Most of all, I was grateful for the balance of the exchange: two poets who have been following each others' work for years, with a baseline of respect and appreciation, talking freely about drafts in progress. We don't have particularly similar styles, especially in our projects of the moment. But we're able to be frank about what's working and what's not on the page, and that's worth its weight in gold. Everyone needs trusted readers.
If you pursue being active in the literary world for a while, you're going to end up in all kinds of relationships. Literary journals, reading series, giving interviews or interviewing someone else, conferences and festivals, teaching gigs, blurbs, freelance, shared advocacies, spontaneous friendships--each of these is a path-crossing. Money sometimes comes into play, but the money is rarely consistent or proportional to the economy we live in. In other words, breaking a fee or honorarium down to an hourly wage won't help you make sense of how you spend your time, or necessarily help you set goals for the future. Sometimes the Yes we give to the unpaid thing leads to a lucrative opportunity. Sometimes the Yes we give to the thing with $$$ attached ends up costing us something of truly great (though unmonetized) value.
You're going to have to figure out some rules for yourself. Otherwise, you'll burn out. The first time I stumbled across this reality was helping a friend name what had become, for her, a toxic relationship with a larger organization. They thought they were doing her a favor. She thought she was doing them a favor.
Golden Rule: The gift economy only works if everyone is clear and in agreement on who is giving the gift to whom. Sometimes you give. Sometimes you get. But if you're in a lit-world situation where no one's clear who is giving, and who is receiving--run.
Melissa Febos explored setting rules in a great 2017 essay called "Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?" The truth is that I read that essay with a tingling sense of euphoria, followed by a wave of regret: I will probably be someone who goes to my grave known for her swift email responses. Replies at 3 AM. Replies at 5 AM. I'm an Inbox-12 girl and I actually feel really good about that. Accumulating a vast inbox of unanswered queries, implicitly tiered by their ease of reply and relevance to my professional momentum, would bring me absolutely no satisfaction whatsoever.
But I admire the core of her point, which is: find what works for you, prioritize it, and let go of the rest. If I spend the rest of my life in DC (the area in which I grew up, and attended graduate school), I'm going to end up with seven or eight tree-trunk rings of lives, concentrically embracing one on top of the next. I can't honor all of them, all the time. I think of this frequently in terms of local readings and arts events, which often stack 2- and 3-deep for each day of the week here. It's fantastic! It's ridiculous! It's impossible to experience in the way my completist heart desires!
How do you figure out when to say Yes, and when to say No? How do you know when to skip something? How do you know when to outright quit something? How do you accurately gauge the best use of your time?
Dang it. I was so hoping to have an answer to these questions by the end of this post, a winning strategy that could help me conserve my time so that encounters like the one described above--fresh mussels, flowering cherries, an exchange of poems--have the room to occur. The truth is that it's a process, one I'm in the thick of right now. I mention that so that if you're in the thick of it too, you know you're not alone.