By Jason Hill, Spalding MFA Coordinator of Student Services & Marketing
This past winter I led a pair of workshops at the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s a great place, full of people who come to learn and look for someone to help guide them. When I proposed the two workshops (one of which I co-led with my wife, Kelly) I did so thinking it would be good experience and could open the door for other workshops or similar opportunities. But as I prepared and then held the workshops, I realized something else: This too is something writers do.
I don’t mean workshops specifically, or workshops exclusively. I mean being out in the world as writers, being literary citizens. It is a lesson I thought I had already learned, but one that I needed reminding of and, I suspect, one that all of us sometimes forget.
Being a writer isn’t just about the words we create. And honestly, if that were the only way we measured ourselves or felt deserving of the label of writer, many of us would probably be too discouraged to continue. The further truth is, that’s exactly where I found myself leading up to the workshops at the Carnegie Center.
When I graduated from the MFA program in the spring of 2014, I feared as many alums do that I wouldn’t be able to keep my writing schedule going. I worried that without deadlines and active peers to surround myself with, I could gradually slip into being an occasional writer, one who, if measured by output or publications, could barely be called a writer. That fear kept me motivated for a time. I submitted to journals regularly and was published in two of them. I also finished a second draft of a novel I’d begun in my last two semesters and began querying agents about it.
But when I ran out of material that I’d started or imagined during the MFA program, I slowed down. And then life happened. The end of 2014 bled into 2015 and by the fall of that year I was in a totally different space in my personal life and my writing life. I managed to chug along re-submitting the same stories, (some of which I still firmly believe in and others that I was just hoping someone else would see something I didn’t). A few queries on the novel got requests for pages, but those went nowhere. Meanwhile, every new story I started never really came together. Soon I was looking at a folder full of half-completed work, unpublished (and possibly unpublishable) stories, and a novel that needed yet another round of revision to address flaws that had become only more apparent. Season followed season and the summer of 2016 arrived, followed by winter and a new year. Between the end of 2016 and mid-2017, I had created almost no new work, certainly nothing worth submitting to the world.
I wanted to be writing. I thought about it, set aside time to do it and followed through, helped start a writing group of local Spalding MFA alums, and tried my best, but even when I pushed, I couldn’t seem to break through the wall of mediocre writing that had become the norm over the last 18 months. Not surprisingly, I began to question what it meant to call myself a writer when I wasn’t really writing.
Self-doubt is a constant companion, and anything that feeds that beast is likely to find us sooner or later. My self-doubt was feasting. It had so much to eat that I couldn’t see beyond the truth, not very assuring and somewhat trite, that all writers go through periods of inactivity. What I lost track of was a truth not as often spoken: Being a writer is more than just the act of writing.
As writers, we don’t merely produce words to be consumed. We live a writer’s life. Our involvement with words doesn’t stop when we leave our desk, or when we pull a book off our bookshelves. When we’re not writing or reading, we’re attending literary festivals or readings in support of other authors. We’re reading new works in journals and supporting their efforts in the world. We’re discussing the latest writing by others and searching for the next book (or script or poem) to blow our minds open. We’re volunteering or finding groups involved in promoting writing. We’re teaching at all levels. We edit work for others and offer what at least some of our friends and acquaintances think of as an informed opinion. As writers, we are more than what we produce, we are ambassadors of the written word, representing the literary world as enfranchised citizens.
When I came away from the workshops, I was reinvigorated. There was the obvious and immediate gratification I got from the thanks of the members. But it was also the realization that regardless of my lack of finished work in the last year, I was still a writer. I realized that the opportunities to be a writer weren’t limited to the time I could find to create or the success of any period of creativity. And even though I hadn’t applied to lead the workshops as a way to jump-start my own work, that’s what happened. Within a month of the workshop, I had completed a new story, the first in longer than I could count. A month after that, another story and the beginnings of what I hope will be a third.
All of that happened, I believe, because I kept to my duty as a literary citizen by staying involved, by participating in all the aspects of what it means to be a writer.
So when you find the beast of self-doubt hanging round your door, don’t fall for its tricks. Writing is not the only way to chase it off. There are myriad other ways to be a writer during fallow periods. Go to readings and conferences. Propose a panel, lecture, or workshop. Revise that graduation lecture and turn it into an essay for publication, or pick up the ECE you slogged your way through and find a new purpose for it. Volunteer to read to children at the library or with a literacy program near you. Get out in the world. Be a literary citizen.
Jason Hill is a fiction alum of Spalding’s MFA in Writing and also holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. His short stories have appeared in The Austin Review and Tulane Review.