Monday, October 8, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 7: Community

I strongly believe that the single most important thing you can do to sustain your career as a writer is to participate actively in a community of writers and/or fans of literature. If there is a group of writers, however small, who are eager to read or hear the next thing you write, that creates an enormous amount of support for starting new work, and for finishing ongoing projects. This community could also be friends, a partner, or family who are fans of your writing.
The most obvious form of writing community is a writer’s group. A writer’s group is a great way to share your work, gather information about publishing opportunities, celebrate small and large triumphs, and commiserate about disappointments.
I’ve been in a poetry group in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1987, when I first moved there. It’s called Thirteen Ways, named partly for Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and partly for the diversity of styles and aesthetics in the group. The membership has changed over two and half decades. We’ve stopped meeting for years at a time, but there is a core of three of us who’ve been getting together for most of the last twenty-five years.
We meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon. We start off with a potluck, along with lots of juicy literary gossip and informal exchange of information about where we’re sending our work these days. We share our best quinoa recipes or the goodies we’ve bought. It’s social; it’s fun; the food is delicious. That’s important in sustaining a group.
The work part of the group is a three-hour round robin, where each member gets to read recent work. We all jump in and critique, starting with positive comments. Then the sharks arrive. I don’t mind feeding the sharks, as long as they don’t go for the jugular, since I am there to improve my writing. If I get some strokes, I like the shark bites.
When we first started the group, only one member had had a full-length manuscript published. By now, that’s true of every member of the group. The list of awards the members have garnered is quite impressive: the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, the Poets Out Loud contest, the May Swenson first book prize, and a gift certificate to a local yarn store. The last one was my award. I’m sure we would have gotten those honors without the group (especially the yarn certificate), but the writers group has certainly helped all of us grow as authors; polish our work; and most importantly, stay in the game. We’ve also given numerous readings together where we’ve shared our audiences. We trade information about where to send work, which editors like what sort of work, reading opportunities, favorite TV shows, etc.
It may not be convenient or comfortable for many writers to be in a group like that. Novelists and prose writers in general need to give other readers longer extracts in order to get meaningful feedback, which creates some logistical problems in a writers group. But I do recommend writers groups, provided that the company and the literary styles are compatible. That’s a big “if.” I‘ve been in groups that didn’t click, because one or two personalities dominated—often not the best writers in the group, by the way. Like any partnership, it’s vital to have the right chemistry.
Community is important to writers for their careers but it’s also one of the most fun things about being a writer. Many of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life are writers. That is one great pleasure of being part of this cadre of inspired misfits.
If the idea or the reality of a writer’s group doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to be involved in a community of writers. You can correspond with individual writers, connect via Facebook or other social networks, or just mail or email manuscripts back and forth. Your community can be a virtual one.
Speaking of virtual communities, I think writers who create fictions—novels, stories, dramas—have a different type of community that helps sustain them. In an odd way, I think your characters become a sort of community. They move into your head, where they take the liberty of carrying on their conversations and their fights with you as the witness—not paying a dime of rent, by the way. They become a presence in your world. When you finish a work, you miss their company. Novelists and playwrights can survive with less community for this reason, I think. Maybe that’s part of why people write novels and plays, to create that community in their imagination.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10

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