May 1, 2011
If you read literary history, or if you read a work like John Gardner’s Creating Minds, you soon learn that the writers, artists and thinkers who become enormously successful are often part of a cohort of creative people who, as they mature in their field, often help each other achieve success. In this way, the group becomes more and more important, and thus each member is able to help the other members of the group more and more and more. The group as a whole achieves notice; the members of the group achieve greater stature. Not all this is rosy, of course. Along the way there are often splits and fractures as members leave a group and go off to find another.
Support is so essential to the fruition of creative work, in fact, that Gardner asserts this about creative people who make breakthroughs in their work: “not only did the creators all have some kind of significant support system at that time, but this support system appeared to have a number of defining components….[:] the creator required both affective support . . . and cognitive support from someone who could understand the nature of the breakthrough.” So about this, Gardner is sure: no creator achieves a breakthrough in the work without significant support. So trash the model of the creator as a solitary solipsistic individual working alone. Every creative person needs support, much more support than any of us imagine when we begin our creative lives. And if the creative person is in a group of people who help one another, the entire group benefits.
This is the opposite of the “every person for herself or himself” model of creative success (I help myself and I won’t help you because if I help you there will be less for me). This is the opposite of the competitive model (I want my work to be better than yours and I won’t help you because then maybe your work will be better than mine). This is the opposite of the parsimonious model of creativity (Only a select few can achieve success so I won’t help you because then I won’t have to compete with you).
Unfortunately for many of us, not every creative person understands that her own writing life would be better served if she were generous to other writers. Perhaps it’s because these creative people don’t know literary history. Perhaps it’s because they don’t understand that, say, everyone in a group benefits from the success of every other member of the group. The members of the Bloomsbury group, for example, reviewed one another’s work (on the whole, favorably) in the major newspapers of their time. There was an “I do for you and you do for me” mentality that put these writers and artists on the map in a very big way, and their talent had little to do with it. And although, of course, there was competition among them, there was also the most profound kind of support.
Virginia Woolf, for example, started the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard Woolf. They published many of their friends’ works, among them, novels and poems by Vita Sackville-West, whose works brought much-needed money into the coffers of the press. Vita got a press who loved her work; the Woolfs got money to expand their press. Virginia Woolf had her sister, Vanessa Bell, design the covers for her novels and many other Hogarth Press publications; Vanessa Bell got exposure for her drawings; the Woolfs didn’t have to search for illustrators. And after Woolf published a novel, she could count of one of her friends reviewing it in a major literary journal. So, in time, they all became extraordinarily famous. Lytton Strachey. Vanessa Bell. Clive Bell. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. Roger Fry. Vita Sackville-West. The list goes on and on and on.
As a teacher of writing, I insist upon cooperation in my classes, not competition. There are some prospective students who bail out because, as some have told me, they’d prefer to be the “star” in a class among many. I don’t believe in the star system. And it isn’t that I don’t believe in competition. I do. I believe in our competing with our past work to achieve even better work as we move through our writing lives. And my students form truly formidable writing communities — communities that share work, read work, share information about fellowships, share information about readings. They are an amazingly generous group of writers, and I know that they’ll all help each other achieve the kind of recognition that their work deserves.
Why some writers don’t understand that we’re all better off if we help each other, I can’t say. But I can speculate. Many college classrooms teaching writing encourage competition. Newspapers that publish bestseller lists, websites (like Amazon) that list the rating of a book, prizes and awards that suggest that recipients are the best in their field all help writers think in terms of rating and ranking. And once we frame our thinking about creativity in terms of “the best,” “the highest advance ever for….,” “the most important in the United States,” we will almost certainly think “competition” not “cooperation.” For if we view the writing life as a struggle to get to the top, we will want to climb over our competition, and we will do everything we can to best them.
But my writing life’s not like that, thank goodness. Because, frankly, I couldn’t live with myself if it were. I believe that each of us writers has an important book in us, many important books in us. My important book is not better than your important book. Each of our important books is important in its own way. Mine might speak to some people and not others as will yours. That’s why we need as many works in the world as is possible.
When I was “coming up” as a feminist in the ‘70s, the reason so many of us achieved notice was that we helped each other. We edited books and we published our friends. Our friends edited books and they published us. We introduced our writer friends to publishers we knew. And they introduced our work to publishers they knew. We read their manuscripts; they read ours. We reviewed them; they reviewed us. So that in less than a decade (the decade Howard Gardner speaks of as necessary for breakthrough work) many of us had published important, breakthrough work. But not one of us could have made these breakthroughs alone. We all depended upon each other.
But that kind of cooperative endeavor is now all too rare, though it does exist, and I am blessed with having among my writing friends, some of the most generous spirits I’ve ever encountered, and I won’t mention their names for fear of embarrassing them. Still, they know who they are.
So here’s my challenge to us as writers. Let’s ask ourselves whether in the last week or month we’ve helped a writer friend along. Not only by reading her work, but by helping her find a place to read, by helping her find a place to publish her work, by figuring out how to get whatever work of hers is out there noticed. And let’s ask ourselves, too, whether in the last week or month we’ve tried in subtle or not so subtle ways to subvert the success of a writer we know. And let’s ask ourselves which model better serves us as writers and as people: helping each other or subverting each other. The shame is, as I’ve learned from some of my writer friends, and from my own experience, too, that the members of those groups of writers outside the mainstream who most need to build community so that the members of the entire community can move into a more important place in the culture tend to subvert each other the most. Historically, you don’t tend to find insiders standing in the way of the achievement of other insiders.
I believe that our own work will flourish when we sit down to do it only insofar as we’ve helped others throughout our writing lives. And not only because then we can count on a coterie of people to give us help when we need it. Because, too, if we’re not generous to others, we can’t possibly be generous to ourselves as writers. If we thwart others, we’ll tend to thwart ourselves.