathryn. There’s always more to do, and since no one is going to “make” us become writers than ourselves, it can feel difficult to forgive ourselves the in-between times. I try to remember that it’s an ebb-and-flow, and just going out there and living life — that’s good for the writing too. I struggle with all of these same feelings, all the time.

    • There simply isn’t enough time in a day to do it all! All the things I want to learn, all the things I want to experience, all the things I want to do. Plus we have to earn the money it takes to actually be able to do those things. It’s always helpful, though, to be reminded that I’m not the only one going through these things.

  • Amaris says:

    Have you read “I Think You’re Totally Wrong” by David Shields and Caleb Powell? It’s similar to “My Dinner with Andre.” It’s a dialogue where the two debate devoting oneself to art or devoting oneself to life. I’m only a few pages in, but you might get a kick out of it.

  • Jaime Wood says:

    Thanks for this, Kathryn. I’ve struggled with the same issues, but something’s happened lately that has made me want to start writing and submitting again. I can’t quite put my finger on what happened, but I think it has something to do with a fear of getting older and not having done the things I wanted to accomplish. I’ve been working hard to have more work/life balance by writing at least five minutes a day, going into nature regularly, and applying to residencies that will allow me to focus on my writing (if I ever get into one!). Those sites you linked to were really helpful. I’m going to share them with my writing groups. Yes, I’m in two writing groups now. That’s another new development that is helping me, I think.

    • I feel you on that fear of getting older and worrying you won’t accomplish the things you want to, though I’m still in that paralyzed phase. I like your idea of five minutes a day. I tend to set these big lofty goals for myself then get really down when I don’t meet them. Good luck with your submissions!

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