What are we Writers up to, Really?

By Ray Rasmussen

I’ve recently been reading essay collections as a means of getting away from the easy-to-fall-into routine of mainly reading haibun and, as important, a way of escaping the very dismal world news. Personal essays tend to offer good, imaginative writing with a poetic flavor.

The type I seek are quasi-autobiographical, but neither prosaic nor didactic. Like haibun they tend to focus on the personal experiences of the writer but are typically much more expansive than haibun. Thus they’re akin to non-fiction and short memoirs, providing a larger bit of a lived life than haiku, which represents but an Ah Ha! moment, and haibun, which represents an outstanding experience, a snippet of life.

Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, is one such collection I’d recommend to anyone who likes well-written memoirs and personal essays. In this passage from ‘The Loser’s Club’, Chabon offers his own experiences and thoughts about the motivations of artists of any stripe:

Every work of art, every project seemingly created for self-realization, every impulse to create work that can potentially be seen or read or listened to by others is one half of a secret handshake, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book or poetry collection convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever as one, but which maintains chapters in every city — in every cranium — in the world.

What Motivates Haibun Poets? Or at least me?

Chabon’s passage led me to musing about what motivates us haibunists to send our writing to journals and writing forums, to post it on personal websites and blogs, to offer it to publishers and, of course, send it to friends and family. Are we, as Chabon asserts, driven by a “bottomless longing” for a “fan club”,

I don’t like the idea of having fans which implies a kind of cultish devotion to a celebrity. However, Chabon, who makes his living from his writing, does want and need fans. They tend to buy his books, and thus help feed, shelter and clothe his family. I don’t earn a living from my writing, and if I tried, I’d be starved out in a matter of months. Nor do I know of any haibun poets who make a significant amount of money from the sale of their collections.

I also don’t desire a “bottomless” readership. But I would like a good number of people to read my work and I’d be very happy with a few more sales of my collection, Landmarks (there’s a shameless spot of advertising sneaked in), far more than the 100 or so that have been purchased, alas mostly by family and friends.

I’d also like to see haibun in general, not just mine, appearing in mainstream poetry journals and literary magazines. Even Reader’s Digest, read by a wide variety of people, would make me happy because it’s not just writing for writers. I’d also like to see the number of writers grow dramatically in the next decade and the readership of our collective writing grow.

But let’s be realistic. Not much of what I want, and particularly what Chabon thinks I want, is going to happen. I’ve not yet been discovered by a publisher, either of literary or Reader’s Digest stripe. Nor have I even been found by the mainstream poetry folks. Neither have many haibun poets, not even those I think of as the best literary/poetic haibun poets. Nor does our genre have a superstar like free verse’s Billy Collins with a style that allows him to both make a living and to be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. But there are very few poets in any genre who have that sort of readership.

So, if I long for anything, it’s simply what I have, a community of like-minded writers, a reasonable number of readers and a number of good venues to which I can submit my work.

I’d also like to have a number of people sending and exchanging comments on both my work and the work of others. I comment from time to time by writing commentaries and reviews. It’s useful that some online journals, drifting sands haibun and Contemporary Haibun Online (to name two), have comments sections allowing detailed comments to be made, much more than a simple “I liked it”. Alas, I didn’t notice many meaty or even many simple I-like-it comments in either the last issue of CHO or addressed to the writers.

So here are two questions that come to mind from what I’ve written above. Why do we care about readership? And since we care (at least I think we do) why aren’t more people reading and commenting on haibun?

Why Do We Care?

My answer is that serious haibun composition, and writing of any type, requires a good deal more time and energy than a “Here’s where I am, what I’m doing, and a pic showing who I’m with” Facebook post. Serious writing for submission and publication requires even more work, particularly redrafting until there’s a high level of quality in content and style leading to a personal story worth readers’ time and attention. It’s also much more demanding than simply posting early drafts on an online writers’ forum, for example, where mostly people send either “attaboys” or polite silence in return. Beyond writing the piece, the act of preparing and sending a submission to journal editors takes an enormous amount of work. Even more work is involved in preparing a manuscript for a publisher or for self-publishing. And then there’s the ego cost. Getting those “No thanks” from editors and publishers is costly to the writer’s spirit – I don’t care who you are or how thick your skin is, it just plain hurts. And never getting comments on the work also produces a kind of hurt, a feeling of emptiness that our note in a bottle hasn’t been picked up and read by a beachcomber, and may never be.

Why Aren’t More People Reading Haibun? (and Commenting?)

My answer is that haibun is a very small drop in the pond of haiku poetry, and but a water molecule in the ocean of mainstream poetry and various related short genres like short stories, memoirs and personal essays. Our publication venues don’t number more than 20 and the multi-genre venues like Modern Haiku and frogpond publish only a few haibun per issue along with hundreds of haiku. The number of writers in our haibun community is probably fewer than 500. That’s just an impression I formed while editing over the last 20 years at Haibun Today, Contemporary Haibun Online, A Hundred Gourds, Simply Haiku, The World Haiku Review and Notes from the Gean. The same names tended to reappear at least once a year and many repeated in almost every issue. Our mass mailout announcing issue releases of Haibun Today was sent to about 400 folks associated with haibun and/or haiku. The software stats told us that only about 250 opened the issue as a result of the mailing. Of those, we don’t know how much of the issue was actually read. (Don’t worry, we’re not the secret email police, or at least not very adept at it). I think that many of us click on our own pieces to see how our work looks on the journal’s pages, and then look at a few others. I admit that I look at my own and then shop for my favourite writers and then shop a few titles that interest me. And then I burn out.

Writing as a Solitary Journey

Chabon also wrote:

Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, the poet, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

Yes, for whatever our reasons, we’ve chosen to live in relative solitude as writers when we joined what might be called “The Tiny Companionship of Haibun Poets”. And we’re not unique. This is also true of the Bigger Company of Haiku poets and the Very Big Association of Mainstream Poets.

For myself, I enjoy seeing the work of other writers and feel I’ve got to know them precisely because we are a small gathering. And that’s sufficient, isn’t it?

Advice for New Writers to Haibun

I think that lack of response and particularly those early rejections are very discouraging to new writers in any genre.

I’d suggest that you keep writing through the rejection period and learn what you can. Eventually something will come of it. Do seek places where you get coaching and honest feedback and your skills will improve and writing memoir type pieces means you’ll come know yourself better.

Having said that, I know that you will or you won’t keep at it according to the thickness of your own skin and your need for responses and contact. In that sense, Chabon is right, particularly early on, writing is a solo journey and with respect to sailing into the world of writing, many people probably jump the boat and swim home.

If you keep at it and get that first acceptance, I can predict your spirit will rise and motivation increase. And after a few more “Yes” responses you might even be hooked. Or you might not. It is, after all, a lot of work.

One thing that will happen, or at least happened to me, both as a photographer and writer is that I now appreciate at a higher level both photography and fine art and writing in many genres. Consider your writing journey not so much as a gathering-of-fans endeavour, but more as a poetry appreciation course.

Of course, there’s always the noble idea of “writing for oneself”. I think it’s true that writing can be a path to the fulfilling that famous “know thyself” adage which is thought to be a path to leading a more worthy life. Particularly, largely autobiographical writing – a series about the highs and lows of the one life we have to live. As such, writing is cheaper than a weekly meeting with a shrink and it might be more effective.

And when you finally do take the step to feel good enough about your writing to produce a collection and offer it to the world, I think you’ll feel, as I do, that you’ve accomplished something important. At the very least, you’ll have left a legacy for children and grandchildren and have a gift to give to your friends.

As a closing note, on my visits to friend’s homes, I’ve often found my collection in their bathrooms. Yes, most haibun can be read and enjoyed in that brief visit to the loo. And, to be honest, it makes my day thinking that I’ve helped someone find enjoyment in those visits.

Author’s notes:

Quotes from ‘The Losers’ Club’ in Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son (HarperCollins, 2009). I’ve paraphrased Chabon’s passages a bit, but they’re quite close to the original.

Another collection of personal essays I’ve found worthwhile is E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat (Tilbury House Publishers, 1942).

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on drifting-sands-haibun.org and appears here with the author’s kind permission.

Ray Rasmussen is a photographer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and who spends a good deal of his time in wilderness areas. He writes haiku  and haibun and also creates fine haiga. In a previous life he was a university professor. To see examples of Ray’s work go to his website.