The Not-So-Solitary Art of Writing: the importance of writing communities

As this is the first official post for a project that I hope will build into a community, let’s start with the idea of a writing community.

Picture it – 2 a.m. on a windless summer night. A “writer” is in his backyard with his laptop working on what he believes will be a classic novel. He will go to school the next day and, between yawning, brag about being up at 2 a.m. writing. He will read stories of Emily Dickinson, J.D Salinger, and Thomas Pynchon, romanticizing the life of a recluse author: those mysterious figures whose work surpassed them.

Why did I idealize this lifestyle? Somehow, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I absorbed the notion that writing is a solitary art, that in order to be truly great, I had to disconnect myself from the world, retreat to a cabin in the woods, and just… write.

Sixteen Years Later.

It is March 2020, and I, like much of the world, was forced into isolation. It was around this time that a certain meme began to surface, some variation of:

Incidentally, if you managed to craft King Lear in the past four months, all the credit to you. However, if you are more like me and you entered this era of more free time with the hopes of productivity only to look at your manuscript and wonder “what have I done with my time, because it’s certainly not on the page” – don’t blame yourself. There are many reasons for why the (sometimes subtle) anxieties did not translate into a multitude of King Lears. Many have written psychological think-pieces about the subject far better than I can, so I will leave it to the experts.

I bring this up because I believed that I, who suddenly found myself with a lot of time in front of my computer, would have a great burst of creativity. It didn’t happen. And honestly, it wasn’t because of pandemic anxiety (I have been fairly fortunate all things considered). The lesson that the past few months have taught me is that no, writing is not a solitary art.

Disclaimer: what follows is my opinion based on experience. If you have embraced the recluse author lifestyle, you may not agree with what I say, but know that you have my admiration.

Sure, on a micro-level, isolation can be beneficial for writers. I have done many a clichéd coffeeshop writing session, and while I enjoy group writing, I do my best work on my own, in my own space, with my own routines. And I thought that when I was forced into isolation I would return to those carefree nights in my backyard with just me and my laptop (at a time when the internet had not developed the power of time-sucking). If we take a longer view of the writing process, I believe that a form of writing community is beneficial for motivation, productivity, and yes, creativity.

What is a writing community?

Short answer – anything. 

The end.

 

Thank you for reading.

Photo Credit: Papaioannou Kostas

Here’s the long answer. I will cover my experience with various writing communities, provide some practical advice about the benefits and “dangers”, and spotlight an annual writing/reading event: When Words Collide.

A Writing Group or Critique Group is the most local level writing community. A small group of writers who frequently share their works in progress with each other and (depending on the group) provide varying levels of feedback. I find this form of community invaluable: consistent “submission deadlines” keeps me writing, and the feedback I receive is thoughtful and critical. This experience is, I believe, common among those who have a good writing group: I define “good” as a group of supportive people who genuinely believe in helping each other improve as writers, and encourages each other to keep writing. This form of writing community is not, however, without its dangers. Particularly if you are working on a longer project such as a novel, or work of non-fiction, receiving constant feedback during a first draft can stall the process. Some people, me included, enjoy constantly editing as they write. For those who believe in writing a first draft uncensored, recognizing that it is a first draft so it doesn’t have to be perfect (“yes I know my character ages up and down between chapters, I’ll fix it later.”), constant feedback can be at best distracting and at worst demoralizing.

The beauty of a small writing group is that you can tailor it to your collective needs. Writing groups don’t have to be focused on critique. If you can find a small group dedicated to holding each other accountable to productivity, and who welcome the opportunity to share their work, this can go a long way to getting those words out while also building the confidence needed if you plan to send your work into the world.

In short, if you can, I highly recommend seeking out a writing group.

Otherwise, Online writing communities exist, and they are, in my opinion… mixed.

My foray into the online writing community dates back to my 2 a.m. writing sessions, or when I was in high school. I accidentally stumbled onto a forum (the pre-social media online communities) where for the first time, I “met” a group of people who enjoyed talking about Charles Dickens and Shakespeare as much as I did. It was also here that I first shared my writing with strangers, and I first received excellent critical feedback and, on occasion, not-so-excellent harsh feedback, which is a lesson in resiliency. While not as intimate as a local writing group, I learned a lot from the wonderful people in this community, and it furthered my dedication to my writing while introducing me to a wider literary world. My writing tends to incorporate elements of magical realism, a genre I became fascinated with because some stranger on the internet wrote a post about Allende and Calvino.

This is the true greatness of an online writing community: a global group of passionate people to inspire you, introduce you to new ideas, and (if you find the right one) encourage your writing.

Since the demise of forums, these communities migrated to social media, notably Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. There is certainly value in these platforms, but I have found that due to size and intent, the “community” aspect is a biproduct. Early Facebook was meant to host these types of niche groups (and inform university students where the best party was). Modern Facebook, and especially Twitter, are marketing tools first, communities second. The #writingcommunity thread on Twitter (I broke my anti-hashtag promise already, I’m sorry) is a bit of a paradox. There are wonderful people following that hashtag who respond to posts, pose interesting questions, and who are extremely encouraging to fellow writers. But it is hard to ignore that many are there to grow their own numbers, to sow the seeds of their present or future marketing strategies. Still, if you can accept that, and want a burst of positivity, a place to commiserate over the struggles of being a writer, to address current topics, or if you want to try to grow your online presence, it’s a great place to start.

Finally, this brings me to

which takes the online community and injects the personality into it.

When Words Collide is in its tenth year of running a three-day conference in Calgary, Alberta (although this year it is hosted online). I attended the last two conferences and I was honestly surprised. I was expecting good panel discussions and lectures on various topics of interest, which is what I found; but what I most enjoyed was the feeling of being surrounded by writers and writing enthusiasts, popping in and out of conversations with people eager to discuss writing. I was also surprised that I wasn’t overwhelmed by people shoving business cards and promotional bookmarks at each other. It was there, but in the background: for the most part I found people interested in talking and sharing their passions.

For obvious reasons, When Words Collide is online this year and there is no denying that this hurts the community aspect. The upsides however are that attending is free, you do not have to be in Calgary, and it is easier to attend the sessions you are interested in. This was not meant to be a promotion for the event, but here it is.

My unsolicited review is that I came away from most sessions with new tools, new ideas, and renewed motivation to tackle my work. I highly recommend checking it out. Not only is the core programming still part of the online event, but they are attempting to migrate the social aspect online. I’m still looking forward to it.

Conclusion

Unless you are writing a collaborative story (a topic for another day), putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard is a solo act. But you know what? So is swimming, but to say that Michael Phelps alone contributed to his Olympic record would be a lie. Even before you think of your publishing and marketing plans, shedding the notion that you can be locked in your house for four months and come away with King Lear (let’s face it, Shakespeare was likely terrible at social distancing) is integral to having something worth publishing. Whether it is seeking encouragement, seeking honest feedback, learning about writing and the industry, or simply living so you have something to write about – writers need other people.

I encourage you to go out and find a community, in person or online. You can always start by leaving a comment below to share your experience with either the isolated or communal act of writing. But that’s just a suggestion. Either way…

Thank you for reading.

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