My Next Big Thing: Literary Citizenship

Literary Citizenship Teaching

For the last few years, I’ve ended my classes with a presentation/pep talk on Literary Citizenship (basically this post as a Power Point). But next semester, I’m going to teach a whole class on Literary Citizenship.

Course descriptions are due this week, so I just wrote this up:

A literary citizen is an aspiring writer who understands that you have to contribute to, not just expect things from, the publishing world. This course will teach you how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by your campus, regional and national literary communities and how you can contribute to those communities given your particular talents and interests. It will also help you begin to professionalize yourself as a writer. You will learn how to 1.) create your own professional blog or website, 2.) use social media to build your writing community, 3.) interview writers and publish those interviews, 4.) review books and publish those reviews, 5.) submit poems, stories, and essays to literary magazines, 6.) query agents and editors regarding book manuscripts, 7.) apply to graduate programs and write an effective statement of purpose, 8.) deliver an effective public reading of your work, 9.) pitch to an agent, 10.) craft a professional résumé. Students who complete the course in an exemplary fashion will be eligible to apply for internship positions as Social Media Tutors at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie July 25-27, 2013. 

I really hope that the internship positions mentioned above will be PAID positions. See, one reason why I haven’t been posting here at the Big Thing lately is that I’ve spent the last month writing a grant that would provide fifteen paid internships to Ball State students so that they can participate in the Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW), an annual writers’ conference which takes place in Muncie. I’ve written more about it here. 

This past summer, I convinced four of my students to work as Social Media Tutors. Basically, the tutors taught the attendees how to start a blog, how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively, how to create a platform (or as I like to call it, how to connect meaningfully with people).

Me and the Tutors. From left: Maye Ralston, Ashley Ford, Spencer McNelly, and Tyler Fields. Photo provided by Maye Ralston.
Me and the Tutors. From left: Maye Ralston, Ashley Ford, Spencer McNelly, and Tyler Fields. Photo provided by Maye Ralston.

Really, it was just a matter of putting a bunch of people looking for new media skills into the same room with people who had those skills. I got the idea one day when I received an email from Writer’s Digest about an online class they were offering, “Social Media 101,” taught by Dan Blank. I read the course description (and saw the price tag) and thought about my friend Cynthia Closkey, who I paid to help me set up this blog and taught me how to use Twitter. I thought, Couldn’t my creative writing students get freelance work offering “author services” like website development, social media consulting, and developmental editing? Certainly, they don’t have as much experience as Cindy, or the credentials of Dan Blank, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere.

Similarly, Hope Mills talked about her job recently in The Millions. She works at a “creative agency” that offers advertising, publications, websites, branding, and communication strategies.

I chose these four students because they were already using social media in a professional way. I mean, check out their bios. They were already literary citizens. They already had a student group called The Writing Community. (Students at Ball State have been learning this from my colleague Sean Lovelace for years.)

So, I tried to explain what I thought a social media tutor was. The students said, You want us to teach other people how to do what we basically do for fun?

I said, You don’t know how many people out there are desperate to understand the things about social media you guys just take for granted.

And it worked. The students felt like professionals, got a line on their resume, and the attendees were enormously grateful for their knowledge.

For the last few years now, I’ve been thinking about professionalization in creative writing programs, about whether we “should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer.”

What brings most people to the creative writing classroom isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community. Perhaps this is why so many undergraduates want to pursue an MFA, because “more school” is definitely something they know how to plug into. They want to be writers, and they think an MFA is what comes next. But I want to show my students that being a literary citizen can also provide that sense of community and connection they’re longing for.

So here I go again, trying to figure out how to teach yet another class I’ve never taught before.

Literary Citizenship is my next Big Thing.

I’ll keep you posted here. I also created a course blog here.

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop


1.  The Midwest Writers Workshop, or MWW for short, happens in my town! A few miles from my house! Muncie, Indiana, July 26-28, 2012.

2.  MWW’s faculty this year includes a Pulitzer finalist, a paranormal romance YA author, four literary agents, a best-selling author of cozy mysteries, a poet/memoirist/indie publisher, and quite a few long-time editors and publishing professionals. Including Jane Friedman, who I’ve been following for three years (long before I moved to Muncie) and who I credit with saving my writerly butt from literary oblivion.

3.  MWW has been around for a long time: 39 years! Last year, I was on the faculty. This year, I’m the newest member of the Planning Committee. Some of the committee members have been working to make this conference happen for over 35 years. You can read more about the history here.

The Ball State Alumni Center.

4.  MWW is the only writers conference I know of that offers on-site, totally free “social media consulting”—a drop-in tutoring center where you can get your Facebook/Twitter/blogging act together.

5.  Veronica Roth, author of the best-selling, dystopian YA novel Divergent (which is really, really good) got her start at MWW. My fellow committee member Kelsey Timmerman also got his start at MWW. He attended a few years ago, pitched his idea to an agent, and thus his book became a reality: Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. There are many other success stories.  

6.  Remember when I wrote about how anxiety-inducing AWP is? Anxiety + Community = AWP. MWW, on the other hand, is small, intimate, encouraging—nothing at all like AWP. It’s open to anyone. You don’t have to apply to get in or secure a letter of recommendation.

7.  Remember when I wrote this post about how much I hate it when people ask me “How do I get published?” Well, here is your answer: Expand your circles! Get thyself to a writers’ conference! Here are a few other good reasons to go to a writer’s conference.

Jane Friedman, middle, and MWW director Jama Bigger, right

8.  If you read this blog because you teach creative writing, listen up. If you have strong students, don’t think that sending them to an MFA program is the only way to help them pursue their dream. Send them to MWW. Remember a few months ago, I asked, Should we make it our business to teach the business of creative writing? The response to that post was a resounding, Yes. Writers conferences are one way we can teach our students about the “biz.”

9.  If you read this blog because you’re an aspiring writer, listen up: I know you write and read and edit alone. You go online to find community and advice about what comes next. But you need to find community IRL. You need to stop Googling “How do I publish a book?” You need to fork out some dollars, because believe me, there’s nothing like spending some money to help you start taking yourself a little more seriously. You need to actually show up to an actual brick and mortar building where others like yourself have also shown up.

10.  I know I said this already, but this conference is in Indiana. Not in Boston or New York or even the bucolic Florida Keys. It’s in Muncie, Indiana. One reason why I left Indiana 20 years ago is that I believed you HAD to leave Indiana in order to be a writer (or an artist of any kind), but I came back two years ago because I wanted to help the next generation of Hoosier artists realize their dreams and become the people they want to be. When you’re poor or working class or live in a place where there isn’t a lot of literary activity, it’s not that easy to imagine yourself “becoming a writer.” That’s why bringing the publishing world to Indiana matters. A lot.

Will I see you there? This summer? Next summer for the 40th anniversary? I hope so. And do you know someone in the Midwest who wants to be a writer? Send them this link. Thank you.