I was part of a spontaneous reading Saturday night held in a campus parking lot, which was one of the most personally enjoyable readings I’ve gone to/read at in a long time. (I think Elysia might put up videos from it.) No scheduled lineup, no real promotion (two text messages + word of mouth), no emcee, no stage or podium. Just boozy kids yelling O’Hara and xTx and our own stuff from a concrete ledge down to our friends, who yell back FUCK YEAH and MUNCIE. Or stand quiet not because we’re polite but because we’re wowed.
The lack of expectation or competition or domination of one or a few personalities was insanely refreshing, as was the goofy and genuine affection we all had/have for each other. This, this shared love for words/stories and people who love them is what drew me to poetry in the first place, and eventually the contemporary indie lit creature with it. This reading might have been the best thing for my wordy heart since the first reading I ever attended, held in a martini bar two years ago, my first experience hearing my peers’ poetry and wanting to create similarly laugh and thought-provoking writing.
In the past year my writing head has shifted from “how can I entertain people at a reading?” closer to “how can I get published in (this or that kickass journal)?” (The difference between the two mindsets was especially clear to me Saturday as I was printing lyrics to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” to close my set.) I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad so much as just something to be aware of and act accordingly, now that how I think about audience has changed. And the change makes sense, given goals I have for myself.
I think this shift has also made me more aware of the role/title of “writer” and what that can do to your head if/when you claim it. I think the best part of uneasily semi-wearing the “writer” badge for me has been affirming that no, writing is not a worthless waste of my or anyone else’s time. Reading good writing and trying to produce good writing have helped me become a more self-aware, conscientious, rational, empathetic human being, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful. I know plenty of people who could credit writing with the same or similar personal benefits. The acts of writing and consuming writing are valuable, and acknowledging with honesty your individual role in making/benefiting from that value seems healthy.
But there’s also dangers of ego and entitlement that seem almost inevitably to get lumped with “writer” that I haven’t yet seen as helpful to anyone, i.e., that writers are inevitably more sensitive or fragile, should be expected to be treated a certain way, should have this or that behavior forgiven, etc. It’s not even that I disagree that these things are true for writers. It’s that I think they’re true for human beings in general, that we are comparably sensitive or fragile in our own ways, should expect to be treated with a certain level of kindness from others, and should have certain behaviors forgiven, as none of us can fully overcome our faults. To think such things mainly apply or even just especially apply to writers (or “creative types,” wherever you wanna draw that fuzzed-as-shit boundary) I think carries a lot of potential to cut off writers from the material that’s vital to producing effective/affecting writing in the first place: the honest experiences of ourselves and others. Because if the picture I have of myself as a writer leads to incorrect, unsubstantiated views of how I function in comparison to whoever is deemed “not a writer” or “not creative,” then I have cut myself off both to the psychological/emotional realities of a lot of people, as well as lost grip of my own reality as a human being with similar levels of weakness and need as just about every other human being. Which seems like a problem that doesn’t just limit itself to affecting my writing, but me as a person.
All of us that went to Bama were hanging out the last night of the Slash Pine trip, and Sean brought up an anthology of sorts in which pieces were purposely attributed to the wrong authors as a way to raise the issue of authorship and ego. My gut reaction was Well yeah, that would be upsetting if my name was put with the wrong thing but when I really thought about it, how that one piece with my name next to it would realistically do next to nothing, good or bad as it was, I thought Why be so upset? In the grand scheme of things, that one misattribution doesn’t mean that much; really, with the kind of thought and discussion we had then that came from just bringing up the existence of the anthology, I have to see such a project as much more beneficial than harmful, if harmful at all. I can’t imagine how taking a hard, honest look at my own insecurities and assumptions about being a writer is anything but good.
Lastly, I don’t ever want writing to become a reason for self-inflicted shame about where I haven’t been published or who I haven’t read or what I haven’t accomplished that my peers have because of expectations put on the title of “writer.” Already I’m easily intimidated and irritated when asked if I’ve read this or that, and when I haven’t, getting the look that says, “You’re not a real writer (or in my undergrad context, English major), are you.” It’s real easy for me to internalize those voices and scold myself for not being more informed or literate about certain things. I want to keep reading/learning about things because I enjoy reading and learning and think they’re important to being an aware, conscientious human being, not because I have to in order to meet an arbitrary, nebulous standard.
The problems of ego and expectations that come with “writer” have recently made me back off the term in my own head to something along the lines of “person who loves words and stories.” I also want to strike a better balance between the poles of thought I’ve had about audience, where I’m not unfairly devaluing entertainment in the process of producing pieces I can be proud of publishing. In short, I don’t want to forget or neglect why I love writing and words and people who love those things at all.