To Grow From The Ground-Up: On Becoming A Grassroots Author
By Christopher Bowen
Over the years, I've become a grassroots author. I hope to describe my own experience with networking, aligning with local literary support within the community and, on a larger scale, inspire the some of you that are looking for that very kind of support. It takes a lot of vulnerability, more vulnerability than someone with just a culinary degree like myself might have expected.
My first reading at a local Cleveland bookstore came on the heels of work. I spent a year or two looking at local listings at libraries, blogs and small bookstores to learn about the people behind the small presses here in Cleveland. More than anything, I hoped to connect with like-minded people.
One independent bookstore, while closing its doors late this year, gave me my first taste of being in the public, of publicly coming out as a "writer."
After a few small press publications (Muse & Stone, Penumbra, and Hobart) I created my own, calling it Noun Vs. Verb and making it an annual. Setting it up was not difficult. There was no Submittable then. I took submissions through e-mail after a listing on the then-free Duotrope market website. People sent me their stuff and a lot of it. It was clear that they too wanted to be connected.
But when the first annual came out, I had made some errors. Though part of me went into publishing precisely in order to learn, what I hadn't accounted for was the humility I would have to develop as a person.
Noun Vs. Verb 2008 had copy edit issues, design issues, and even some of the author copies I'd sent out were returned by the U.S.P.S. On top of this, the P.O.D. (print-on-demand) publisher Lulu had added their own flair: a barcode over the Burning River Press logo.
Though I'd just begun to network with the release of the first journal, I knew one of the included authors would be doing a book signing and reading from his recent novel in Cleveland, author Jeff Vande Zande and his Landscape With Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Publishing.)
I went to the bookstore on the eastside, the owner of which I would come to know and schedule events with over the next few years, and had dinner with Jeff and his publisher Larry Smith.
I, of course, was all apologies: about the design, the misaligned text, just everything. And here was a man who had not only written, but published a full novel. I was so grateful, not to rub elbows, but to listen, listen and learn. I listened about his life in Michigan, talked about my own jobs over the years, construction sites, kitchens. With every nod of the head at that dinner, I said, “Thank you.” If not vocally, then through my own future work.
I would do better.
So when the second annual came out many of those issues disappeared. I paid closer attention to the line breaks, the placement of words. I went over draft after draft after e-mail with the designer on pictures, covers, italicizing.
One of the included authors then in 2009 was Pittsburgh native Margaret Bashaar. I called the westside Cleveland bookstore, the one closing its doors, and immediately found myself talking to its owner. He agreed to sponsor a reading, my first reading, on behalf of our journal. Margaret and a handful of others came and a press release was distributed to local newspapers by the owner. I enthusiastically posted on whatever blog or forum I could find—the very ones I had been listlessly just reading and not being a part of.
While the turnout was really friends and family with even one author arriving late at the end of the reading, it gave me the experience of how to handle that kind of situation—explaining why one reader wasn't present, why I had put the journal together in the first place, and why and what drove me to be a writer.
“Who knows who could've been there?” my dad asked me after. “That strange face or two could've been a literary agent.”
Those were my dad's hopes for his kid son. Of course, mine had become more realistic. I needed to work, not necessarily on a construction site or in front of a broiler, but in front of people.
I learned a lot more about Pittsburgh, networked there, kept going. I kept growing in knowledge, excitement and friendships. Over the years, I've gone on to book art galleries and other venues and asked support from authors I'd never met. I've taken tours, residencies, and events all into my own hands.
To me and many authors it's extremely important to have a public image: social media, websites, an online presence are all very important nowadays. But then again, so is being a person, making that human connection with a brick and mortar bookstore, library, university or fellow writer. Fellow human beings. And though this is just a small recap of my own struggles and growth as an author from Cleveland, it is also a lesson. Because I was literally, mentally, and emotionally drained so incredibly after my first reading. Because I was nervous. Because I was shaken, stirred and because it changed me.
I just hope some of this inspires you to make that change or work to be a part of something more. More importantly, I hope you find a sense of belonging in your literary field.