Read wide to set your bar high

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During our Writer’s Workshop meetings I sometimes wear a t-shirt from The Gettysburg Review. On the shirt’s reverse is this Washington Post quote about the lit mag:

Carrying literary elitism to new, and annoying, heights

I picked up the shirt at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in March, a bonus for subscribing to the mag. It’s kind of a talisman, a way to hope some of my striving toward quality will rub off onto my notebook. But elitism, as I mentioned yesterday in my entry here, is something that makes me angry. Elitism can also deliver beauty and power, even if the walls of access are well up around elite creators.

This morning I enjoyed the lead short story in the Summer issue of the Review. Actually, enjoyed is a weak description of my response. Catherine Ryan Hyde wrote a masterful two-character short story, Chasing Elinor. It was direct and sensory and shifted points of view with elegance. Its language was not elite. Its emotions were accessible.

That Hyde should write such a gem was only a surprise to me. She’s the author of the novel Pay It Forward, which not only became a movie but launched a foundation, headed up by Hyde. Its grants “encourage and empower our youth to believe in themselves and their individual and collective abilities to shape the future.” (20 years ago Hyde was saved from a car fire by strangers. She never found out who they were, but determined to pay the service forward.)

How does this relate to the life of a writer? I used to think of lit mags like The Gettysburg Review as snobby, self-satisfied, full up. That’s not my view any more. They serve a purpose: to inspire with their elitism, so somebody who will muster and maintain the passion to keep working, improving, learning their craft might earn a place on those pages.

So read widely, in the little, less-elite lit mags, as well as places like the Review. (On its inside front cover they reprint the Post quote, headlined with “Still Committed to Our Mission.”) You can learn from the elite, even if you’re not ready to become one of them just yet.

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