The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Literary Citizenship and Finding Your Tribe or, 6 Degrees of Anna Leahy

In his 1999 New Yorker article later reprinted in The Tipping Point, "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," Malcolm Gladwell offers this Chicago cultural diva as the epitome of a "connector," someone whose uncanny "ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability and energy." I can't remember whether I met poet and science writer Anna Leahy because Kelly Ritter and I published her essay in our first collection, Can It Really be Taught: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, or because she and I worked together leading the 2004 Associated Writing Programs Pedagogy Forum. She would probably know, because Anna knows everything. And everyone. Really. An alumni of the famed undergraduate writing program at Knox College, where she first began cultivating her tribe, as well as a graduate of an MA, an MFA and a Ph.D. program, Anna's connections are legion, not because she went to a lot of schools and knows a lot of people but because she is truly a portrait of the kind of curiosity, sociabilityand energy that Gladwell is talking about. She is always proposing a new project to work on together (and, in keeping with her status of "connector," I am just one of the many people and projects she is usually working with at once) or introducing me to someone I haven't met or something I haven't read yet but must. I count myself as extremely lucky to be part of Anna's capacious circle.

Even though she gets the lion's share, I do give myself some credit for reaching out to Anna in the same way I did with my longtime collaborator, Kelly Ritter, or with the late Wendy Bishop or UK creative writing guru Graeme Harper. I put myself out there. In the last two cases, I wrote to these discipline leaders and introduced myself to them even though they didn't know me from Adam. I looked for ways for us to work together. Sometimes you have to do that in the writing life. Much as those of us who wave the introvert flag would like to believe otherwise, that we can just hunker down, do the work, send it out and wait for the royalty checks to come flooding back, in the early 21st-century literary landscape that just isn't the reality. Sometimes you have to look beyond yourself and practice what's become known as "literary citizenship." Writer Cathy Day, a champion of the term who has even begun teaching a class in the subject, frames it this way:

Lately, I've started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn't just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call 'literary citizenship.' I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.

Here's the thing, a side benefit of contributing to that world (Day discusses how to do that here) is that you start to cultivate your own tribe. You surround yourself with people who care about the same things you do, not about finding new ways to make or spend money, but about how to create art and support it. Anyone pursuing a writing life needs the company of this kind of tribe to keep going during the lean months, months that sometimes turn into years. But sometimes they also find, as I have, that by practicing literary citizenship they fertilize the landscape that surrounds them, so that when the seeds of opportunity float down they are far more likely to take root.

Anna's success as a poet, science writer and as the creative writing world's Lois Weinberg is also notable for one thing she's not: Anna is not a mean girl. I assume there are some mean girls (and guys) in the creative writing world (because alas such people seem to be everywhere), but fortunately I don't know them personally. We know their kind, though, the kind who achieve success by stepping on and shutting out a lot of other people along the way. Give these people a wide berth in your writing life and, for God's sake, don't become one of them. Paul McCartney was right, in the writing world as in life, the love you take really is equal to the love you make. Fill your tribe with other writers who are generous and kind to one other, treat them the same way, work with them to make a world where the "word" is cherished and the rewards of a writing life rich with friendship, support -- and opportunity will follow.