So the other day, I was on YouTube, watching John and Hank Green’s An Evening of Awesome at Carnegie Hall (I am a huge John Green fan). And I was struck by the fact that the speech John Green gave about his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was all about collaboration. I have been thinking a ton about collaboration and community lately.
A few months ago, a girl I was really into asked if I’d like to be a part of this LGBTQ Scifi and Fantasy Writers reading that her friend was putting together. I said yes, because you don’t say no to an opportunity like that. But I was terrified. Some of writers on the list were well-known names. The others had, at least, published short stories.
I had not been able to publish a short story since grad school. And my novel was, to put it generously, slow going. I had moved to a new city a month after graduating. I’d started working full-time again, at a new job, teaching preschool. My novel-writing had been shunted to early morning, before school, or at night, and I was lucky if I could force out a few good paragraphs in those tiny blocks of time.
As the reading got closer, that girl I was into, who I had since started dating, kept updating me on the publicity efforts of the reading. “A bunch of my friends from out of town are travelling to the city for it,” she told me. And: “Hey, we got a mention in Time Out magazine!”
“Great,” I would say, while experiencing the sensation of my internal organs rattling madly inside my body. I didn’t even know what I was going to read.
The most frustrating thing about my anxiety was that I knew it was unwarranted. It was just a reading! It did not have to determine my worth as a writer. I knew this. I knew that the way I was stressing was a prime example of one of my faults—how much pressure I put on individual events. Like when I was working toward my final reading in grad school, I felt like the reading had to be this peak, this moment of triumph that would legitimize all the struggle I had undergone in my final semester. Which is ridiculous, right? Because writing is not performance. You cannot write for some imagined moment of glory. Your words have to be enough for you, on their own.
In desperation, I reached out to my graduating class at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (We call ourselves The Secret Gardeners.) I posted on the Gardeners message board about the reading and my anxiety about the reading and how hard writing had been for me, post grad school.
Here are some of the things my classmates said:
“You are an amazing writer. Just remember that. The writing will always be there.”
“Please know that you’ll be fine at the reading; you’ve got 31 Secret Gardeners + cheering you on.”
“Whether it takes you 15 days or 15 months or more, it will take just the right amount of time. Because when you do get published–which you will–you will look back and say, thank goodness for all of those bumps along the way, because they got me here, which is exactly where I need to be.”
What they said didn’t surprise me, exactly. I mean, I knew my class was full of generous, supportive people. But I was surprised by my reaction, which was that I bawled all over my computer screen.
Clearly, I needed those encouragements. Whether or not I was supposed to need them. I needed other people who had seen my work to tell me I was going to be okay.
And then I got to Bluestockings, the bookstore that hosted the reading, and everything was awesome. I met Sam J. Miller, who had organized the whole thing, who was friendly and comforting in his down-to-earthyness. And I met Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, who were kind and gave me sweet pre-reading advice (“Don’t worry! I know two-thirds of the people in the audience, and they are very nice”).
the tremendous pre-reading crowd!
Everyone’s pieces were, of course, amazing. Delia read a hilarious scene about a gay wedding between witches, narrated from the point of view of their housewife next door neighbor. Ellen read from The Fall of Kings, as she is currently in the process of recording the audiobook. Rick Bowes’ dialogue cracked us all up. Sam’s piece was funny because it rang so true, and then took this beathtakingly tragic turn in the span of a couple sentences. And my girlfriend Carmen Maria Machado’s story, We Were Never Alone in Space, was everything I’ve come to expect from her fiction—rich and layered and gorgeously strange.
Most of the readers. Observe that post-reading glow!
I still don’t know if it was a bad thing for me to need the reading to go well. Maybe it was. I know that you cannot rely on other people’s approval if you want to be a successful writer. But what I’ve come to learn is that it’s perfectly natural to need other people’s support. In his speech, John Green said, “I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made just by one person, but that’s not true either, because if I had been alone in the abyss of myself, The Fault in Our Stars would never have existed.”
If I ever finish my novel (which I WILL, dammit!) it won’t be through the force of my own effort. I mean, that will be a part of it, sure, but it’ll also be thanks to my fellow Secret Gardeners. And my family. And the teachers at VCFA, and my girlfriend, and my friends, and even, to an extent, the people who came to the reading at Bluestockings, and the people I read with, those published writers who laughed at my funny parts and made noises of sympathy when things got tough for my character.
I’m still feeling it, the after-glow of the reading. A sense of gratitude and abundance, despite my still new-ish home and my early-morning/late-night blocks of writing time.
The act of writing is so solitary that it can be easy to forget that at its heart, writing is a community effort. It’s about giving a part of yourself to other people who are willing to to take the time to look at it. It’s about saying, “Here is a thing I noticed about the world. Maybe you will recognize it a little.” Hooray for communities—for LGBTQ people, for speculative fiction nerds, and for people who are into visiting a bookstore on a Monday night to support authors and authors-to-be.