I was updating my writing/teaching CV, which turned into a half-day project; not because I have so many interesting new accomplishments to add, but because each time I pulled a magazine or journal off the shelf to check the issue date in which my work appeared, and every time I clicked to verify that a link to published work was indeed still working, I would find myself reading the work of fellow contributors.
How often do writers take the time to read what surrounds our own work – whether in a print or online venue? Certainly we make it a practice to read a magazine, journal, or website deeply before submitting to be sure it would be a good fit for our work. But how about after, when the piece actually appears? Do we read all, or at least a good portion, of the other material which appears in that issue?
Sometimes I’m guilty of only checking on my own work – are the final edits correct, is my name spelled right, does the writer bio appear, are links working, is my work where and how I expected, what do I think of the photos or illustrations chosen by the editor? Sometimes I admit, that’s the extent of it. Then I either put the journal, anthology, or magazine on a shelf (for safety, I tell myself), or bookmark the link into my published work file, and call it a day.
Not always. I’ve spent hours reading the other essays which appear in the anthologies to which I am often fortunate enough to contribute. I discover new-to-me writers, revel in the work of writers I already admire (and sometimes know personally), and usually find myself marveling at how such an assortment of good writers have found so many interesting angles from which to approach the same theme.
When it’s a magazine in which my work appears, I might leaf through quickly, put a sticky note on pages I want to read later. Then I get busy and forget that. For work that’s online, I’m more apt to notice interesting titles of other work, or bylines I recognize, and usually click right away. But when I get there, do I read the piece through to the end, or do I email it to myself to read later, and then lose it in the abyss of the email inbox?
A few months ago, I decided that when a literary venue of any kind is interested enough in my work to publish it, then I’m going to “return the favor” and make a more conscious effort, when the piece appears, to read more of the other writing within its pages. By doing so, I’ve read wonderful work, some of which I’ve studied closely for craft and structure, learning a few things in the process.
I’ve also gotten several ideas for future work, connected online with at least three new writers whose work intrigued me enough to visit their websites or blogs and reach out. I’ve been entertained, informed, and pushed to more thoughtful consideration of important issues. This makes so much sense. If we like a media venue enough to want our work to appear in its print or online pages, wouldn’t it mean that we respect the editors’ choices? That we will find, likely not more than a few pages or a click away from our own work, other writing to inspire, challenge, and take pleasure in?
The other surprising advantage of doing this, I’ve noticed, is perspective. I realize my work is just one small part of a whole, no more or less important than what surrounds it; that as independent as writers are, we are also part of a team which makes that particular issue of that particular literary venue work.
Occasionally I’ve read a piece of mine in print and agonized, “how awful.” But when I read pieces on the pages before and after, they seemed so good, that I had to reason that if my work is swimming in the same waters, then it’s likely better than I think. On other occasions, I’ve read something of mine and smugly thought how good it was. Then I skipped around a bit, read some other pieces which seemed far, far better, and decided how lucky I was to even be in that kind of company. Then there were the (very few) times when I found my work surrounded by other work which seemed on a lower skill and craft level, and then I knew I had probably undershot when I made the submission. No matter, I just chalk it up to the learning curve of submissions.
So, fellow writers, if our work appears side by side, adjacent, or nearby, from here on in, I’ll be reading.
Now, back to that CV. And the worry that it’s not as impressive as it could be. Too bad there’s not a section on it for reading. Now that would take up some pretty impressive space.