Keeping Up with the Writing Joneses

By the time this post runs, I’ll be in Grand Rapids at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. Since I am now a mid-careerish, spiritually mature woman attending the event for the fourth time, I will certainly not embarrass myself by committing the following rookie atrocities*:

Forgetting Michigan is on Eastern Standard Time and becoming self-righteously flustered when I find out I’m late for the opening session because who does Michigan think she is, New York?

Introducing myself with “Vander” in front of my decidedly unDutch surname to get a laugh from all those Reformed folk.

Standing in line to talk to Greg Wolfe while trying to look like I’m not really standing in line, and when I get my turn, renewing my subscription to Image because I don’t know what else to say. Realizing that because of similar conference encounters, my issues should safely arrive through 2025.

Walking up to an editor busily unpacking boxes at her publisher’s table and thrusting a manuscript in her face because editors are hard up for manuscripts, desperately seek ways to fill their down time, and thrive on surprises.

Don’t get me wrong: the festival is not just about making an ass of yourself. I’ve met some of my best friends there in an almost eerie love-at-first-sight fashion. I’ve experienced the joy of walking into an auditorium to hear heroes I’ve already read widely, like Mary Karr and Parker Palmer, and wandering into sessions to discover fabulous new-to-me poets, like Robert Siegel and Barbara Crooker.

Most importantly, I’ve eaten lots of complimentary M&M’s at coffee breaks, and they seem to be injected with extra chocolate endorphins. Like the Olympiad, the period “between Calvins” is a time of remembrance and anticipation.

Yet underneath the festival, and, really, any event where two or more writers are gathered, simmers an undertone of anxiety. Anxiety about acceptance, security, jealousy, and competition. The angst doesn’t just come from the feelings themselves, but from knowing you have them in the first place, feeling guilty about them, and wondering if you will ever completely outgrow them.

Or maybe it’s just me.

While completing my MFA, all I wanted was to get a published. Finally, the summer after I graduated, I received an acceptance letter for a poem I had written about wildfires. For the six months or so until the issue came out, I felt secure and accomplished: I was going to be a published poet.

Then the issue arrived.

The typo was of the worst kind. My poem included the phrase “nervous half-sleep,” but the editors had printed “nervous half-sheep” instead. Need I describe the image? No, you already envisioned the jittery, dismembered beast for yourself.

So after that fiasco, I sought a “real” publication, one that didn’t make a mistake. (Half of them did.) Then I worked toward publication in journals with certain circulation numbers or recognizable names. I eventually hit those milestones but still didn’t feel validated as a poet.

A chapbook—with a real ISBN number!—is what I needed. Then I’d earn the label of “author.”

But not for long, because soon after the chapbook came out, people asked if I was working on an actual book next. And then I was plopping down $15-20 a pop for contests.

True, each accomplishment paves the way for the next. But those accomplishments buckle with botched contracts, textless spines, and Amazon rankings at #657,329,187. And for every book you publish, a thousand more look better, sell better, and win more awards. And even if you win most of the major awards available in this country, the majority of the population will never recognize your name.

But let’s say you remove the whole publication equation. You may feel truly satisfied with your numerous titles or not really care one way or another whether your work is in print. Can anything else trigger anxiety at a gathering of writers?

Yes. Oh, yes.

Do you have someone to eat lunch with? If not, why not? Why aren’t you better connected? What is wrong with you that you even care about connections? Don’t you care about people? Gosh, you’re a narcissist.

Should you regale the scholar with funny stories about your children to avoid talking about literary theory? Do you let on that you still haven’t read Moby Dick? Why do you always have basil in your teeth? What about the poet over there who is younger, prettier, and decked out with hipper earrings and scarves?

The eyes are never satisfied, Solomon says. He should know. He had a thousand wives and concubines. With each new woman, he probably believed, even in the smallest of ways, that this one—the one with the higher cheekbones, the softer wrists, or the thicker hair—would make all the difference.

A pastor once made a profound statement that has stayed with me longer than anything I’ve heard from the pulpit in fifteen years (although I obviously haven’t always heeded it): In the game of keeping up with the Joneses, let them win.

So this year, with God’s help, I am letting them win, all the writing Joneses out there. With his help, I am considering others better than myself. I am delighting in their laughter and quirks, their stories and poems, and their earrings and scarves, and worrying less about what they think of me. For when it comes right down to it, the “real” writing life is nothing more than scratching a pencil or clicking a keyboard in the still, silent room of God.

And that is more than enough.

*To read about more Festival atrocities, see For queries about her Image subscription subletting program, leave a comment below.

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including PoetryImageBooks & CultureHarvard Divinity BulletinThe Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students and edits for Every Day Poems and Relief.

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  • Peggy Rosenthal

    This is thoroughly delightful, Tania — how you take us all down a peg (or many pegs). By expressing your own success-anxieties so honestly and comically, you hold a mirror to those of all of us. Great fun! –and a good lesson in humility.

    • Tania Runyan

      Thank you, Peggy!

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    Ohhhhhh, Tania. You are a delight in person and on paper and via your words. For some reason this just made me tear up with your funny, wise words. Wish I could hear your reading again (please do the dripping peaches piece).
    As a fan and a groupie and a friend, it is a privilege to know you–you will be a breath of fresh air wherever you go, scarves a flutter.

    • Tania Runyan

      Ah, you are so wonderful, Jody! And yes: peach poem for sure!

  • Emily Millikan

    Tania, I keep hearing your name! Mostly from Laura Brown, I think. I’m commenting to say ALL THE SCARVES! I’m so with you there. Even when I dress up I look a little worn and slovenly. I’ve mostly resigned myself to it.

    • Tania Runyan

      Laura Brown–have seen that lovely lady already. No scarf, though.

  • Denise

    All I can say after this post: I fervently love you. Sorry I am not there to meet you, screaming your name (which I read from your nametag, as though you are my long-lost love which I’ve not yet met) down the crowded aisles of the exhibition hall, with my basil between my teeth, with a headache from my own enthusiasm. This is wonderful.

    • Tania Runyan

      I love you, too, and your name has already come up! So yeah. You’re famous.

      • Denise

        *blushes, pleased*

  • Christina Kukuk

    I’m in the anti-scarf lobby. But only because I’m anxious that I would look completely ridiculous and also broadcast that I am “trying to hard.” You exactly captured the Festival experience.

    • Tania Runyan

      But do you have the tall boots? Also a must.

  • Jan Vallone

    Dear Tanya Vander Runyan–I am seriously jealous. As of this moment, this post has more Facebook shares than mine did two weeks ago, and this post has been up only 7 hours. I also don’t own any scarves. Which is why I skipped the Festival. Oh, yes, and I’m older than you.

    How I love this essay.

    • Tania Runyan

      We have to fix your scarf problem! Give me your address. 🙂

  • This is just so true and wise. And funny. Thank you.

    • Tania Runyan

      Thank you, Katherine!

  • mrsmetaphor

    Next time I just want to be invited to one of the cool parties. I mean, I don’t really LIKE parties but I want to be invited…heh.

    • Tania Runyan

      You are so there in 2016! 🙂

  • Hear my confession?
    I audaciously spoke to Greg at baggage claim when he clearly was wearing his invisibility cloak.
    I experienced jealousy.
    I got a little bit lost driving in GR.
    I said something stupid to someone.
    I haven’t finished Moby Dick either, and if Mom were still here, she’d still be finding a copy EVERY time we went to a bookstore and bringing it over and saying, “I’ve heard this is good. Have you read it?”

    Thanks for the huge loud laugh that “half-sheep” gave me. It was great to see you. Let’s make music and do something dumb again in two years.

    • Tania Runyan

      You said just *one* stupid thing? Okay, I’m jealous now. It was glorious playing music with you. And thank you for your confession. 🙂

  • Tania – You are witty and you wear scarves and you’ve published books. You are a writer, and I couldn’t have been happier to meet you. Thanks for pointing me here from Facebook.

    Oh, and you want to know my biggest struggle at Festivals? I shrivel up into the awkwardest of introverts at 9 p.m. each night, exactly when all the fun happens. I always assume every one is having fun without me!

    • Tania Runyan

      Charity, I used to shrivel up at 9pm. Now I plow though no matter what, leaving myself pretty exhausted by the end. There is a lot of recovery time at home. Meeting you–and our lovely photo with Sandra and Ann–was a definite highlight!

  • Thank you for this honesty.