THE BLOG
09/29/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Being a Writer: My Identity Does Not Come From Meeting Angela Merkel

We all construct an identity and some of that comes from stories. Who did you read when you were coming up? There are writers you read because you had to, but you after that, you moved on. For me that was most of the Beats. When someone says they adore the beat generation, I strive to not assume that he (it's always a he) is a misogynist although the beats with the exception of Gary Snyder and Bob Kaufman celebrated misogyny.

Most male readers go through a beat phase in their teens and grow out of it when they start dating real women in their twenties. Most women writers go through a Sharon Olds/Colette/Anais Nin phase as teenagers or an early Adrienne Rich/Judy Grahn phase. I did both.

I was so confused as a young writer that I wanted to be perverse slut and a working class lesbian who, while diving into the wreck, found her own identity and figured everything out herself. At no time did I want to walk into an art gallery, museum, city, country and have a man explain anything to me. I figured the Kate Gale explanation would do me. The stories I couldn't relate to: Woman as object. Woman as provider of pleasure. Woman as avid listener while man talks.

The beat generation is over, thank God. There are white males who still think of the Beats with longing, just as there are people who miss the '50s. Gays in the closet, blacks in the lowest pay grade, your momma in the kitchen making home fries. I'm thankful I missed the '50s and the '60s. Men have evolved since then and I'm grateful for it.

However, when it comes to being a writer, you can't throw out all the books by drug addicts, misogynists or racists or even just crazy people. As your professors like to tell you, it was okay to hate women, Blacks, and Jews back then. When I tell my students that, they look at me wide eyed. If you started tossing, you'd find your library with few books left. Mary Oliver would survive, but many books and even your Bible would have to go. Hemingway and Faulkner would go first, and pretty soon you'd find yourself tossing Fitzgerald, Keats, Tennessee Williams and of course T.S. Eliot.

I now read much more widely, but there are still huge swaths of books that I'm willing to miss. I read mostly poetry, literary novels and short stories. What I miss most that I read all through college was science fiction. I completely omit romances and almost never fit in biographies though I read my share of memoirs. Nearly every week, someone alerts me to a writer I must read and that's why our house is overflowing with books. I love T. C. Boyle, Ron Carlson, Margaret Atwood, Paul Bowles, Toni Morrison and too many poets to mention.

Because I work in publishing, I've met a lot of writers. Michael Ondaatje, Michael Afaa Weaver, Yusef Komunyakaa and Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg and Billy Collins, Li Young Lee and Alicia Ostriker and hundreds more. I like meeting writers, but I don't expect them to remember me or think of me as their tribe even if I read with them or they read in a series I'm running. This year I read with Ursula LeGuin, Gregory Orr and Alicia Ostriker and in November I am reading with Maxine Hong Kingston. These people are writers I admire, but they exist in a whole other stratosphere. What they have in that sphere is millions of readers. If you meet a writer who is well known, it doesn't change your stars. That meeting should make you want to work harder and write better.

There was a myth once that if you met the right person, Steven Spielberg if you're an actor, some editor or agent if you're a writer, he or she would make you a star. Your own Stieglitz to make you famous. That's not true anymore. Being famous person adjacent doesn't make you famous. I've met the president of Slovenia, the Chancellor of Germany, but when I fly to Frankfurt annually I carry my own luggage. .

There are certainly things that make it easier to be a writer. Being wealthy gives you time to write. Having tenure at a four year university gives you respect as an intellectual, but neither of those gives you the keys to the kingdom. You have to write, you have to create access to your work, and then you have to promote it. Everyone is talking about Patricia Lockwood's book and certainly it benefitted from social media, but she had to write the damn thing and get Penguin to publish it. That required talent and hard work.

The way I see myself as a writer is very simple. I'm just getting going. I had a of couple books out this year with small presses and I'm doing a national tour with a couple international stops. I haven't yet written poetry and prose that is part of the national conversation, but I plan to. I'm okay with the fact that I'm just getting off the ground. I moved to California to go to graduate school and become a writer, and then I got off track. Starting a press and raising kids took my energy in my thirties and forties to say nothing of being in a wine producing state adjacent to a tequila producing country. I don't regret a thing. I'm a far better writer and thinker than I was in my twenties. I've had a really good time. My kids are amazing, the press thriving. What I need to do is write the next book and then promote the hell out of it. That's my job.

I don't believe you're as good as your last book. What defines you as a writer is a combination of how many people have read your work and been influenced by your work. I've met plenty of famous writers who couldn't pick me out of a lineup. But I have a few readers who have told me they like my poems, a few opera lovers who loved Rio de Sangre. It's a good start.

Our identities are fragile. My students ask me how you know if you're crazy. I give them a simple answer: There is reality and then there is your reality. Crazy is when the gap between those two is so huge you can't do the splits and touch both with your feet. A lot of writers suffer from crazy. Their identity is constructed from some combination of self loathing and self aggrandizement.
One of Red Hen's writers Blasé Bonpane is an ex priest. He's married to an ex nun and they have two children. Trained in liturgical music, Blasé can sing. But one night when he was singing his son to sleep, the boy said, "Papa, don't sing better than you know how."

That is good advice to all of us. Write as well as you possibly can but don't try to make yourself seem more important than you are. When other people are talking about and reading your work, that's a good thing. When you are talking about your work and how cool you are, you're never going to convince anyone. Not even yourself.