A clutch of writers

Here’s the stereotype: the serious writer, a man of some undisclosed age, forehead pressed into wrinkles of determination, a bottle of almost good Scotch on the desk next to his trusty typewriter, pounds away on the keys creating the Next Great American Novel. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air from the three packs of unfiltered goodness that were previously consumed. He writes in isolation, lost in the characters, nuance, and craft.

Nobody wants to know this guy. This is the prat at the cocktail party who puts down everyone else’s work, deaf to the echoes of his own conversation. This writer is isolated because he can’t relate to anyone, and nobody wants to deal with him.

In reality, at the risk of sounding cliched, writers come in all shapes and sizes. We write all kinds of things, attesting to the more than million books published just in the US last year. And while I may not enlist a Greek chorus to sing behind me as I make words happen on the screen, I definitely need community. I’m not the only one who longs for other writers around me, either. Dozens upon dozens of writer’s lists and hashtags abound on Twitter, there are tons of groups on Facebook, and specific sites for writers on the interwebs, like the blogs and forums on Writer’s Digest, and places like WriterFace. Squidoo has a huge list of online communities, for further reading.

A couple of weeks ago, writer’s helper and publishing pro Jane Friedman interviewed Johanna Harness, a YA author seeking, like many of us are, an agent for her work. Harness started the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, something used daily now by more than 2,000 writers, myself included. We do this because we want and need community. In her response to the interview, Harness said:

. . . as writers, we often don’t have the resilience of toddlers.  A single rejection is like a stumble.  “How many stumbles?” we ask.  And, of course, the answer is, “as many as it takes.”  Do toddlers stop and analyze and blame the floor and the furniture and the people and the dog for their fall?  Not in my experience.  They may wail, but they also adapt with equal passion.

This is a great analogy, one that the mean, bitter, isolated writer would spare no effect to mock, but it shows the importance of community: a reminder that we face the same struggles as unpublished (and even published) writers, and we all sting when we get another rejection or have another challenging writing day. Community is vital because we can put our few data points together and see patterns—everyone starts somewhere, everyone pours energy into writing well, everyone comes up against what looks like impossible resistance. And everyone thinks of giving up. It’s only when we see that others have been in these positions before that we figure out this is the topography, this is the process. We need to get backed into corners because then we fight for our work. We need to look at our writing and stay humble, willing to revise, always, but not let the bottom fall out and crumple it into the trash or, for 21st Century folks, delete the file and light the laptop on fire. So knowing other writers we have a built-in stop gap to keep us from our most desperate acts when we’re in the throes of self-loathing. Part of the process, part of the process, that frustration.

More pragmatically, community helps set us up as stronger writers. We know where the next contest is about to pop up, who just started a new literary journal, which agents are looking for that werewolf novel one wrote three years ago—but couldn’t sell because the market was all Team Jacobified—that may be just the thing to send in now. Many writers are forthright and helpful, sending out notices about scammers, peppering the Web with links of interest, and the like.

Fellow writers are also great critics. We know weak writing when we see it, but we’re not apt to rip it apart because we have empathy for our colleagues. Writer’s groups may not always be the most effective way of rewriting—sometimes people can’t see past their own creative choices when giving or receiving feedback—but only rarely are they disingenuous. And people who contribute to writer’s groups via a line of invective don’t last long.

I’d been a part of writer’s workshops when I was younger, and there really is nothing like the quickfire exchange of ideas around a room, when one can barely scratch out story ideas because they’re flying in so fast. We all need some amount of quiet time to just write and draft—except those of us who are true co-writers—but it is critical to have a coming back together to re-root ourselves before we forge ahead again.

Maybe people will find these sentiments cloying or over-reliant on others. Writers still need to get their work done, have their own stories to tell, their own voices come through in the work. But it’s a harder thing, for me at least, to pretend to be an island in all of this. I prefer acknowledging my colleagues.

Everett currently writes speculative fiction, memoir, and commentary in Seattle, Washington, and is eager to join a few writer’s groups there.

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  1. Confessions of a Guru—What Makes a Real Leader? « Kristen Lamb's Blog - September 3, 2010

    […] Marroon wrote a great blog about why writers need community. Darn skippy! We are already weird to start with. Too much alone time is bad […]

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