Writing Life Manifesto: Be a Part of the Iceberg

Why do we attend conferences?

Apart from being able to present our work and ideas, meeting up with friends and colleagues old and new, learning from others, or updating professional credentials, one reason rises above everything else. We attend conferences and conventions to remind ourselves of why we do what we do.

That was certainly the case for me last week at AWP 2012 in Chicago. Now that I’ve been home a couple of days and have plunged back into the everyday world of family, teaching, errands, and email (always the email), I know what I gained from being around 10,000 other writers, teachers, publishers, and editors, and it wasn’t what I expected.

I had thought the highlight of the conference would be hearing two of my favorite authors speak and read. On Thursday night, Margaret Atwood walked slowly but surely across the stage of Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre to her podium, carrying a large bag and reminding me oddly of Charlie Chaplin, and, when she was finished, walked off again, unaccompanied, stopping only to acknowledge and take a bow with the sign language interpreter (read Patrick Ross’s detailed description of the talk and venue). On Friday, at the session “National Book Critics Circle Celebrates Award-Winning Authors,” I heard Jane Smiley read from A Thousand Acres, a book, like Atwood’s The Edible Woman, that showed me the power, potential, and beauty inherent in literature and story-telling.

However, these thrilling moments—and these authors—are just the tip of the iceberg, the peaks that jut and shine most clearly. What lies beneath is even richer and more exciting, a mass of people with all kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints and goals, finding ways to live a writing and reading life in whatever way they can and sharing their love of the written word with each other.

I am convinced that the most pressing danger we face as writers is not the changing publishing industry but the continual temptation to allow others to define our success. We have all been there. As soon as we find the courage to say “I am a writer,” we are asked, “What have you published?” Once we are published, we worry about sales and reviews. We wonder if blogging is worth the effort if we don’t have hundreds or thousands of followers. We spend ninety percent of our time building an elusive platform, leaving ten percent for the writing which that platform is meant to support, and no time remaining for creative daydreaming or leisure reading.

Having a successful writing life is something very different, not necessarily easier or harder, but simpler. Writers write, practice, improve, and get their writing in the hands of readers. That’s it, and it is the same for every single writer. Sometimes—rarely—this kind of life leads to Pulitzers or Booker Prizes, events to be celebrated.

More often, though, the writing life leads simply to indescribable joy, a joy that is sometimes hard-won but that always comes back to the power of words to sustain us, to direct us, and to give life meaning.

If you are unsure about your writing because you allow others to define your success, take a step back and remind yourself that a successful writing life is one we create for ourselves.

The Writing Life Manifesto

  1. Write a little today.
  2. Revise a little today.
  3. Read a little today.
  4. Do something today to get your words in the hands and hearts of readers.
  5. Find a way today to let other writers know that you are reading their words.

Be part of the iceberg.

10 thoughts on “Writing Life Manifesto: Be a Part of the Iceberg

    • Mariam, you are so welcome. It’s what we all need to remind ourselves (and each other) of at times. Thanks very much for the Facebook share!

  1. Attending the AWP conference also made me think about the big picture. We are so fortunate to be writing in times when the gatekeepers are no longer in full force and we have the means to publish our own work. What’s challenging is that the same technology that allows access to publishing and interacting with other writers offers so many distractions. I attended a session on memoir writers and working with agents. I came away from it very reassured about the process mattering more to the participating panelists than getting published. They all, except for one, talked in terms of years in efforts to getting their material right. Sure, we would all like to have our work published, but writing the book you want to write and writing well were more important to all but one of the panelists. It’s the writing life that matters, not the destination.

    • Frances, it was terrific to meet you in person, if only for a couple of minutes! Yes, I agree that this time of change holds great possibilities, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to get too entangled in what is beyond our control. The memoir panel sounds really interesting.

  2. You know, Lisa, maybe it’s because I’m a guy, but I didn’t notice the bag. Yet the moment she walked out my friend Deborah said “Look, she’s carrying a bag, and it’s huge!” and every woman I’ve talked about the panel with commented on that. I too liked her acknowledgment of the sign-language provider, who looked shocked but pleased. Thanks for linking to my Atwood post.

    I liked this: “I am convinced that the most pressing danger we face as writers is not the changing publishing industry but the continual temptation to allow others to define our success.” It’s critical that writers gauge themselves only on their own progress, but oh my, that is so often difficult to do, especially at a conference like AWP.

    • I don’t know why, but being at AWP actually lessened my competitive angst (although I can see how it could have done otherwise). When Margaret Atwood brought her bag on stage, I kept wondering if she would begin to pull items out of it, kind of like Hermione in Harry Potter.

    • Christi, thanks! if you read A Thousand Acres, I’d love to discuss it with you. I haven’t read it in awhile, so maybe I’ll dip into it again.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: