On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. Watch the video →
Why Writers Must Publish
You can’t read the best story I heard last year. I wish I could share it with you, but the young woman who wrote it chose not to publish. I can say that she created a world where an inanimate object became animate and marched through the trials and tribulations that comprise a typical teenager’s rites of passage. While no character in the otherwise realistic story seemed surprised that the object was suddenly walking, conversing, driving, and even dating, they did scoff at the things it dreamed of accomplishing. Many of us in the writers’ group I led had to suppress our laughter as she read her tale filled with charming irreverence over cherished institutions. After finishing her story, she stunned us further by explaining that the object was actually a metaphor for the struggles associated with gender inequality. The amazing story that you cannot read had captured lightning in a bottle—it had made a divisive social issue’s solution so accessible that it could’ve shattered figurative glass ceilings. Alas! If only she’d publish it! It’s true when they say that we writers must publish or let our creations perish, because unless we make our words permanent then it’s as if they’ve never existed at all.
There’s a poem that eloquently mourns the death of potential. Published in 1751, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray describes a narrator’s melancholy thoughts about whether an overlooked genius could be buried beneath a cemetery’s unremarkable headstones. He speculates that a gifted poet or political leader may have passed on without the world realizing his brilliance. It mourns the fragility of life and the choices we make, or those that have been made for us. In essence, it’s an enduring cautionary tale on both morality and mortality. It’s a beautiful piece of writing about the finite amount of time we have to make our mark in the world. In short, what are we waiting for?
Okay, I’ll admit that there are many shortsighted reasons for us not to publish, but this is a rallying cry and so I will dismiss them one by one. For every misguided reason not to share our work, there’s an opposite one demanding that we do so. Here’s a few I’ve heard to illustrate my point: Sure, procrastination can be seductive, but receiving positive feedback is fulfilling. Yes, our work will be judged, but constructive evaluation can help us improve. It’s true that some writers write just for themselves, but what if our words are the exact ones others need to experience? Of course honest writing can air our imperfections for the world to see, but what if work we deemed as flawed could still create a figurative lifeboat for someone else? Simply put, we have a voice whose power can’t be quantified until we use it—so use it.
Let me ask you, when does a writer become “a writer?” Is it the minute that we have a spark of an idea whose flames must be fanned? Does it happen once we make our otherwise blinking cursers dance across our monitor screens? Does it occur when we save the file as an act signifying that a day’s work is done? Or is it when we edit and revise an evolving piece? Is the title “writer” bestowed upon us when we save what we feel will be our final draft? Does it happen once we share our work with the world? Or is it when somebody reads it?
Can you imagine what would have happened if N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) would have chosen not to publish his Pulitzer Prize winning House Made of Dawn? What if Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) would have followed her father’s footsteps into the field of photography instead of publishing Ceremony? What if Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) would have been content to simply stock the shelves at Birchbark Books and Native Arts rather than filling the shelves of many bookstores with her own work? What if Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) would have become the doctor he once aspired to be rather than the poet, short story writer, and novelist whose work breaks down barriers for all Native writers? What if the stories you, my dear reader, have within you are never shared? Who could your words benefit?
Writing that isn’t submitted for publication is like a tree that falls in an empty wood—no one notices its impact. Yet that metaphor doesn’t truly work, does it? There are lots of trees in the forest and any one of them could house an animal or be harvested for construction. That’s not the case for the young writer whose animated story I told you about, and it’s not the same for your work. We writers must publish or let our creations perish, and that, my fellow writers, is a disservice to ourselves, our craft, and the people whose lives our words could change.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.