When I was in eighth grade, a girl two grades up from me was writing a novel. I didn’t know much about her aside from her name, the fact that she was my classmate’s older sister, and that she was in the finishing stages of creating a work of fiction, but I wanted to become her, cut my hair short and type importantly on my laptop in my small school’s even smaller library. That she was profiled in my school’s newspaper as well as Chicago Magazine was not nearly as interesting–she had done what I believed to be impossible and I revered her for it. She bridged the gap between learning about what good stories were and actually writing them, ascending the ranks of moody authors in moody sweaters staring from book jackets like lacquered doors.
I followed her through English classes, through poems and publications. I discovered she was an editor and writer for Polyphony H.S. (a high school literary magazine founded by my high school English teacher Billy Lombardo). I later submitted some of my own work to Polyphony and applied to be an editor in my own right, hopping quickly into the divots in the Young Adult Writer trail she left.
In retrospect, I think other adventurers in Internet-based world of teenage creative writing might have shared a similar obsession with creative accomplishment. These others, eager students guided by aging and wise professors. Their egos, their enthralling successes. We all fixated on a sequence of competitive gains to equal success in creative writing, and found each other in cyberspace. People I would meet in writing workshops at Kenyon College and Iowa Young Writers Workshop, people I would hear about in the appendices of high school literary magazines, people whose poems I would edit and who would accidentally forget to make their manuscripts anonymous. Through Facebook and spider webs of college acceptances, I am connected to hundreds of self-proclaimed Young Writers.
You have arrived on the wide green lawns of a small liberal arts college (insert: Kenyon, Sewanee) and it is marvelously and absolutely summer. The trees swoon with deep green leaves and from the airport shuttle bursts forth a hundred other writers your age. About seven percent have packed ukuleles in their bags. Thirty percent consider David Foster Wallace to be their favorite author. You know that these people are the people you have been waiting most of your life to meet, people you’ve believed existed beyond the confines of your small provincial high schools and science-minded families. You spend the next two weeks becoming fast friends with most of the people you meet (in workshops, in impromptu circles on the grass), writing experimental poetry and gently critiquing the work of your peers. You call yourself a Writer because the program does.
We all know who we are because we have defined ourselves as such; we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other had we not dubbed ourselves Writers first. This world is closed to those who do not look for it—those who have not boasted to others and our parents, who do not posses the terrifying hubris that accompanies triumphing over puberty and being moderately commended for talking about ourselves, those who have not filled out the summer program applications. I wonder if I would have known about this world were I more talented and less proud of it.
Let me give you glimpse.
In this brave new world, poetry is a prize to be won. High school senior Amanda Silberling, Managing Editor and co-founder of Winter Tangerine Review and poetry editor for The Adroit Journal, shares the same reserve. “The ‘teen writing culture’ is helpful and supportive for the most part,” she relayed to me through email, “but if you aren’t careful, it can be toxic. When people get sucked into ‘teen writing culture,’ it’s not uncommon at all for them to lose track of why they write– no one decides to start writing so that they have something to brag about via Facebook status. I’ve heard people unironically use the phrase ‘competitive writing,’ or compete to see who can publish the most work in a set timespan[…] Sometimes, teen writing culture makes it seem like rejection is fatal and success is mandatory.” The question becomes not is this poem doing something new and exciting, but instead is this poem good enough to get published. An atendee at the Kenyon Review Young Writer’s Workshop in 2010, Silberling is not impervious to the accomplishment-driven culture; the accolades in her title denote her as some kind of young writer royalty. If this pre-professional creative writing world were a kingdom, University of Pennsylvania freshman and creator of The Adroit Journal, Peter LaBerge would reign as king. “I created The Adroit Journal in November 2010 as a sophomore in high school because there was nothing like it at the time,” Peter said via interview. “I was submitting to places like The New Yorker and Poetry, and not feeling like my work was being given serious consideration. I wanted to create a publication where eager college and high school students like me could be given the support and affirmation that they deserved.” LaBerge agrees with Silberling regarding the pre-professional nature of “competitive creative writing,” stating that “The ‘professional’ (I hesitate to use that word) emerging writer culture is an intensely sink-or-swim environment, governed by publication and recognition opportunities.” In this world, publication has become something of a tally game. On his resume alone, LaBerge sports publications from magazines such as PANK, Polyphony H.S, The Louisville Review, DIAGRAM, The Newport Review, A-Minor Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Word Riot, Weave Magazine, and Hanging Loose.
If this laundry list of lit mag name-drops seems professional, it’s because it is. Most literary magazines require a cover letter for submission, and for small, indie presses, the more you’ve been published can’t hurt. That is not to say that all publication is sought for pre-professional purposes; unlike athletics and mathematics, writing does not present itself with a clear manner of defining success. Beyond the classroom, publication is a writer’s way of knowing she has done something right.
Writing is not the only creative field that has taken a turn for the pre-professional. The New Republic recently declared that “ballet is in crisis because it’s turning into a sport,” citing the increased popularity of ballet competitions like Youth American Grand Prix and their influence on dancers becoming accepted into prestigious ballet companies as something that has contributed to a phenomenon: “artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before—wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance.” When it comes to writing, Silberling agrees. Like ballet, like painting, “a culture that treats expression like a sport ruins expression.”
When people write poems, they write to explain why the trees look different after the loss of a lover; why they feel their ankles differently; how the asphalt smells after the snow melts. Professional writers are also writing to make a living and to pay rent. But when those are not factors, and college and Internet reputation become forces of importance in the competitive culture of this current crop of young writers. These days, it is not enough to write well and powerfully. As Silberling states, “we’re all very passionate about the arts and want to pursue careers as writers, but of course, it’s extremely difficult to work in the arts for a living, and we all know that.” The competitive nature of creative fields is not new. Only online, we can all see where we fall behind.
We are all connected through our mutual ambition, following the fever dreams of our own prose, trying to break past the boundaries of young people who have written before us. We are proud enough of our own accomplishments that we felt compelled to enter ourselves into this strange subset of creative culture. We want to write work we are proud of. All of us, brave and cocky adventurers spitting in the faces of parents who told us that writing would never get us anywhere. We have accolades. We create our own prizes. We have manufactured creative writing into a unit of success that can be quantified. We try to placate our growing pangs with poetry prizes, combat uncertainty with gold keys.
But, as Silberling reminds us: “Writing isn’t like that. Life isn’t like that. I want my generation of writers not to forget that writing is an art. If you’re in it for the resume boost, you’re in it for the wrong reason.”