Vanessa Blakeslee — On My Honor: How to Be a Good Literary Citizen


Vanessa Blakeslee 2014  Train Shots  Juventud cover

Just over a year ago, as this blog hit the nine-month mark, I was brainstorming ideas to diversify the content by bringing in voices other than my own. I didn’t want to add additional book reviewers, as the central concept of Read Her Like an Open Book was one man reading and reviewing literary fiction by women.

I hit upon the idea of having women writers contribute guest blog posts in the form of essays. I proposed this idea to writers whose books I’d reviewed (and thus who knew of my blog), those who’d expressed support for it, and those whom I thought might be interested in some additional exposure. In some cases, a single writer met all three criteria. 

The first writer to respond positively was Vanessa Blakeslee, whose debut story collection, Train Shots, I’d reviewed in February 2014. She contributed a piece entitled “The Ten Best Books on Writing.” It was very well-received, and the idea of a weekly writer-as-guest-blogger feature was off and running.

Today, April 20, marks one year since Vanessa’s essay was posted on April 22, 2014. Over the past year, 48 authors have contributed pieces on a wide range of topics. Some even managed to go viral: Rebecca Makkai on Literary Mansplaining, Robin Black on men buying her book for their wives but not themselves, Lily King on her “hand-crafted” writing process, Caroline Leavitt on her “life in lawsuits,” and Lisa Lenzo on turning real life into fiction

To observe the one-year anniversary of what I think we all agree is the best aspect of this blog, I invited Vanessa Blakeslee to contribute another essay, and she graciously accepted. We both hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to be an even better literary citizen than you already are.


 

The subject of literary citizenship is one of those areas that would have left me dumbfounded starting out. In my early twenties, I was wrestling with craft concepts and shitty first drafts, and the prospect of “giving back” didn’t carry much pull. But now, a decade later and hopefully, wiser, I’ve got a few thoughts on the ways writers can give back to their creative communities, and why they should. The task is hardly daunting, the act of fostering community ultimately worthwhile, if not outright fun. Many of the suggestions I’ll list are low-commitment, or can be modified as such (e.g., you can write one book review a year, or ten). What matters is that you contribute.

It took me an astoundingly long time to realize that if we, the lovers and keepers of books, don’t feed the literary arts, if not fight for them, we’ll lose them. Maybe this is obvious to others — the sobering, frightening reality that literature only stays alive as long as people keep reading, keep writing, and keep talking about what we read and write. A rich literary culture could end in a generation, if that generation stops reading. Only through accident and necessity did I come to run a reading series and review books; the latter I fell in love with and wish I had come to much sooner. I’ve always been a thoughtful reader and was entirely capable of writing and publishing reviews at twenty-five. And I would have been that much more plugged-in to contemporary literature. But the thought just didn’t occur to me. In my twenties I was too often narrowly and obsessively focused on survival, on paying bills, to see the bigger picture. Similarly, I shrugged off the chance to intern at a literary journal because the $10 an hour pay was nothing near what I could make hourly, slinging margaritas at the Tex-Mex joint.

But I digress. Back to the why, which is much more fundamental. The question you’ve got to ask yourself is this — how important is it that you live in a city or town with a thriving literary community? If you like living in a place without readings and workshops to attend, then it’s up to you to create that. Because if you don’t, who will? The regulars at the local bar? Your retired neighbors down at the pool? Not likely. No, it’s up to you, just as it’s up to the musicians to hunt down bars to play in and actors to put on plays (these other artists may come across as cheerily interested, but if they’re at all serious they’ll be far too wrapped up in their own medium to give energy to yours). Again, up to you.

I know what you’ll say. You don’t like speaking in front of a crowd as it is, so how could you be funny and witty and host a reading series? (Answer: nobody expects you to be funny and witty if you aren’t already — just be yourself). You already have so many books you want to read but can’t, so how could you possibly take on assigned books to review (Answer: ask to review new books you’d like to read anyway). You don’t know enough people to organize a book fair (Answer: the very act of putting together events will cause you to widen your circle and bring people to you, many of them delightful souls you’ll later on be very grateful to have met).

The silver lining to all this? The Beatles got it right when they said, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Naturally, over time, the relationships you build will circle back and feed your own literary career. Case in point: from 2009 to 2011, I partnered with a local nonprofit that wanted to provide community writing workshops two Sundays a month, along with a reading series. Although my stint as Director of Maitland Poets & Writers was brief, several of my former workshop participants came to the release party for my first book, Train Shots, last spring. My enthusiasm and instruction had made an impression; one woman, a technical writer by profession, is now penning her first novel. I had spent less than ten hours a week running the workshops and reading series. Yet those relationships persisted.

Likewise, I’ve reviewed more than a dozen literary titles in the past several years. When it came time for my book launch, I already had my list of publications where I’d like a review to appear. I got busy contacting editors and freelance reviewers about ARCs. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been as savvy about critical exposure had I not written a few review essays myself.

Here’s my list of top 5 avenues through which you might consider exercising literary citizenship:

1) Read/volunteer for a literary magazine. You may already be connected to a journal if you’re a student or alum of a writing program. Even if not, reach out to a journal you admire and ask if they’re considering new screeners; eventually you might work your way up as an editor. You’ll gain valuable experience about the submission process and where your own work falls in the queue.

2) Interview emerging authors and/or review their books. You might take this opportunity to consider writers you think are deserving of more exposure. I tend to review a 50/50 split of male to female authors, and if I’m undecided on prospective titles will tend to lean toward reviewing a book by a woman, as statistics reveal that male authors get more critical attention than female authors. Additionally, so few foreign titles are translated into English each year, yet alone reviewed, that I review translated works as much as possible, thereby widening my knowledge of international literature.

3) Lead writing workshops for an under-served population. Again, consider a population that speaks to you. Perhaps you’ve got a family member in the prison system, and writing in prisons appeals. Or you really enjoy interacting with older people; you might contact a local senior center or assisted-living community. In Orlando, the nonprofit Page 15 offers summer writing workshops to underprivileged children and after-school programs throughout the year. Even within a small or rural community, the possibilities are many.

4) Host a reading series, radio show, or podcast, or volunteer to host or co-host an existing one. If your area already has a full weekly events calendar, you might not feel the need to launch something new. But you might approach the host of an existing series and let them know you’d be happy to substitute if they’re out of town, or co-host. If that host has been running the series for a while, he or she may very well be looking to pass the mic to someone with fresh energy. Either way, it’s a great way to see if hosting a reading series might be a great fit.

5) Organize a book festival, conference, or fair in your city or hometown. This is an invaluable opportunity to bring book-buyers and authors together, and may just be a one-day event or symposium. Again, participating at an existing event before launching your own may be ideal.

An essential rule-of-thumb before undertaking any endeavor of literary citizenship is to ask yourself what you’re intending to add to the mission or conversation already underway. Those to whom you reach out will appreciate your familiarity and conscientiousness.

These are mere suggestions, by no means all-inclusive nor to be undertaken simultaneously (unless you’re feeling particularly ambitious). If you’ve chosen the literary life for the long haul, you likely find that certain seasons bring about certain opportunities and not others — the writer who has just had a baby probably won’t be clamoring to launch a new reading series, for example. But the recently divorced writer might, or the freshly-minted MFA-grad. You may find that you never desire to read for a journal, or volunteer as a judge for a grant cycle or contest when asked; perhaps you’ve happily found your niche reviewing for a few select publications. I don’t particularly feel compelled to interview other writers, but that doesn’t mean that I never will. The great news is that whether more introverted or extroverted, you likely possess a bevy of skills that you can successfully apply to furthering the literary arts in various ways. And don’t sell yourself short: just because you have some stage fright doesn’t mean you won’t find speaking on the radio enjoyable, or interviewing one of your literary idols before an audience post-reading. The point is to stretch yourself and discover who you are, aspects of yourself as a writer, thinker, and literary citizen that might otherwise be left untapped.

I’ve engaged in nearly all of these “associated literary endeavors” by now. While I don’t feel that I’m the best live host for a reading series or radio show, I do enjoy co-hosting now and then with my friend John King at The Drunken Odyssey podcast. I certainly don’t possess the technical acumen to put a podcast together. But John does a terrific job (plus has the equipment). Nor is leading community workshops a passion of mine. But over the past year I began to volunteer as a bookseller at the Local Roots authors’ festival put on by my friend Kim Britt, owner of Bookmark It in Orlando. Had I not done so, I would never have discovered that I have a passion for bookselling and a knack for connecting with readers of all types. In this case, my volunteer stint turned into a part-time job that I love and can fit into my burgeoning career. I love designing and promoting events like our Wine & Sign on Friday nights, and am constantly learning about what draws readers to certain books and not others. More often than not, book-browsers end up asking about what else I do, and I point out my collection, Train Shots, on the shelf. Bookselling is built on genuine rapport and connection, and I’ve sold dozens of copies of my book that way, by casually chatting with customers.

Be open. Quit when you’ve learned what you can and given all you could, and dive into something else. The circle comes around, as long as you, the citizen, engage.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Juventud, her debut novel, will be published by Curbside Splendor Publishing in Fall 2015. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. A finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.  

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