Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Lake District to Call My Own

Sandy Longhorn has a great post about submitting (she's trying to follow Kelli Russell Agodon's advice to submit like a man) and networking. I responded to her post, but I've been haunted by these ideas for several hours now, so I decided to write further in a more developed post.

In her post, she concludes, "Finally, I'm thrilled about these acceptances, of course, but there is a little voice nagging at the back of my head. The little voice is saying something about not really 'earning' these because one editor is an online friend and the other sought me out based on previous work. I'm wondering how much gender there is in that little voice. Is 'networking' a bad word? Does it devalue the work itself? And then I think of all those DWG poets (dead white guy poets) who were all closely interconnected (I'm thinking of the Romantics in particular) and who exchanged letters and social visits with the editors of the major journals of their day. And then I think about the fact that I've had requests for poems a couple of times in the past and those requests did not lead to publication. Hmmmmmm...I'm going to keep working through this, and you can bet that I'm going to keep Submitting Like a Man!"

This quote set me off to thinking about all those dead white guys and their networks. I think of artists' groups that have been formed as support groups for artists doing work outside of what their culture supports. In fact, I would argue that the reason we've heard of them at all is that they had a group to sustain them in the early years.

My Brit Lit background will show here; I think of the Lake District writers of the early Romantic period, the later Romantics who had a variety of groupings, the Pre-Raph poets and painters, the Bloomsbury group. I think of those clusters in New England just before the Civil War and the Beats. I think of more feminist groups from the 1970's onward than I can count.

What stands out for me is that these groups believed in themselves, even when everyone outside of the group did not. I have always loved those tales of fierce support and mourned the collapse of those groups as individual members found success.

Feminist scholars, including me, would be quick to point out that those earlier groups of dead white guys were made possible by the work of women. Go read Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, if you don't believe me. She does enormous amounts of work in terms of cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Various members of the group take long walks, and Dorothy walks too, unless she's sick. I once figured out that their daily walks averaged 11 miles! On top of this, she kept her journal and worked on Wordsworth's poems, both in terms of creating them and revising them and writing out clean copies.

Or consider the case of Mary Shelley, a young widow who devoted much of her life as a widow to establishing the worth of the work of her husband Percy Bysshe. She had quite the motivation to do so, beyond her belief in his work. She needed money, and if she could establish his artistic worth, then perhaps monetary worth would follow.

On Diane Rehm's show yesterday, Andre Dubus III said that if he was ever a wealthy man, he would just go out and give money to single moms, because single moms have it the hardest in our culture. Mary Shelley's plight shows that single moms have always had a tough time.

As a literary scholar, I've always wondered what creative work has been lost to life circumstances. Look at what Mary Shelley did produce. If I had to choose one piece of work to represent the greatness of the Romantic time period, it would be Frankenstein. Yes, I said it, and I'll stand by it. I'm claiming that Mary Shelley was the best writer of the Romantic time period. The best. Not the best female writer. No. The best.

Yes, I realize that she wrote very little, compared to some of the more prolific writers of the time period (like, oh, say, Wordsworth or Byron). And yes, I do wonder what she would have written had she not had to work so hard to provide bread for her children.

Like other feminist scholars, I will always wonder what wasn't created. I realize you could make that case for certain male writers too (like Keats). But women have faced obstacles that men simply do not face--like childbirth. The invention of birth control methods that women can control may turn out to be one of the greatest enablers of female creativity since literacy.

Or perhaps I'll turn out to be wrong. Perhaps one of the greatest enablers of creativity, female and male, is community. In my comment to Sandy's post, I talked about how today we're using the Internet to form communities, communities that may perform some of the same functions that face-to-face groups performed in an earlier age. Through online connections, we can feel that we aren't crazy, that our work has value, that we should persist. We can come away with inspiration. I know that some blogger friends exchange manuscripts, and many more of us will review book and interview authors and help with publicity.

These connections could even lead to publication, and there's no need to feel strange about this. In fact, that's the way it should work. It's the way that it worked for countless artists in the past.

Will future literary scholars look back at our time in breathless wonder at what we've been able to create? I envision a future me, who reads about my work and charts out my connections and says, "I wish I had had the kind of Internet community that Kristin had" (in much the same way I have yearned for a Lake District to call my own).

In many ways, we're in uncharted waters, since our connections don't rely on all of us being in the same geographical place. In fact, with various technologies, like cameras and lightning fast Internet connections, we can form relationships that are almost real-time. Long ago, we could have corresponded by mail, but it would have taken lots of time (and during some periods, lots of money). We could have exchanged manuscripts and bookmarks and collaged cards, but there would have been long weeks and months of silence.

Of course, you might argue that the silence would have left us time to do more work. I have frittered away more time than I care to think about, not only going to worthwhile blogs but in reading absolute drivel.

Of course, I always read drivel, but it was drivel on paper, not on pixels.

No, I am grateful for these Internet connections, even if with them, comes the temptation to distraction. Once I considered getting an MFA, even though I had a Ph.D., because I wanted a larger literary community, and I was unsure of any other way to do it. I was impatient with the friend-by-friend literary community building on my local level, and frustrated with the slow pace of the mail in communicating with friends in other places. And of course, there's that age-old frustration of other commitments (work and family chief amongst them) keeping my community apart for long periods of time.

Now I feel that I'm part of an even larger network. If my local friend is too harried for lunch, I'll spend my lunch reading and responding to the blogs of my favorite far-flung poets.

In the not-too-distant future, I'll talk about the process about moving from the Internet realm to the real-world realm and some etiquette implications.

But for now, I'll fix an additional pot of coffee and invite everyone over for virtual scones to celebrate our Internet Lake Districts.


Kathleen said...

So glad you pursued this! Thank you for the cultural, literary, historical, and feminist contexts. I, too, think that the moral support of groups back then and connections (in person or online) now are very important in keeping us going. It helps if somebody besides ourselves believes in and encourages our work, though it's true that sometimes we just have to keep going it alone until somebody else says, "Hey, I like that" or "Wow, that's good."

The nagging doubt part persists if you worry that someone published you because of a connection, not because of the work itself. Or that's how I see it. I suppose there are people not troubled by that at all, blissfully getting published by each other for various reasons. But that's the part of "networking" I wouldn't like.

I do think we have to persist in making good work, believing in it, and sending it out. It sure helps when a small group of supporters materializes in response.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Some virtual Devonshire cream, just for you :).

Thank you for sharing this. I totally agree that we have to lean on one another as artists, and that this isn't "cheating" in any way. It is similar to how one should apply for jobs---apply where you know people.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Kristin, this is wonderful! Thanks so much for elaborating. I do think it is important that we support each other, while we keep our standards high. I'm indebted to friends like Kathleen and you for that support! (I think I'm haunted by the whole foetry thing from a few years ago.)

Erin said...

Thank you so much for your graceful and gracious illumination of the online community of blogging writers. As someone who lives very remotely and does not have any other local writers to "hang" with, I rely almost completely on my online community. Yet I read Kelli Agodon's blog with such wistfulness; oh to go to a live poetry reading and know the poets in the room. To have that type of community plus this vibrant online community, what an amazing thing that would be. Meanwhile, thanks for being part of the group of writers whose blogs I avidly read.

Kristin said...

I, too, read Kelli's blog with wistfulness. I go to poetry readings here and there, but I usually don't know many people or anyone in the room.

As you've all said, it's a wonderful thing to have a virtual community. Welcome to my Lake District!

MC said...

I love it! Your online Lake District! I'll bring the tea! :D