I recently shared a post on Twitter about a friend who won a writing contest. I was excited for him. Sharing his news seemed like an obvious move. Author Cai Emmons responded to my post with a simple comment: “You are a great literary citizen.” I got a bit choked up when I read her comment, which seemed silly, even to me.
Why did her response matter so much to me?
I thought about Cai’s comment a lot over the next few days. It mattered because I cannot control what people think of my writing. I cannot control how well my books sell or how many people will show up to a reading. I can, however, control how I participate in the literary community, and I very much want to be a good literary citizen.
But what does it mean to be a good literary citizen? I think about authors like Celeste Ng or Roxane Gay, who stand out as forces for good in the literary world. They take stands on important issues and support other writers. I’m certainly no Roxane Gay or Celeste Ng; I don’t have a huge platform with throngs of fans. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a positive impact, or at least try to.
I think the keys to being a good literary citizen are authenticity, passion, and kindness. Don’t praise someone because you want to get something from them. But be honest with yourself. Admit that boosting others also gives you a boost. If you show up for other writers, they are more likely to show up for you one day. I’m not suggesting you promote another writer so that same writer will support you in return. There is no quid pro quo. (Sorry I couldn’t resist.)
Being a good literary citizen is more like tossing goodwill out into the Universe like a fistful of glitter. You don’t know where it will land, but you can be pretty sure it will stick to something.
The list below started as goals I set for myself. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I have plenty of room to improve. So I will consider this a list of standards that I hope I can live up to one day. No one can do everything. Don’t beat yourself up for the things you can’t do. Focus on the ways you can impact the writing community, no matter where you are in your journey.
- Shout your praise. If you like an author’s work, TELL THEM! I make a habit of reaching out to authors I admire and letting them know how much I appreciate their work. I write emails, comment on posts, write reviews. Be sincere in your praise, only offering it if you mean it. I don’t gush about work I don’t adore. But, conversely, if you don’t like something, I keep that to yourself. Writing is subjective. It doesn’t serve anyone to tear down another writer.
- Show up. Go to launch events, attend panels when you can. I love going to readings, especially those by debut authors. It must be scary as a new author to show up to an event worried that no one will come. My mom is an avid reader, so my Christmas gift to her this year is going to be a huge collection of books signed to her by authors I have met at readings. (Shhhh, don’t tell her!)
- Join a writer’s community. That might mean a casual meet up at a coffee shop once a month, an online writers’ group, or a large organization. If you don’t know of any local groups, jump on Twitter and introduce yourself using the #writingcommunity hashtag. You will have tons of new writer friends by the end of the day.
- Offer a seat. Notice the writers who haven’t found their place yet and ask them to join you. I recently attended the Writer Unboxed conference in Salem, Ma. The first night I arrived at the hotel, I went down to the lobby by myself and noticed a group of writerly folks chatting. I didn’t know anyone there yet. I timidly approached the group and asked if they were part of the conference. Everyone immediately scooched over and made room for me to join them. It meant a lot to me.
- Celebrate other writers’ good news. This can be difficult sometimes, especially if it feels like you aren’t finding as much success as other writers. Lots of clichés apply here. Keep your eyes on your own paper. A rising tide lifts all boats. We are all on our own journey. All these things are true, but jealousy is insidious. It’s also a very normal emotion. Yes, share in the joy of a friend who just signed with an agent. Tweet it out when writers you admire hit those Best Of lists. But also be kind to yourself and acknowledge how hard creative work is.
- Consider the consequences of your words. Over the years, I have heard about incidents in writing communities where members have posted snarky or condescending remarks about other writers. Such comments are hurtful and don’t lift anyone up. Sadly, these comments do leave lasting impressions – about the person who wrote the disparaging comments. Not about the person they intended to disparage.
- Support local book stores and local literary organizations. I repeat, support local bookstores! They do so much for the literary community.
- Volunteer. Have you ever entered a writing contest? Someone probably volunteered their time to read those entries. A couple of years ago, I was a finalist for a literary contest. The following year the organizers invited me to be a judge. I happily said yes. It took up a lot of time, but it was an honor and privilege to read those entries. You can volunteer to help at a book festival or a literary conference. Ask your local writer’s organization if they need help stuffing envelopes for an upcoming mailing.
- Check your privilege. If you have achieved any level of writing success—such as placing in a contest, landing an agent, or signing a book deal—think about the connections you used or the money you spent to get there. I’m not suggesting anyone bought their way to success or inappropriately manipulated relationships. But I am saying that privilege can open doors and make the journey easier. Writing classes are expensive. Writers conferences, including travel, meals, and hotel expenses, carry hefty price tags. Paying editors to critique a manuscript can cost more than $1,000. There is nothing wrong with doing any of those things, by the way. These are legitimate investments in your career as a writer. But acknowledge that other writers, many of who are just as talented, haven’t made it out of the gate yet because they lack the resources. If you find yourself in a solid financial position, think about giving back so that other writers might have those same opportunities you’ve had. Sponsor a space in a literary contest so a low-income writer can enter. Offer to review a query letter or read a manuscript for a writer who can’t afford a paid critique. Bid on raffle items that raise money for scholarships. Important note: If you can donate money, that’s great, but being a good literary citizen doesn’t require cash. If you can’t afford to buy books written by writer friends, check them out from the library. You can still rave about them and write reviews. Many conferences offer scholarships or free or reduced admission if you volunteer. Twitter and Instagram are free! You can shout out your goodwill online, and no one will ask for a penny.
- Use your platform. If you invest time and energy in supporting other writers, you may find your own platform expanding. And if that happens, use it for the benefit of the writing community at large. I’m in an online writing group for debut authors. Roxane Gay regularly shows up to answer questions and offer advice to the newbies. She doesn’t need to do that. I suspect other writers offered Roxane a hand up when she was getting started, and she is paying it forward. Taking inspiration from Roxane’s dedication to supporting other writers, I am going to stand on my tiny, barely-off-the-ground platform and toss fistfuls of goodwill glitter out there. I hope it lands on YOU!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about what makes a good literary citizen. Who are your citizenship role models? Do you have other ideas about how we can support each other? How have other authors given you a boost?