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Double Edged Sword

In 2014, when I became involved with a new literary journal at the college I teach at – first as the reviews editor and later as editor-in-chief – I found myself moving closer to the writing community that I had long wanted to be a part of. I’d been reviewing books for several years, having published my first review for Quill & Quire in 2008 and placing reviews in a number of other publications, but hadn’t published any of my own original work, fiction or otherwise. I was, and still am, very much on the fringes, but once I was working as a journal editor and then founder of Hamilton Review of Books, I was by necessity more immersed in the writing community in the Toronto and Hamilton area, in regular contact with writers, editors, critics, and publishers. I have met many wonderful people as a result, and felt fortunate to be able to associate with a group of people I have always felt akin to. I’ve frequently been reminded of something said by a former boss, the owner of the indie bookstore I worked in as a university student: he declared “book people” the best kind, and I’ve always felt this was true for me as well. Book people and animal people – my people.

I always believed I would be a writer, from my early school years when I was writing stories and attending “young authors” conferences. That path toward writing took a turn, though, in my early twenties after university when I entered teaching, and hours and days were consumed by lesson preparation, marking, student appointments, and commuting to and from campus. When the opportunity arose, late though it was, to reconnect with that lost part of myself by stepping into the writing community, I felt really good and confident that I was finding my feet again. And I’ve been enjoying the work I do with the lit journal I now edit and the events we run and the writers and reviewers we meet and work with and publish. It’s often very fulfilling work, especially when an issue releases and readers let you know they like what you’re doing.

But there’s another side to this closer connection to the writing community that I have discovered isn’t as fulfilling. The last few years have been some of my most anxious in a very long time. In fact, the last time I can remember suffering so many panic attacks, feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt, was back in graduate school when I felt like I was constantly trying to prove myself and my worthiness. There’s something oddly contradictory about the writing community – no surprise to those much more involved than me, I’m sure. Many wonderful people, but so much anxiety, so much competition, so much judgment, so much self-promotion, so much jealousy, and so much hypersensitivity – you can feel it, be affected by it, even at the fringes. Often in dealing with people I have met through my journal work, I’ve felt I had to walk on eggshells, say the right things, protect delicate egos, my own included. On a few occasions, I’ve had to defend my work as a reviewer as writing and not some other activity, whatever that would be. I’ve struggled with serious doubts about the quality of my work and whether I should even consider trying to add my voice as anything other than a commentator on other people’s work. I’m amazed and sometimes very irritated by some writers’ unabashed ability to self-promote themselves all over social media, and I feel terribly clumsy when I try to do the same: Check out my latest review of X!

I question my motives for wanting to be a writer, for wanting to be a part of something that doesn’t always make me feel very good. I love books. I always have. It’s not an exaggeration to say that books have saved me on a few occasions when nothing else could. I don’t ever want to lose that pure connection to reading that makes it easier for me to be okay with living in the world, I don’t ever want that to be spoiled. But the business of writing, and the culture of writing, and the society of writing, that I thought I wanted in on, well, maybe now that I’ve hit my fourth decade, I’m finally figuring out, it all may not be for me. Not in the forms I’ve encountered. For now, I’ll keep plugging away at the work with the journal, but the fringes are looking much better than they used to. Here at least I can focus on figuring out what really matters.

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Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.