Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Work Behind the Reward

87º feels like 100º ~ dewpoint 78º ~ SCUBA weather to be sure, days and days of it with pop-up thunderstorms dancing around us in the afternoons and evenings and only occasionally providing any rain, any cooling temps ~ in other words "it's a wet heat" that sucks at the lungs

Most of you know that last week the Porter Fund Literary Prize committee announced that I would receive the 2016 prize. This blog is not meant as a continued brag of that success but as an unveiling of what went into that success.

The Porter Fund Literary Prize is a prize to support Arkansas writers. Like many awards for a body work rather than for an individual piece or book, there is no application process. That's what I want to talk about here, recognition / prizes given by organizations that don't take applications. Here, I think of the Whiting Awards as an example at the national level, although there are many others. If you are like me, when these types of awards are announced, be they local, regional, or national, you experience a twinge of jealousy and a "why not me?" moment. All perfectly natural. However, this is also frustrating because it appears that the author has no way of putting her work before the selection committee. So how do these things work?

Most non-application awards take nominations, either from within an organization or by soliciting suggestions from established writers, editors, agents, etc. So how does one go about being nominated, let alone winning?

First, as writers our primary focus must be on crafting the best writing we can. We may disagree with a selection committee's decision because we don't like another writer's work or we don't like that writer's personal behavior, but let's face it; for the most part, those who receive recognition have been putting in time at the desk. So, first, focus on the writing (which is a whole other blog post).

Next, if you are a writer who yearns for recognition, I'm afraid there is more to it than just producing the text. You also have to be a solid literary citizen. By this I mean that you have to be invested in the community of writers. Yes, every once in a while a hermit writer receives great accolades, but if you look at the winners' lists of most awards like these (those that do not take applications), you will see a list of names of people who are engaged in the conversation of writing. They may have a highly visible online presence on social media or they may write a popular blog (or for a larger online conglomerate). They may publish essays and interviews in Poets & Writers, The Writer's Chronicle, and other "industry" journals. They may run a reading series, edit a journal, or work for an indie publisher as well as publishing in their genre(s). In other words, when the selection committee is casting about for nominations, those people who are active literary citizens are most likely to come to mind.

And let's be clear, just because a nominator knows you and your work does not make it a schmoozy / slimy nomination. If you are an active writer in today's interconnected world, you are going to know other writers. You are going to know editors and publishers and agents. It's only when you play on those relationships, when you offer "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" that you cross the line to slimy. Check your own inner voice and you'll probably be okay. (Reality check: there will always be nepotism and a good ol' boys network. We can only be responsible for our own actions and try to be aware if we are participating in such behavior so we can change it.)

The fact is you won't be nominated if your work isn't already being read and talked about. Yes, there are many gatekeepers, and the deck is stacked against women and people of color, not to mention stacked against those of us who don't live in a major metropolitan area with a thriving literary scene (gatekeepers are yet another blog post entirely). So, what are you going to do about it? Here are some of the things I've done.

I've been persistent and stubborn and managed to publish widely in journals and with three full-length collections. Let me tell you, my rejection rates are above average, but I keep revising, I keep working on my poems / manuscripts, and I keep submitting. Sweat equity.

I've engaged with writers in my local community. I've made it a point to reach out to writers I learn about who live close by. In some cases, I've made good friends who are now part of my regular life. In other cases, I've made connections that have made me comfortable interacting at local readings and book festivals. In most of these cases, I've read wonderful books written at desks not all that far from my own.

I've found my comfort level in how I participate in the larger literary conversation. I started this blog and found my first online writing friends and colleagues. Then, though I was hesitant, I joined Facebook, where I enjoy a thriving sense of community with other writers, and even some close friendships. I'm not so deeply in love with Twitter, but I've figured out where I want to use it and how to do it. I attend AWP each year, not because I'm trying to collect "connections" like notches in my belt, but because I receive a huge emotional boost of support from getting to see so many of my virtual writing friends in real life. I've been an editor for several online journals, and I've read manuscripts for two of my publishers. I started a reading series at my previous institution, and I am active in nominating writers to appear at the established series at my new university. Finally, when offered the chance to help form a new writing conference for women, I jumped on board. Yes, all of this is time consuming, sometimes stressful, and for little or no pay (mostly no pay), but it also fills me up and gratifies me.

I've made a conscious effort to champion writers I admire, whether I know them or not. I've made a conscious effort to read widely and diversely to combat the gatekeepers. When I read a poem that blows me away, I Tweet/Facebook post about it. Often, I send private messages to a poet when I've read something that strikes me as extraordinary. Most importantly, I buy books of poetry, so many books of poetry that I don't have time to read them all. (Note: it's only recently, 10 years out of grad school, that I could afford to buy so many. In early years, I still bought what I could and I used the InterLibrary Loan system at the library all the time.) To me, part of this is a natural urge to be connected to the world of writers, but the other part is this: I don't feel comfortable sharing my own good news because I was raised to think that this was conceited bragging, and Midwesterners don't brag. To do so might call the wrath of hailstorms, floods, and drought down on our crops. So, when I do post about a success or share the news in other ways, I can silence my grandfather's haunting chastisement because I know that I'm also celebrating with other writers when their turn comes.

Finally, I've made it a practice to say "thank you" on every level, whenever it is appropriate. This world of writing is so often thankless and so often done for passion and love rather than fame or money. Saying "thank you" is the least we can do.

I'm not saying that doing what I've done ensured that I won the Porter Prize, and I'm not saying that if you copy me you will be recognized for your hard work. I am saying that putting your head down and doing the work of both writing and being involved with other writers in some way, shape, or form, gives you a fighting chance of receiving some recognition for your words.

Thank you for reading and for your support. As always, I'll be here with my BIC and my faith that doing the work is what matters.

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