by Ron Hayes
Like so many writers, my ability to engage in self-promotion is, at best, stunted; at worst, it’s almost criminal. At virtually every turn, in any eventuality, I find myself preferring—by far—to curl inward, engaging the internal locus of my writing instead of spending time and energy on the external demands of things like publishing, promoting, and peddling.
I’m working on it though.
And while one day I hope to get better at the more self-centered external aspects of writing, for now I’m happy to say I’m handling similar external factors in much better ways. It took a while, but, as we endeavor this month to consider how we as writers further the craft of writing, I’m now able to see that these opposite sides of the coin, the external and the internal, exist nonetheless as ONE coin. Neither side can exist very long without the other. Fact is, in order for each side to retain its full value, it’s best that we invest in both.
In my case, I am much like my colleagues here at 5Writers—I internally furthered my craft by earning a Master of Fine Arts at Queens University of Charlotte. As my friends here have noted, the sense of community we enjoyed at Queens was, and continues to be, essential to our identities as writers, and that sense of community, in turn, contributes to how we continue to work at our craft. But when my Queens days ended, and with them my semi-annual pilgrimages to 1900 Selwyn Avenue, I no longer had that built-in community to look forward to, not on a regular basis. I felt like I was back to my pre-Queens days, writing in a vacuum, shouting into the ether without so much as an echo for feedback. And it was okay for a while, particularly as I do still consider myself a pathetic introvert, but it wasn’t very long before I needed a little taste of belonging, a hit of community for feedback from time to time. So I looked around.
And damn if I didn’t find the external locus I was missing. Right here in my own community.
Now first, a mea culpa—I sorta screwed up a bit. See, the remedy for that external need was right in front of me all along. A bit of the “forest for the trees” kind of thing, I guess. As a teacher, I engage in furthering the craft of writing just about every day. I teach the nuts and bolts of writing (grammar & mechanics), I teach the corpus of writing (research & rendering content), and I teach the lifeblood of writing (vocabulary and syntax). What I can’t teach, and by extension, what I can’t symbiotically energize for myself, is the spirit and soul of writing—creativity and conversation. Perhaps because of this I believed for the longest time that the rudimentary things I was teaching my students didn’t count for much in terms of furthering the craft of writing. I think I got a little snooty. Their work wasn’t “literary” and therefore what I was doing had little to do with “craft” let alone “furthering” it.
I’m wrong a lot.
Shame on me, but it took nearly a decade in the classroom, a year’s worth of work as the Poet Laureate of Erie County Pennsylvania, and countless conversations with friends, colleagues, and fellow writers to get me to understand that every moment I spend in front of a group of teenagers trying to get them to write is furthering the craft. The poetry contest I re-started at our local arts festival furthers the craft. The iPad mini I donated as the grand prize for the Poetry Out Loud contest furthers the craft. The dozen submissions I squeezed out of my students for Lake Effect’s National High School Poetry search furthers the craft, and my goal of two dozen submissions for Gannon University’s similar search will further the craft. It took a year’s worth of work in and among my town’s nascent but talented community of writers to get me to realize that furthering the craft of writing doesn’t have to look like a box full of shiny new hardcovers and a bank account sloppy with advance money and/or royalties. The grunt work, where the rubber meets the road, the trenches, all those apt cliches are apt for a reason. They’re true.
I’ve been furthering the craft of writing from the day I wrote my first poem, my first essay, and my first critique. I further my craft every time I take the stage at Poets’ Hall or comment on a friend’s work. And I imagine I’ll continue for as long as I can hold a pen or pound a keyboard—hell, I just saw a commercial for some kind of badass dictation software, so I may not even need to use a pen or align my pinkies on the A and apostrophe keys to keep contributing to the greater good. The same is probably true for you if you write…and if you talk to others about writing. It’s the sharing, the talking, the conversation about what our words say and do that makes all the difference. It is, I’ve realized, how the external fuels the internal. It is balance.
I tell my students that reading and that writing about what we read makes us, in a peculiar sort of way, immortal. We are at once engaging in conversation with those who have been and gone and with souls yet to see the Earth. We can take an idea that Alexander Pope or Marcel Proust or Mark Twain once had and riff on it, tear it apart, add to it, or make it look stupid. And later on someone can do the same to our words. That’s pretty cool. That’s furthering the craft. That’s some powerful stuff.
No wonder I teach.