image: Jane Eaton Hamilton, The hail of fire: maple tree, 2018
This was woodpeckers! Probably trying to eat the gloomy scale!
I’m trying to get rid of the writers in my life who don’t treat me very well–out of self-respect which I have only on thin supply. I have social media “friends” who’ve carefully never said a kind word about my work–who have shown pix of themselves reading my work, and yet never commented on it–except, I assume, bitchily behind my back (some of that gets back, you know, and some is just easy to extrapolate), well, you know, nuts to you. My work has real range, so if you don’t like one thing I’m positive you can find something else to enjoy, and there’s lots online you can read for free, and books in the library. You are whatever you are (you know better than I do). Did you invite me for an interview on your blog? Ask me to a festival? A panel? Do something kind? Something supportive? Is there anything you’ve done for me, or has it been just one-sided? If it has been one-sided, is there a reason? Are you in particular disenfranchisement/need? Do you read my social media but never share a comment? If you want me to read you, do me the courtesy to also read me. Right? Honestly, folks, you aren’t friends if I exist in your lives just for the ways I might further your career.
If you want to share collegiality through the joys and bumps, well, I’m around for that. And want that, too, from people who’ve helped me.
I try to remember to say good things about everyone’s books when I’ve read them (but tbh, I am now a horrible reader who reads 30 books at a time and rarely finishes anything, and it’s often the case that I stare longingly at a book rather than opening its covers–or opening them again. If I haven’t commented to you or on Goodreads, that’s what my silence usually means. But feel free to ask. I am responsive. And even if it’s like farting in a punch bowl to ask, ask. I know we have to do that sometimes, bump ourselves to the top of someone’s pile. I also sometimes take a long time to absorb a book–freakishly long, a month or two–which is probably why I hated reviewing with quick turnover back in the day.)
So, this thing. I was at a holiday party for a bunch of Vancouver publishers recently, and told a new writer that I had really enjoyed her book. The blood drained from her face. I am clumsy sometimes, and very shy. I thought I’d hurt her until she said that not one other writer had ever mentioned her book, published, I think, a year earlier. That broke my heart. My god, Canadians, for all we say we’re friendly and welcoming, we are a shallow and parsimonious bunch.
Please, let’s support each other. Let’s be fullsome and giving in our praise.
How is it possible that this really good writer with her first really good book with good reviews had never heard from a single one of us? What is wrong with us? If that was you, it would break your fucking heart, wouldn’t it? If that was you, you’d be crushed. You might even be suicidal. Is that actually the point, that we crush each other?
I increasingly believe as I get older that the act of creating a book is akin to a secular miracle. Even if the seams show in yours, I will still consider it a remarkable achievement. It is. I mean, how do we do it, continue to do it, against the forces arrayed and pressing for our failure? I’m not talking to white men, here, where everything lines up to favour them (altho of course I understand there can still be considerable obstacles such as mental health issues or addiction), but to the marginalized: POC, WOC esp, the disabled, the queer, the trans, the penurious, the traumatized. We make breakfast. We look after kids. We go to work. We vacuum. We change beds. We deal with email and social media feeds. We fret. We worry. We grieve for our lost loved ones. We deal with addiction, or mental health issues, or cancer, or death. We take our kids and pets and selves to the doctor. Our bones ache. Our jaws ache. Our hips ache. That uterus? It hurts. But still, we put words on the page. We hate the words we put on the page. We love the words we put on the page. We put the words we put on the page into the world that really doesn’t care very much for 99% of us as people or authors. We speak and we say, Hey! We matter. I am here. Count me in.
What a brave and foolhardy occupation.
What older writers know is this: You will probably “fail.” But failure is actually not that bad, and, in its way, is even liberating. Remember when you wrote your first book without any pressure? It’s like that again. That sophomore book production thing really sucks eggs–and not for Easter, either. When you’re older, and you are already a proven mediocrity, you’re free … and you rise to surpass your own expectations.
Older writers really understand that we’re all in this together.
Sometimes young or new writers think that CanLit is a fierce competition, that they have to knock someone down a peg or two, or off their pedestal, to make room for their own work. Believe me, we published writers with multiple books don’t really need you to tell us our literary flaws; we’ve had decades to flaunt them. They make us roll our eyes. Listen up. I’m telling you what I’ve learned, kids: There is a big enough pie if we support each other. We can remake Canlit in our image/s so that this will always be true.
And if it isn’t, we can at least promise each other to do what’s free: and that is to offer up a compliment or three here and there, or some stars on Goodreads or Amazon. You know how long that takes? Stars with no review? Like once you’re logged in, maybe three seconds?
Here’s what I ask: Lift a writer today. I don’t care who you choose. You choose the writer you want to lift. But make it somebody who isn’t already being lifted by the system, okay? Lift Indigenous writers in 2018, or trans writers, or disabled writers. Lift only womxn authors. You choose. Writer Marnie Woodrow and I talked about this once for queer writers, and it never really got off the ground because of busy-ness. But maybe it still can. Maybe we could do it on the first of every month, every time we pay our rent or mortgage. Make kindness to other writers a habit.
I say this from experience; I’ve been an asshole more than once. To quote Jen Pastiloff, “don’t be an asshole.” Don’t be a literary asshole, all right?
Even if I’m not wild about your book, I tell you sincerely: I love it for being its perfectly imperfect self. I love the wild life you poured into it. I wish with all my heart that it could bring you the relief you wanted and crave and need … the admiration of your peers, money to pay your rent and put food on the table, the way clear to another book, prizes and awards. Also–we need you. We need your talent and your skill and your vitality and your yearning and your vulnerability and your trauma and your stories and your fierce fucking fighting power.
Just like you need us. Older writers did not just pave the way for you. We are still paving it, kiddos, out there with river rock and flagstone, paver by paver making CanLit a more expansive place.
So you know who you are in my life. I don’t like small talk. I don’t like people who are as deep as puddles, who are always fine, fine, fine and never talk about the nitty gritty in their life. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust them to belly laugh when the laughing’s good. I don’t like conversational one-way streets–if you think I don’t notice when only I open up, you’re smoking something. I notice most things, and I don’t forget them, either. I like people who give back in communication. I don’t like pretense.
Don’t be small in my life–if you have never bothered to read me, bothered to get to know me, bothered to compliment something, bothered to tell me what’s bothering you as a person and writer, bothered to listen, I want you to exit. Either occupy a respectful place with generous literary comment, shared laughter and pain, with time–real comraderie–or bow out.
(I am not talking to my mentees or clients. I love my mentees and clients. I am happy to blurb when I’m able [the book-reading thing. I’m painfully slow]. I’m happy to write references. And I’m not talking to my buds. You know who you are. You are there for all the good reasons.)