This week, we're bringing you a mini-series on 'balance', which is an idea that we think is central to a sustainable writing practice. Kicking it off is Walter Mason, with some really solid advice on being a good literary citizen.
Image source: Flickr CC / classblog
I always tell people that the only reason I was published was because I helped another writer. I had organised an author talk at a church hall in Sydney’s demure North Shore, and, rather unexpectedly, a whole stack of people had turned up. The author was understandably pleased, and while I escorted her to the toilet I thought I’d make some small talk and innocently (I swear!) I said: “My whole writing group turned up tonight - they are very excited to hear you.”
“Oh!” she said, “Do you write? I had no idea. We should talk.”
And so began my speedy journey into publication. I could have shouted my own talents from the rooftop for years. Come to think of it, I did. But my genius remained undiscovered. Ultimately the most important thing I did to advance my career as a writer was to help another writer look good and gain an audience.
I see a lot of self-obsession in the writing community. Just listen to the questions at seminars and festivals, or stop to chat with someone at your local writer’s centre. The talk normally revolves around them, their work and why things just aren’t working out. I have less and less patience for this, and sometimes I just want to scream “Stop!”
Take a step back away from you, your passion and your life work. You’ve got that covered. Nothing will keep you from expressing yourself creatively – if it did, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Instead I would urge you to consider the role you are playing as a reader, a literary consumer and an active member of a writing ecosphere in which each individual member plays a desperately important part. Be the reader you wish you had.
So here are some of the ways you can make sure books and writing stay alive and (somewhat) economically viable:
- Buy new books and read them – In my creative writing classes I am always surprised at how few books people buy and how out of touch people are with their local literary scene. One of the things I have learned as a published author was that other authors buy your books, often several copies. They know how important it is, and what a difference their purchase makes. The ‘reading them’ bit is important, too. Once read, or while reading, you can attempt to spread the good news by tweeting about the book, putting it on Facebook or just telling someone you meet how fantastic it is.
- Get your books at a bookshop – OK, I know that realistically you do have to buy some books online, and sometimes it’s cold out and you can’t be bothered. But surely, at least once a month or so, you can duck in to a bookseller and spend the extra four bucks to buy something from the shelf? I was once a bookseller, and in the past few years I have watched with great sadness shops I knew and loved disappear. If you don’t want bookshops to go the way of record shops and milliners there is only one solution – spend your money in them.
- Be a fan – Cultivating excitement about books and literature is essential. I live with a food blogger, and see week by week the tremendous energy and excitement that continues around food and eating in our culture. If only a tenth of this energy were devoted to Australian writing I am sure we would see an enormous surge in interest and engagement. So Tweet, Facebook, blog, Periscope – do everything you can to talk about the books you are reading and those you plan to read. You never know where the seed of interest might fall.
- Go to author events – All writers have horror stories about doing a library talk or a bookshop appearance and having only four people turn up. The fact is that most author events are free, and represent tremendous value. You get to hear about the writing process, ask questions about things that interest you and really just absorb the journey of a person who has spent two or three years creating something substantial and is doing the thing that you want to do. If you are writing, attending author events is essential to your development and should be a priority. Become a well-known face at your local library or bookshop. You will be noticed.
- Subscribe to a literary mag – Online or hard copy, the Australian lit mag scene is remarkably vibrant, but subsists on a tiny subscription base. Your support will enlarge it. Honestly, you need to put your money where your pen hopes to be (did I manage to avoid a cliché there, or just murder one?). Literary mags are one of the most important supporters of new and emerging writers, so take it on as a personal responsibility to ensure they survive.
- Be a campaigner – This month, decide to champion something. Be it a book you’ve read and loved, the career of a young author you admire or a centre that is helping to cultivate literary culture. I take quite an organised approach to this – I create a schedule of help and promotion of others that my friend, the brilliant author Belinda Castles, calls my “Spreadsheet of Loving Kindness.” Bring some energy, enthusiasm and good ideas to helping get the word out. Be an influencer and a tastemaker – as a talented and creative person, you have every right to that mantle. Organise, volunteer, and help without asking or expecting any credit. Believe me, almost no-one else is doing it, and your action will make you extraordinary.
- Embrace generosity – I sometimes think that we hesitate to help others in case we give away the best of ourselves. It comes from the same instinct that tells us to hoard and hide our ideas in case someone else steals them. It is always the wrong impulse. You have the time, energy and good grace to be generous to others in the same field. And I am not saying you have to be a saint – I have been known to grumble in envy while reading the programme of a writers’ festival or looking at the line-up of the First Tuesday Bookclub. But every time that happens I simply turn it around and decide to help and promote the thing that scared me. I am talented and full of ideas, and so are you. There is no reason why I shouldn’t share that love and talent, and acknowledge it in others who happen to be having their moment in the sun. Let them shine, and even help magnify their brilliance!
Putting your energy out into the world in support of others is not, as some wrongly imagine, enervating. You don’t use up your creative potential when you help someone else grow. You are simply ploughing the fertiliser you will one day be using. Supporting writers inspires you and gives you hope for your own future and possibilities. And, ultimately, it builds your social cache and makes you a person of interest. Taking some time out of your writing schedule to devote to the talents and dreams of others is one of the very best forms of creative self-care.
Walter Mason is a writer, blogger, tour leader and creativity teacher. He has written acclaimed travel books about Vietnam and Cambodia, and has spoken at festivals, seminars and conferences across the world. Walter runs the Universal Heart Book Club with Stephanie Dowrick, an on-line book club that concentrates on matters of the spirit.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.