Writing in the commons of ideas
I finished my master’s degree in creative writing a couple of decades ago, when I was in my late twenties. With a few exceptions it was an off-putting experience: the program felt designed to promote competitive jealousy and a slash-and-burn attitude toward others’ work. I’m not sure why I stuck with it except that it was a ten-minute walk from my Boston apartment and at that age I still believed it was a necessary step toward becoming a writer (and that “becoming a writer” was itself necessary, rather than just writing). I’m still friends with two of the people I met there, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Everything I learned about writing came after that. I eventually met good editors at various publications who taught me how to pare down my wordiness (not a lesson that seems to have stuck) and to really think about what I was saying. To question myself and the conclusions I came to, to broaden my perspectives. Good writers might be rare, but good editors are far rarer. Those editors taught me to write.
More importantly, they taught me that writing a narrative with some meaning for readers is nearly always a collaborative process. This was not something that my master’s program ever highlighted, and not something that aspiring writers usually get advice about. It’s always “Get an agent,” “Get a book contract,” “Get your pitches accepted,” not “What allows me to do the best possible work?”
I can’t think of anything I’ve published, anything I think well of at least, that didn’t lean heavily on an editor’s input, and often also on that of a few particular colleagues whose judgment I trust. Feedback isn’t always easy to receive—writing is a weirdly personal thing, even if the subject matter itself isn’t all that personal—but it made all the difference for me. Having my own newsletter means I can follow where curiosity leads and explore ideas that aren’t trendy enough for bigger publications, but I do miss having editorial feedback from people who know what they’re doing. Enough so that, as was the case with this essay, I often send On the Commons pieces to my older sister for feedback and corrections before I post them.
There is a group of people involved in writing that came up even less often than editors did in my MFA, if they came up at all: readers.
The interaction between readers and writers is very different in the full-on internet age of today from what it was when I finished my degree in 2003, when print still dominated and readers didn’t have such easy access to writers. Even once writing started going online, for many years the hard rule was, “Don’t read the comments.” Because they were junk or abusive or both. (They really were.)
Things have changed. I’m not exactly sure when. I remember publishing my first essay for Aeon in 2015, and how thoughtful and well-moderated the comments were, and how I was surprised to enjoy the dialogue they fostered. That essay had tens of thousands of readers and hundreds of comments. Not one of them was a waste of my time to read, and in fact several led to further research that informed my first published book.
Something shifts when readers opt into someone’s writing, and it’s not just the tone or content of the comments. It’s the way readers’ ideas and enthusiasm and questions become, for me, part of the thinking and writing process itself.
What shows up here comes from me, the result of whatever happens in the strange internal process called creativity. But the content isn’t purely individual. It’s “my” work, but also “this” work, something that readers have a stake in. Or a voice. Or something I can’t find the words for, something collaborative but not collective, or maybe vice versa.
Many of you send me emails with thoughts on something I’ve written, or suggestions for videos or books or podcasts, or personal stories of your own. Some of you post comments, or simply open and read the posts enough to remind me that people are giving their attention to whatever happens here. This writing comes from me—it is my mind, in a way. But that mind isn’t working in a silent bubble, absorbing books and articles and contemplative walks and conversations and churning out finished ideas. I think about you as I write. My first drafts, almost always written longhand in a notebook, are for me alone, but they can’t help but be informed by anyone who’s been reading and responding to what’s come before. The revision process also happens silently in my head, but it’s still a conversation with this group of readers and the world in general.
Where does this put ownership of the writing itself? And what changed once I started placing part of what I write behind a paywall? Who owns this work? Legally, I do—that’s what Substack and copyright laws say and let me tell you there’s a rich and tangled history behind creative ownership and copyright law—but isn’t it all of us? Isn’t this an ideas commons, too? I can’t even claim full ownership of this essay idea. It was Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing who presented the idea of “narrative ownership” to me.
When I switched to the paid version of Substack, I decided to make these essays free and the walking compositions paid because the “some stuff to read/watch/listen to” lists represent about a quarter to a third of what I read/watch/listen to and take me a significant amount of time to compile. Obviously, all the writing I do here is also work,* but those lists are a particular type of work that feels more like easily identifiable labor. I offer the option of a paid-subscription-for-free-on-request** because I don’t want anyone to be shut out for lack of funds, but as time has gone on I’ve also realized that it’s partly because I want people to have the option of opting into something. I’ve personally unsubscribed from a lot of otherwise good writing (mostly on Medium) because I felt flooded with content I could never keep up with. I don’t want to do that to people.
*This is a different conversation, but artists of all kinds struggle with being paid for our work. I don’t think it’s a struggle that we’ll ever resolve, even within ourselves, but it’s always worthwhile acknowledging that it’s there. And that, without art being paid for, generally the only people who can afford to do it are the already well-off. “You’re commodifying art” vs. “Then only rich people get to write” was an argument we had repeatedly in my MFA program. Capitalism isn’t dead yet, and until it is we’re kind of stuck with the trade-off.
**Your regular reminder that if you want the paid version and can’t or don’t want to pay, just email me the code word “tribble” and I’ll set it up.
When I described to someone last spring what I was going to do with my book No Trespassing, publish it here as I slowly write it, he asked me what would happen if a publisher later approached me about publishing it in edited book form. I told him I’d thought about that a lot, especially after analyzing my own feelings when a couple of Substack writers I subscribed to moved to big-name publications. I didn’t begrudge them that—a steady paycheck is nice!—but there was a sense of loss after their announcements. A sense of, “Hey, you invited people to support your work; I was happy to help you build that and a lot of other people felt the same.” It felt weird, like some sort of rejection, especially as I didn’t want to follow them to the publications they landed at.
It’s an interesting feeling, not one I’m proud of or even fully understand, but one that did make me think carefully about what I was doing here. It feels akin to starting a relationship, I think, reaching out slow, tenuous tendrils that you can’t just retract on a whim if you change your mind, not without injuring both others and yourself. Whether you’re sharing writing or relationship, each tendril is made of trust, and you can’t impulsively walk away from those things without damaging that trust.
I told this person that I wouldn’t be averse to the idea, if a publisher were interested, but there’d have to be something in it for all the people who’d already been supporting this work, financially or otherwise. That I wouldn’t want to give a sense of “Thanks for your support, on to bigger and better things now.” What that would look like I don’t know and it’s purely theoretical at this point (and will probably remain so). Free copies? Acknowledgments? A promise to keep doing this work, here, together?
It’s not a simple question, but to rebuild the commons—all the commons—it and others like it have to be answered, in some form, eventually.
No matter what, though, I can’t think of this Substack as something I myself own, that I myself am creating and can be possessive of any more than it was solely me who created any other piece of published writing with my name on it. Copyright law tells me one thing, but what I’ve learned from working with good editors over the years; and how I feel about ownership; and what I envision as a better, more reciprocal, way of doing this collective thing called life could be, is quite another.
I don’t plan on doing guest posts here, or interviews—I can barely keep up with my life and work as it is, and really isn’t everyone already overwhelmed with material to read and listen to anyway?—but I do think of this entire project as a kind of commons. I might be sitting here alone at a desk shaping narrative as best I can, but copyright law aside, nobody really owns these stories, much less the ideas that seed them.
What that means I’m not sure. I do know that, if you’re here with me, then I am equally here. With you.
Nia, you are wordy and it really works for you and all of us! Not a simple task.
Nato shot down the Chinese balloonery, alien ballooney tunes, and now we will have a ballooney war, good luck with that!
Another nuttin´ burger, tank you, sank you very much, nom nom nom!
My silent screams might be a perfect soundrack to the next Plandemic MAGAphoned!
That is why I must be the good guy, right? Do not try this at home, as Beavis and Butthead would advise!
Being the good guy among so many bad guys really freaks me out, gives me the creeps! And then I testify on the inflated Weaponization of BullSkirt in the Dungeon Subcommittee hot spa meeting .... go figure!
I gotta go to Iceland one more time to chill the fook out!
Iceland the way you have never seen or even imagined, all in the DELUXE Special Limited Edition!