What Writers Can Learn From Rock Stars
Dan Chaon is the author of the best selling novel You Remind Me of Me and the story collections Fitting Ends and Among the Missing. The latter was a finalist for a National Book Award, and was also named one of the year’s ten best books by the American Library Association and The New York Times. His latest novel, Await Your Reply, was published in 2009. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio and teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.
Here he talks about the importance of literary magazines. .
I learned the most about literary magazines from year-end anthologies. Best American. O. Henry. And particularly The Pushcart Prize. These anthologies were my first introduction to the sometimes hidden world of “little magazines,” a way to discover where new writing was coming from. I would fall in love with a magazine because it had published a story that I was amazed by, and that would compel me to seek out the actual hard copy of the journal. Sometimes I would be able to find it in the library, though actually most of the time I’d have to make the effort to send off for a sample copy.
If you discover a magazine that has published a story that you really like, I would encourage you to subscribe to that magazine. Support their work. Give them love. It matters, and usually it doesn’t cost much more than a lunch at McDonalds.
The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.
Look: writing is work, and publishing is also work. It requires that you develop an acquaintance with the literary world that you’d like to be a part of. I don’t mean to sound like a scold, but it has surprised me, over the years, how few of my creative writing students have made any effort to engage with the community that they supposedly want to be a part of.
Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.
I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.
How awful would that be?
Young writers, if you want to be rock stars, you have to read.
If you want suggestions, here are two magazines that I personally think are awesome: Hobart and Avery Anthology. They are both publishing a great mix of established and new writers, and their editors have a distinctive vision. But I encourage you to find your own way. Start looking, and the world of lit magazines will begin to open up for you.