Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Learning to Read Again: Tips from a First-Time Author (PART ONE)

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“The problem with the writing community right now is that we’re not reading each other anymore.” This statement came from a friend and fellow poet over a beer at a recent Pivot Reading in Toronto. At first, I wanted to disagree. I thought about all the books I had purchased, the stacks I bring home from stores and literary events, how I try to make a point of reading a decent percentage of what comes out of the Canadian Poetry community, especially Ontario. I knew that others did the same. Then I thought about my own book and fell into one of those self-pitying, insecure pits that many emerging writers are prone to. I thought about my own sales last year. I made the connection. I agreed. We’re not reading each other anymore.
 
On the subway ride home, however, I had more sobering, less self-absorbed thoughts. I remembered all the online reviews of both emerging and established poets, the promotion of other people’s work, the endless “must read” lists and literary award finalists, and I realized that we were wrong. In the discussion above, my friend and I were both debut poets coming from a place of obscurity, where a new writer makes it onto the scene, feels they are now a contributor to that scene, yet inevitably doesn’t leave the mark they had hoped for or expected. In other words, what we were really arguing, quite pathetically, was that “No one was reading us.” I say that without self-deprecation – it’s a simple reality for many new writers. Both of us are emerging poets in Toronto who published with relatively small presses. Neither of us had official reviews or made any of the prestigious lists that float through Facebook newsfeeds. We hadn’t recently graduated from an MFA program with built-in promotional avenues. No literary awards. No best-selling charts. In other words, we published a book and nothing happened. Hence, we lamented - not because poets have stopped consuming other poets’ work, but because despite finally breaking into print we are still much more the consumer than the consumed.
 
This was actually a trap my editor had warned me about months before my first book was published. He told me a lot of writers experience a moment of disappointment when their book finally makes it out into the world, and then nothing happens. The world moves on. Your book doesn’t, and you’re left wondering why. At the time, I was certain that I would never fall into that trap. I assured my editor I was just grateful to have published a book at all (and I was), and that I didn’t expect anything “to happen” (and I didn’t, at first). Now, I have to admit that I was lying to myself, and that there were moments in the beginning where my ego took over and started building up expectations. It’s hard not to. At first, you go on a little tour, read at bookstores and bars to both strangers and friends. Family and loved ones shower you with support. Writers you respect and have friendships with give you their positive impressions and compliments. The odd person you don’t know buys your book, asks you to sign it, or gives you an encouraging remark as you pass them on the way to the bar to get a drink. It feels good. No one can deny that. Then, before you know it, it’s all over.
 
Publishing reminds me of the sinking feeling I used to get on Christmas morning when I finished opening my presents. I would spend countless days anticipating that moment, trying to predict what was hidden beneath the tree, searching my parents’ closet for unwrapped gifts, planning out the morning with my brothers on Christmas Eve and setting our alarm for 4 or 5am. Then, the anti-climax of morning came. Don’t get me wrong. I was never disappointed with the gifts I received; I was just always sad that it was over. The same thing happened with my first book. I’m proud of what I accomplished, I’m happy with my press and editor, and even if I never sold another copy I wouldn’t regret anything. Still, the excitement and anticipation of releasing my debut collection is gone and can never be duplicated. Inevitably, we all might experience this, something like regret and grief mixed together. Perhaps it’s a type of withdrawal. What I’m realizing now is that I never looked past the presents on Christmas morning, so when they were open and sitting in front of me, and my parents came around with a garbage bag to clean up the torn wrapping paper and crinkled bows, I was left feeling empty and sad. Gifts were my end game. How could I not wind up depressed? So with that, I’d like to provide a few pieces of advice for anyone about to embark on the same path I just described. At the very least, these are unexpected lessons that I learned after publishing Easy Fix.
 
# 1 Allow Yourself to be Humbled (because you will be)
 
Early on, I fell into the trap of self-consciously comparing myself to other debut authors, watching how much attention they were getting, all the reviews being written, wondering why I wasn’t getting the same. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it took a while for my ego to get out of the way, until I started reading their work, and I realized that there was a very distinct and obvious reason that I wasn’t getting that same level of praise and hype. When I read the more recent debuts from poets like Stevie Howell, Cassidy McFadzean, Ben Ladouceur, Marc Di Saverio, Kayla Czaga, the answer slapped me in the face. Those debuts were incredible. It’s as simple as that. So, my advice for any new writer about to embark on a first book publication is to remember that there are a lot of talented writers out there. Read them. Learn from them. Be proud of your own work, but always acknowledge that poetry is a craft that can never be perfected.
 
It’s always easy to respect older, more widely published authors, but I think sometimes emerging writers tend to forget that there are peers in our circle who are even newer, younger, and less experienced than we are, yet possess a skill and talent that demands an immense amount of respect. That should excite us, not fill us with self-pity or envy. Before my book contract, any new poetry that I read and liked was a thrill, something I admired and tried to learn from. But for a few months after my book was released, every great collection of poetry that I read was a window to my own flaws and inabilities. Imagine inflated ego and crippling insecurity hooked up and had a drunken one-night stand. That’s what the whole ‘first book’ experience felt like for me. As a result, I became stalled. I went an entire year without writing a single poem, and I don’t think I realized until very recently why that happened.
 
# 2 Never Rest on Your Laurels
 
I’m not sure if the experience I described above happens to everyone to some degree, but I do think the key to avoiding that feeling (or at least getting rid of it once it comes) is to find a way to stay active in the act of writing itself. Most of the authors I know who wrote higher caliber debuts moved on immediately, even while the shelf life of their first book was long from expired. That’s something I wish I’d done instead of being satisfied that I merely published a book. My advice to new poets would be to keep writing, and if you can’t do that, then attend literary events, buy books, and read as much as possible. Don’t believe your own hype, and don’t get crushed by the hype of others. The sooner you do that, the sooner you realize none of it matters. The success of a book depends on so many factors. Great books do well, and equally great books never make it out of obscurity.
 
Is there nepotism in Canadian publishing? Yes, but there’s nepotism in the service industry too. Does it help if you’re really well liked and make friends with the right people? Sure. But that doesn’t always mean that the success someone else received is undeserved, and calling foul only takes away from the quality of the work and the positive influence it might have on you, its reader. So stop worrying about how the popularity of other books stacks up against your own. Ultimately, the level of success you reach was never the impetus for writing in the first place, and if you make it so now, you’ll run the risk of selling out. Focus on the work: why you do it, and how to do it better.
 
 
 
TO BE CONTINUED...thanks for following along Open Book readers, but I think that's long enough for today. Come back tomorrow for PART TWO of this article where I offer advice on the literary community, editing, and learning to read again. Feel free to leave comments or ask questions and I'll do my best to answer them.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.