Every week in my Literary Citizenship class, I’m giving my students a new weekly “experiment” or intention.
This week it’s “Outward Only.”
Social media doesn’t have a reputation as a force for good. A lot of people think that it makes us self-absorbed, etc. And this is true, don’t you think? It’s hard not to use SM to celebritize ourselves, to share our oh so amazing thoughts, to brag on ourselves oh so humbly. Social media does cause us to turn inward. So let’s try something different for a week: lets use it to focus outward instead.
For the next week, use social media ONLY to help others. For one week, you are trying to make the world a better place for books. Share links. Praise others. Thank others. Talk about books you’re reading, your favorite writers or magazines.
Nothing about yourself unless it helps someone or something. Outward focus only. Nothing inward.
Every time you engage in this activity, use the hashtag #litcitizen.
It’s like #fridayreads.
Actually, that’s exactly what FridayReads is: Literary Citizenship.
Join us. (And please share this post widely. Thank you!)
Thanks to a grant from the Discovery Group, I’ve hired 11 Ball State students for internships at this summer’s Midwest Writers Workshop. I want to tell you about it, so mosey on over to The Big Thing to learn more. They will be teaching literary citizenship to others. It’s really amazing.
You’ve all come so far since that first night of class. Remember? Remember where you were just a short time ago?
Think about what you accomplished.
- You got people in Muncie to come to the In Print Festival of First Books.
- You sponsored a public talk about graduate school.
- You gave a kick-ass presentation about social media at a meeting of local small business owners.
- You learned things about publishing that I didn’t know for a long, long time.
- You blogged every week for four months!
- You expanded your circle, your “network,” by at least 200 literary people. Because every week, you had to friend or follow five writers, magazines, publishers, agents, readers, etc. (If you can come up with another name for this than “Charming Notes,” I’m all ears.)
- You reviewed books.
- You reviewed the things you read online.
- You learned how complicated online reviewing is these days!
- You interviewed writers. You spread the word and the love.
- You gave public readings.
- You supported your classmates and plain old showed up to stuff.
- You got involved.
A few days ago at BookRiot, the writer Andrew Shaffer asked the question, “What do readers owe authors?” He was responding to a much-discussed infographic that’s been making the rounds. Shaffer notes that Amazon’s recent purchase of Goodreads highlights the importance of “digital word-of-mouth” and how authors and publishers need to do “everything in their power to increase the chatter surrounding their own books on social media.”
He cites these familiar examples:
I’ve seen readers tweet to writers that they enjoyed their books, only to have the writer respond with a “small request” to leave their thoughts on Amazon in the form of a review. Snider even suggests that readers “download and print the infographic to use a checklist” when buying books, so they don’t accidentally forget to like, tag, tweet, share, or review their new purchases. When did being a reader begin to feel like such a chore?
Since I’m basically teaching a class that encourages students to be “literary citizens” and directly participate in book culture by “helping” authors in these exact ways, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought.
A key principle of literary citizenship is that writers should build their community and expand their circles.
Not “network.” Not “schmooze.”
In her book Living a Literary Life, Carolyn See advises writers to send one “charming note” a day to someone in the publishing field—a writer, editor, publisher, etc. The point isn’t to ask for anything, but rather to just make a connection. These days, thanks to social media, it’s never been so easy to make those kinds of connections.
I require my students to friend or follow or email someone five times a week. Friending on Facebook, liking an Author Page, following on Twitter: these are “passive” acts. But at least once a week, they’re supposed to actually say something to somebody. Such as “I enjoy your work,” or “You published one of my favorite books,” etc.
[This is cross posted here and on my blog, The Big Thing.]
My husband and I have started a little website business, of sorts. We’re not looking to build or expand, mind you. We have one client, my yoga teacher/massage therapist. I’ll call her Violet. She runs a studio out of her lovely historic home. I go there a few times a week and do yoga in her dining room and get acupressure massages in a little room off the kitchen. Violet’s been doing this work for over 30 years, and working with her has made a big difference in my life.
The Findability of Violet
I only found Violet because a friend of mine, Nancy, introduced me. I would never have found Violet on my own. There would have been no way to find her.
See, I knew Nancy did yoga, but I didn’t know where. So I Googled “Yoga Muncie.” This made me very depressed.
Go ahead. Try it.
One day I was walking home from the bus station and saw a sign in a storefront window of women doing yoga postures.
A yoga studio?! Three blocks from my house?! Hooray!
But as I got closer, I saw that the sign was advertising “the Christian alternative to yoga.”
This made me even more depressed.
But finally, I ran into Nancy and said, “Hey, I had back surgery. I’ve gotta get back into yoga.” And so she took me to one of Violet’s classes. I don’t know how I would have found Violet’s house otherwise, or known when to show up, etc.
See, Violet doesn’t have a website.
She does have a phone number and an email address, but obviously, since she’s teaching yoga classes or giving massages all day long, you have to leave a message.
When are her yoga classes? You can’t look it up on her website, so you wait for her to call or email you back. Which she does of course, as promptly as she can.
She’ll add you to her email list, and that’s the only way for you to find out that she can’t do Wednesday’s class this week, but she’ll be back next week, and next month, she’s having a yoga retreat, etc.
What I’m trying to say is that I desperately needed Violet to get a website and start communicating with me more effectively. But this is a hard thing to say to the woman who’s palpating your psoas muscle.
But one day, I finally did it. Shortly after creating the website for my Literary Citizenship class, I asked her if she’d be interested in letting my husband and I make her a website in exchange for some massages and yoga classes?
She said yes.
We met with her and got a sense of what she needed her website to do. The different hats she wears. The big picture. We went home, and I told my husband, “You start and I’ll take a look at it.”
A few days later, he showed me the theme he’d picked out.
“Why would you pick that theme?” I asked.
“It’s good for images,” he said.
“Isn’t that good?”
“No,” I said. “You don’t go to her page to look at pictures. You want information.”
[Then we had a fight. I’ll spare you the details.]
The next day, I went through the WordPress themes and picked ones in which:
- The name of Violet’s business would be big, prominent.
- The navigation menu would be the first thing you saw, as if to say, “Are you here for Yoga reasons, Bodywork reasons, Food reasons, or Retreat reasons? Click here.”
- Then you’d see Violet. Because after all, she is owner, sole proprietor, and only employee. You’d see her phone number and email address, as well as her impressive bio.
- The next thing you’d see would be her calendar.
- Then you’d see a Google maps widget so you’d literally know how to find her house.
I built the pages and the architecture in one hour. I’m a client. I knew exactly what someone would come to her website wanting to know.
Why did I expect my husband to know this? I have no idea.
Being a Small-Business Owner
Being a writer or artist means you’re the owner of a small business called Being Yourself.
That’s what finally got me over my technology hump, actually. My aversion to having a web presence. I thought about all the businesses that drive me crazy because they won’t adapt. The ones you can’t Google and find out when they open or where they are or what they’re like. The ones you want to recommend to your friend, but there’s no link to share, no page to like. You can’t use a credit card there. They have a sale, and you never hear about it. Everything about this business is hard, and you stop going because God help us, you need something easy.
Websites are like airports. Good ones anticipate your needs and why you’re there and route you where you need to be. They’re easy to find, easy to leave. They piss you off as little as possible. They’re aesthetically pleasing.
I told Violet not to be afraid of technology. “You’re just making it easier for more people to find you. Which means you can help more people. And that’s a good thing.”
Getting to the Point: Writers Without Websites
I know a lot of writers who won’t go online, or will only do it in very limited, very guarded ways. I keep a list of them in my head: Writers I Wish More People Knew About.
Maybe they can’t afford a website. Maybe they think social media is evil. Maybe they think they shouldn’t have to do this work, or they think they don’t have time, or maybe they simply don’t want to.
Seriously, if you know a writer nobody knows about because they’re not online, offer to help them. Show them. Barter with them.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the very idea that I needed to own cathyday.com and blog and update and Tweet filled me with rage. God, how I resented what publishers expected of me, what you, gentle reader, expected from me.
Now, I can’t imagine my life otherwise.
Lit Cit class, January 24
Notes by the totally awesome Linda Taylor
Blogging and charming notes:
Realize that there is not a straight line into a job with a Creative Writing major. The classes you’re taking will give you multiple experiences.
Your blog is yours. Cathy had each person talk about what they blogged about, what changed when they understood it as more than an assignment but something that was theirs, and also what was happening with their charming notes.
Your blogs are works in progress, always will be. They’re like a portfolio. Let it change as your life becomes more complex. Okay to blog with information and resources people may need. They may find you when they Google a question that you have answered.
Find people who are maybe in the middle (that is, not super famous). They may be following someone famous and talking to each other. Find people who are interested in the same things but are still early in their career or a few years ahead of you. Look for kindred souls.
By the end of this semester, your experience of being on social media should be drastically different. You’re not a college whiner; you’re a professional. Put your ideas out there. Read things. Be a positive influence.
This is a class where you can talk about your dreams and hopes, your career aspirations, your interests, what you really care about.
If all you do is put your blog out there, it will just linger. Be sure to use your FB and Twitter account to let people know you’ve posted. Use tags. Make sure it’s “findable.”
Because Cathy has a wider network, she wants to make those in her network aware of your blogs. Realize that when you write your blog, you’re writing to more than just a few friends. It’s out there and many other types of folks may read it—like Cathy’s friends who are fellow professors and other professionals.
It’s a good idea to put a photo of yourself on your blog. Let folks know what you look like. Inspires warm fuzzies.
You could go into business for yourself offering author solutions. Do you have a good camera? People need current photos of themselves for social media.
Good act of literary citizenship—find something you like, post it, talk about it. Like this. You’ve made it permanent. If someone later Googles that person, they may find your blog, and may then read that person’s work. Free advertising.
This week is all about “let’s be positive.” Next week, we’ll look at the dark side of Literary Citizenship re: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
YOU MUST POST TO YOUR BLOG AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK, NO LATER THAN THE TIME CLASS BEGINS ON THURSDAY. YOU WILL LOSE POINTS IF YOU FAIL TO DO SO. THIS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE.
We must all be involved in one thing to promote:
(1) In Print festival, happening in March (Mark Neely to come next week).
(2) Reading in April for National Poetry Month.
(3) Applying to a graduate program. Cathy will be talking about this.
This is real life stuff—not just online community. How can you help to make these events successful using your contacts and social media?
Also, in these small groups, make sure to read one another’s blogs in that group. We may not all be able to read everyone’s blogs, but read at least the folks in your group.
Idea: As we read Jennifer Egan for next week, esp. with regard to the last story, think of Prof. Michael Meyerhofer’s new book. It’s an ebook only. What might we be able to do as a class to take what we’re learning and make his book sell, say, 8,000 copies by the end of the semester? And if we did that, is that a good thing, the “right” thing to do? Is that “literary citizenship” or is that what Egan calls “parroting.”
Carolyn See by Jay Sheets
Austin Kleon by Jackson Eflin
How did Austin Kleon go from his creative writing program (where you are now) to being a big speaker and making money? He had a 9–5 job and did book-related jobs, but then his first book was on the newspaper poetry thing. Then he was able to start speaking and one thing led to another.
It’s good to share and give info away for free, but at some point you have to decide “Why am I doing all this? Will this turn into a book? Do I want to keep my day job? What might this lead to?”
The business world calls this “monetizing your online presence.” Cathy calls it “being very deliberate about what you give away for free.” If you want to give away your words for free forever, that’s totally up to you, but remember, you gotta pay the bills somehow.
Think about this: How do our ideal readers find out about books? Kleon is made for the social media generation; Carolyn See is not.
Is it a writer’s job to find a wider audience? Or to speak to your audience? Does this just happen? Perhaps you have a certain demographic but then it can spread. Perhaps it’s a case-by-case basis.
What happens when writers don’t show up on social media? Like Carolyn See. Literary people are probably more on FB than Twitter.
Comparisons between See and Kleon—both talk about pretending to be a writer, fake it till you make it. Both say to convince ourselves and give ourselves permission to do it. Both talked about figuring out who you are, but they had different approaches. Both talked about outside experiences.
Major difference: See said, “Keep it to yourself,” to wait to show your work till ready; Kleon says put it out there.
Sean Lovelace says you should always be growing. Every two years you should look back on your work and say, “That was so bad.” You should keep improving. Kleon would say, “Let people see that evolution.”
Age definitely seems to make a difference in the perspective on putting stuff “out there.” See became famous before she had to do all this stuff. Kleon realizes that the world is different now.
Can you be ambitious without being annoying? For example, American Idol. The people who did the best were confident without being divas.
Cathy thinks this is what See means by “Keep It To Yourself.” Not, “keep your work to yourself, be ashamed of it,” but rather, “Don’t talk about being a writer all the freaking time, how much you want to make it, blah blah blah.”
Cathy says: I used to bring it up being a writer all the time early on. Now I don’t as much—except of course on my blog, on social media, and even then, I try pretty hard to BE INTERESTED IN WHAT OTHER PEOPLE ARE DOING. I know I’m a writer. I don’t need to bring it up in conversation so that I’ll feel validated. Keeping it to yourself is, to me, way cooler.
From the books, people liked:
- Side projects, I can do other things besides write.
- Nothing is original, but those ideas can be reformed to be your own.
- Praise file.
- Quit picking fights, go make something.
- Take care of yourself.
- Stay out of debt.
- Keep your day job.
- Keep a calendar and log book.
- Marry well.
- Write the book you want to read.
Some of these “be boring” things are so important—real life. We should learn the art side and be creative, but life is life and there are vital things that we must do in order to be able to actually live a creative life.
Think about your writing life. Think about your relationships. Who gets it? Who gets you? Hang out with people who support your work, as See says.
Being a writer doesn’t mean you must have the word “writing” in your day job title. If you can have a solid job with a solid income and health insurance, etc., then you’re just not worried. You may find that you’re writing even more even though you have a full-time job. Be strong enough to have your day job and still call yourself a writer. You must be able to say that to yourself and be okay with it.
Where to live. Think about this. It’s not a bad thing to be out of Indiana for awhile, but you can create a literary life here. If you want a job in publishing, you need to go where the publishers are.
The period after college and graduate school is the “abyss.” Take the opportunity to go somewhere and experience life. You have to actively work to make connections when you go to a new place.
Realize that the writing life is not the life for getting rich. Say no to some things so that you can say yes later. Be willing to not have all the “stuff.” Be willing to say no. Figure out how to spend as little money as possible so that you can invent the life that you want.
For the couple years after college, if you don’t have a family to support and tons of bills to pay, what will it take for you to get your book written? Maybe that boring job is what you want to keep. Maybe that will get you started.
The five years after college are very important. You have to decide if the writing is something you care about enough to make sacrifices. You may realize that you don’t want to be a writer—there may be something else that’s sort of related or sort of not.
Be savvy about grad school—don’t just go in order to give your life meaning again by being in school. Be careful not to go deeply in debt.
I used Storify to round up a bunch of articles related to the issue of reviewing books in a digital age. Here’s the link.
Reviewing books (both formally and/or informally) is an important part of literary citizenship. Each of you will have to figure out the difference between hyping and helping.