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 Roxanne 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 Roxanne 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.