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Dear Lit Writer, You Are Enough

Just this week I received a note from someone who writes, but meanwhile, in the back of her mind, she thinks her life is too boring for publication. Nobody will want to read her, she says, because she is from the middle: middle-aged, middle-class, and from the mainstream (white) culture.

I’ve heard this idea—nobody will want to read me—before, though more often from writers who don’t see how they can fit into the literary writing world because they don’t come from the middle. (One writer asked the publication I work at if we would consider any writing that is critical of her Muslim culture because “well-meaning” editors always demanded a morality tale about Islamaphobia from her, with those of us from the middle as an assumed reader.)

So, given how universal this is, I’m guessing at one point you may have struggled with this question: Who cares about my story?

The hard truth is not everybody. The road to publication is full of gatekeepers both official (publishers, “mentors”), and unofficial (a “friend” who may shrug and shatter your dreams of connecting). Be ready for this. And when it happens, I urge you to keep going.

Don’t be a gatekeeper for yourself before you even reach the gate. Make your answer to the question: you care and that we all should care. Then put all you got into your writing. 

Why? Because you are enough for your writing. Your experiences are enough. Your willingness to explore a subject and engage with deep compassion and empathy are enough.

In my book of poetry, there is a prose poem that when I started to write it I thought would be about my own alienation and isolation growing up in a small, anti-intellectual place full of people who feared the other. I started the poem lamenting being “abandoned” by a friend who used to protect me (physically and emotionally) at school. 

She had recently dropped out, and by the the final line of the poem, it is clear that I will come out unscathed—she says it herself, a drunk and pregnant teenager comforting me, someone with all the advantages that would let me leave that place—you’ll be okay.

Good writing does, as the edict goes, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I am grateful for writing, because often when I’m in the act of writing it is I who am the afflicted. And I need that, clearly (see above).

Writing about my experiences and unravelling what I’ve witnessed in troubled times (and, let's face it, they're all troubled) lets me explore the extent my own privilege. It lets me deeply understand the ways that I can and do impact the world both minutely and profoundly. Writing also allows me to empathize with others who have less than me—be it wealth, health, or pens (got a lot of those). This kind of writing, when done well, can truly change the world, one little reader at a time.

If you’re afraid you’re too boring, I get it. I suggest as remedies: 1) gratitude—yay! you’re safe and comfortable; and 2) finding ways to encourage other writers, in particular, those born without the gift of being boring, by reading and responding to their work.

But even my from-the-middle-self has spent time in the deepest trenches of despair and loss—loss so profound that I haven’t been able to taste it twice, as Anaïs Nin put it, by writing about it. But when I do write about this, I will remember there are readers who will not just want to read what I have to say, but who need to read what I have to say.

Rather than ask, “who cares about my story?” dig deeply into your life and find the tales people need to hear. Things you simply cannot keep to yourself because it would be selfish.
 
I’ll leave you with my last thoughts on writing as a calling. Never lose sight of the fact that the act of writing is an act of hope, as Margaret Laurence said. It is also, I believe, an act of defiance and too important for you to give up, even though it may afflict you, or rather, because it may afflict you.

Reflective, thoughtful, profound writing that mines the depths of our experiences creates much-needed empathy in this world—something we greatly need.

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