Hollowell: Gold Stars for Good Citizenship

Thanks again to Erin Hollowell, who has been our June featured author. 

I had the good fortune this past week to spend some time at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference where Naomi Shihab Nye was the keynote presenter. From her Friday night keynote through the close of the conference, Naomi shone as an inspiring example of literary citizenship. From her words to her actions, she was open, supportive, kind, and challenging in the best possible way.

I keep a close eye on the participants of the conference, gauging needs, desires, and general mood. It was fascinating to watch the interactions of the conference, many reflecting the generous tone that Naomi set. It was as if by her very example, we all tried to be a little better literary citizens.

To be a good literary citizen, you must care about your fellow writers’ work, understanding that we all have something to give to the world and that hierarchy is an illusion. Sure, some writers are further down the path than others, but we’re all somewhere on the continuum from that first moment we put pencil to paper and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

To be a good literary citizen, you must listen closely to others as often as possible. Kim Stafford wrote, “It is not my work so much to invent as to record the stories of the world.” If you are going to hear those stories, whether from the world or another person, you must be listening for them all the time.

To be a good literary citizen, you must not tell everyone else what a fabulous writer you are. You must not constantly brag up your own work. We all have to promote ourselves, I get it (hey, did I mention that I have a new book out Pause, Traveler that you could buy?), but for Pete’s sake, if all you can talk about is your own writing, how will you ever learn anything from anyone else? I have found that often the most talented writer in the room is the least likely to tout her own accomplishments.

To be a good literary citizen, you must be willing to be part of something bigger than yourself. Volunteer to be on the board of a literature or writing-based non-profit. Donate to Kickstarter campaigns that foster writers taking chances. Offer some supportive critique for a beginning writer. Start a writing group in your neighborhood. Read someone else’s work first at your reading. Buy as many books as you can afford from independent bookstores or directly from the publishers.

Being a good literary citizen means that you understand that you are part of the larger conversation. In her opening remarks Naomi said, “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. Remember, you are part of the family of everyone who ever wrote. All the teachers who transported us to this place where we are together, all the grandparents who read us stories, who gave us books of Tennyson in a very tiny font, they are with us tonight.” It is our jobs help continue to build the structure that holds us all aloft by remembering to reach out beyond ourselves with a gracious and graceful presence. Go forth with your hammer and saw to build your own work but also to lend a hand to those struggling along beside you.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. Prior to landing there, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009. Her poetry has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Her first collection of poetry Pause, Traveler was published on June 1, 2013 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her blog is www.beingpoetry.net. 

2 thoughts on “Hollowell: Gold Stars for Good Citizenship”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Thanks, Erin. You captured Naomi's generosity very well. May we all try to emulate her.

  2. Erin, you nailed it. I think you're right that people were spurred to their most generous selves because of Naomi. I admire her open-heartedness so much. Thanks for summing up and augmenting some of her points.

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