Community is the Answer: Making the Most of Missed Opportunities
When it comes to writing, time is everything. It takes time to generate work, to revise it, to research where and how to publish it—hell, our brains are like hourglasses that can never be turned over, and each grain of sand is an idea, a thought, a possible inspiration. It never empties, it simply accrues. The time we spend writing is precious time—the muse often requires us to steal ourselves, our time, from other people in order to do the hard work of serving her. The time we spend is isolated. Sometimes we don’t spend it all, or if we do, we spend it wistfully staring out the window in a mosaic of idle contemplation.
Because time is so precious to writers, it can be devastating if we feel we have squandered it. Not so much in pursuit of projects that never come to fruition—though there’s that, too—but the time we squander not doing things we need to in order to function as proper citizens of the literary world. I don’t mean to sound highfalutin, but I really do think, particularly in age of instant and immediate digital connectivity, we writers are part of a global community of artists. Some people might (rightly) deride the business side of this community, but the fact is all vocations, however noble or ignoble, require a certain degree of civic engagement, of buying into a system of practices that (ideally) can lead to community building and personal success.
All this is to say, I’ve been asked to write about coping with missed opportunities, and I am hard pressed to think of being a writer as anything other than a way of living one’s life from one missed opportunity to the next. The trick to coping with missed opportunities as a writer is by knowing what you find and feel is valuable to your sense of community and personal view of what it means to have success as a writer. Being raised by a single mother who didn’t graduate from high school, who insisted on my own intellectual gifts and never curtailed my artistic impulses, has shaped my perspective on missed opportunities, and my view is this: you only miss the ones you actively don’t take.
What does this mean practically? It means you need to be an active participant in your writing life, and that goes back to being plugged into the community. One of the most rewarding things I do regularly as a literary citizen is write book reviews. I was fortunate enough to get my start while an MFA student at The Ohio State University. I had been reading for The Journal for about a year. The editors offered MFA students review space for every issue, but not many people seemed to take advantage of it.
Speaking of missed opportunities, my teacher, Andrew Hudgins, once told me that writing reviews is a significant investment because it means the writer is taking time away from their own work to promote and praise the work of someone else. I took advantage of the opportunity to writer a review of a book—Jason Koo’s Man on Extremely Small Island—and six months later got to meet him at AWP. We briefly discussed the review and he invited me to have Korean BBQ with him whenever I made it out to Brooklyn, a promise he made good on this past spring.
Writing that one review helped me to write the next one, and so on, and so on, to the point that I now feel quite confident penning them. Reviewing books has helped me not only ingratiate myself as a supportive agent in the writing world, but it has also helped me gain perspective on how books put together. The knowledge I’ve gleaned doing this has been invaluable to developing an aesthetic sense of how a book functions.
Beyond reviewing books, though, I’ve done my best to take advantage of every opportunity afforded to me. In my MFA program I read slush for a year and a half and was eventually rewarded with promotions, first to associate poetry editor, and eventually to senior poetry editor. I sent, and continue to send, work out and often, and always to the most prestigious, selective magazines first, so I don’t regret not having sent to them. I live, work, and write ambitiously because it helps me feel like my finger is pressed to something vital. Because so many writers lives are ruled by major regrets that I don’t want these minor ones to defeat me.
Being part of a community of writers helps me to feel like I know what’s going, and being plugged in has kept me abreast of open submission calls, book prize deadlines, fellowship opportunities, and what books I ought to be reading. No single piece of advice can be adequate, but if I were to synthesize my main points here, my points are thus: finding a community, or even developing one, is the best thing you can do to feel like you’re making the most of your opportunities. Reading and interacting with the work of others—particularly contemporaries—is just as important.