Writing means different things to different folks: “I want to get published,” or “I want to be seen,” or “I want to be heard,” or “I want to change the world.” This last one, so full of hubris and hope, is especially dear to me, and the trap I fall into the easiest.
I try and encourage others the best I can, mindful of the journey I have been on, and how I am only at the beginning. But the best thing I can say to anyone who wants to write is this: you have to be a reader, and you have to be a generous one.
Writing was never a part of my plan A: at six years old I told my family I was going to be a missionary to Madagascar, and while the geography changed, the vocation remained. Over the past few years, the combination of my chaotic life coupled with a need to process led me to start writing, and I was astonished by the community and solidarity I began to discover.
There was no theology of scarcity in the beginning for me. The writers and readers and thinkers I met online convinced me of this truth: there is space enough for all of us in this world. There will never be too much of a good thing when it comes to true art, true beauty, true creation, as we all try our best to model what our Father of Light has done for us.
One person’s magnum opus might depress me for a moment, but the inspiration lasts far beyond. There is always a chance to progress, to write better, and there are always so many people for me to learn from. People were generous in constructive feedback, generous in retweeting and sharing and opening up spaces for me to write. It was the kindness of other writers that first astounded me, and it continues on until this day.
But as I slowly started to branch out into the larger world, I have found that this is not always the case. As I have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that writing might be a part of my life that it here to stay, I have also had to come to terms with the more unsavory aspects of the public part of writing: the ethics of writing about people and communities, the constant, alternating pitfalls of self-righteousness and discouragement, the constant sense of not measuring up. Not to mention comment sections, rejections, off-handed criticisms from writers I adored and admired.
Apart from my friends and small online community there is a definite market edge to many of the interactions among those who think and write: a desire to be brilliant, or fast, or new; a desire to be the best, to be right at all costs. I see many people falling for the lie that there is only so much to go around, and we best fight for what little we can get.
I recently listened to Anne Friedman, former editor of Good, speak to her own personal philosophy when it comes to writing partnerships: “The notion of kissing up is super weird to me. You should always be kissing down and sideways, to the people who are going to be working alongside you and coming up behind you.”
Coincidentally, the opposite of this is true as well. As much as I have learned there is not much to be gained from kissing up (a spiritually bankrupt practice) there is absolutely nothing good that can come from punching down.
Meaning, while critique and criticism have always served a purpose in understanding culture, there is little to be gained from an artist attacking the work of someone lesser known (other than a boost in morale for the critic, I suppose).
This was the philosophy I was baptized into and it is one that I will carry with me until I die. Creating, no matter what form it takes, is bound to the act of sharing. And the more I find myself reading, the more I find myself writing, the more I find myself compelled to share the works of my friends and peers, as well as the beloved, time-tested greats.
I know so many people doing so many creative things, sometimes it feels like my heart and my mind might burst at the seams. I have writing group partners, online friends, artists and rabble-rousers, authors and activists who inspire me not only with what they produce, but with how freely they share and celebrate the work of others.
I have learned from the best, my peers and my friends, people of faith who have generous spirits. From others, I have learned what I want my writing life to look like from here on out. I want to read everything. I want to share generously.
And I never want to kiss up, and I never want to punch down. I just always want to be kissing sideways.
D.L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Image, Christianity Today, Books and Culture, and The Other Journal. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Learn more at http://www.dlmayfield.com/.
Photo by Playingwithbrushes, used under Creative Commons License.