I sure wish cliquishness and groupthink were things we left behind in high school. But the older I get, the more I realize this is a mindset that permeates life at every stage and in countless arenas. Sadly, bookish and writing communities are not exempt.
I wasn't even mindful of how pervasive the urge to fit in, play along, and follow the rules was until a series of things happened back-to-back in February. The release of a controversial yet popular title, conversations with friends, and coming face-to-face with my own mistakes and the difficult seasons and even harder choices born from them made it undeniable: there is a push to conform. In our bookish/writerly circles, that often manifests as pressure to read the "right" books and write the "right" things at the "right" time. I look at traditional publishing and how, at times, agents and publishers will turn down a great manuscript because it simply doesn't fit what's selling and popular at the time. Or how readers, bloggers, and bookstagrammers can catch flack for reading something that's deemed "problematic" or NOT reading and promoting books that are considered "the right thing".
I fell into this trap with writing last year and into 2021. I saw what was popular, what people were crying and decrying on social media, and what authors I admire and some I even consider friends were being praised for, and decided to imitate it. As a result, I lost my spark - because those aren't the kind of stories I'm called to write (or really to read, in some cases!). I compromised not just my writerly code, but my moral code. If y'all remember me talking back in November/December 2020 about a book that I finally finished and yet it didn't feel like me, that book was the culmination of ten months of mental and moral compromise. And now that I've recognized it, I realize too that the urge to fit in and be liked and lauded and to avoid conflict led me down a road I was never supposed to go on.
It was the wakeup call of a lifetime. And I never want to go back to that place.
The more writers and readers I talk to, the more I find are facing the same struggle in different ways. If you are one of them, I want to encourage you: you do not have to write how everyone else does. You don't have to read what everyone else does. You do not have to love the books that are popular and you don't have to toss away a book you love because it's unpopular. You don't have to write what's marketable if it goes against the grain of what you like or feel comfortable with or believe in, and you don't have to give up writing about a subject you love just because a bunch of other people have written about it or it's not the "in thing" right now.
There are others who can and will write those things and read those things. It does not have to be you.
Yes, I really mean that. Your writing and reading choices do not have to meet some content-quota to be valid or valuable. Your art and your enjoyment of art are your path to make, and you have to make your own way. Going down someone else's road for the sake of comfort, fame, success, popularity, etc. is a compromise that can lead you away from the heart of who YOU are, the uniqueness you bring to the mix. No one will read a story or tell one like you. No one will approach life and lessons and learning like you, because there is only one you - and you owe it to yourself and those who will hear your message to make sure it's YOURS, and not someone else's. Because "someone else" has got it covered. But who's covering yours in the meantime?
So if you've been waiting for a sign, Dreamer, this is it. Time to step off the common road and start making a path through the undergrowth. Don't worry - as dense and scary and lonely as it can feel, I think you're going to find some wonderous sights along the way. As renowned poet Robert Frost is credited with saying:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.