Building the Village

Truman Capote had Harper Lee. Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse had one another. Hemingway had Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald had Hemingway—to a point. Both had the tremendous good fortune to have Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons , who also shepherded the work of Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward Angel, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, and Alan Paton. And, of course, all those great Paris-based writers of the 1920s had Gertrude Stein.

I’m talking here about community, partners, peers, supporters. It’s a subject I’ve broached here before, often with lamentation and sorrow, and personally with a measure of ambivalence. As long as I’ve been writing—and that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of four decades now, on and off—I’ve dreamed of others with whom I could share the glories and struggles of the craft. But I’ve recently had the opportunity to test the waters once again, and I’ve learned some things I think everyone who wants to develop as writer should consider.

These discussions of writing communities are made more difficult by two factors. The first is the pervasive and pernicious myth of the solidary creative life—at least as it involves writing—the image of the writer alone in her garret while the oblivious (if not hostile) world attempts to crush her artistic soul. The second obstacle is the fiction that great writers create with ease and certainty, that they have utter confidence in their gifts and their eventual success.

I don’t mean to dispute that in our culture often only tolerates creativity if it translates into “success,” particularly money but at least fame. But no story of the writers we revere would be complete without an understanding of the role that friends, family, agents, editors, copyeditors, publishers, and patrons have played.

In part this gap in knowledge exists because so many members of the public (and even would-be writers) remains ignorant of how texts from newspaper articles to bestselling novels move from idea to draft to polished publication. Friends and colleagues have acted as sounding boards, financiers, refiners, hand-holders, boosters, advocates, defenders, and physical, emotional, and spiritual support for the writers they care for.

During the past two weeks, I participated in an online workshop put on my writer Marcy McKay. Though I graduated from a creative writing program in 1990 in which I interacted with some supportive writers (many were not), including this dear long distance friend of mine with whom I recently reconnected, and though I have made other individual writing friends along the way, Marcy’s workshop was my most intensive communal experience. It awakened in me, to a degree I had not expected, the recollection of what community can do for a writer.

Knowing that I would be in conversation with other writers every day helped get me to my desk in the early morning hours when I do the bulk of my drafting. Even though they read not a line, not a word of my work, the presence of their comments in the chatroom changed how I saw myself. I recognized again that not only do I have work to do, but I have something to contribute to other writers, wherever they may be in their journey.

About 30 years ago, when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had the great fortune to develop a friendship with a writer, David Guy, who lived in nearby Durham. We met after a lecture on writing that he gave at a small workshop, and I had the nerve to go up to him afterward. After that we met periodically and he read some of my writing. But most importantly, he took my desire to write seriously and encouraged me to believe that I have the ability to do so if I took it seriously as well. David was the first real writer I knew, and though I lost touch with him a long time ago, his generosity was invaluable to me and still is.

Every list of advice that some successful writer gives to would-be writers includes the injunction to read as much as possible. I’ve finally decided that this involves not only reading famous and long dead writers; it doesn’t mean just reading respected contemporary writers; it’s not just about reading successful writers; it’s not even limited to reading published writers. No, I’ve developed the conviction that it also includes unknown, struggling writers, those who may right now be producing mediocre work. Those who feel uncertain of their abilities.

Writers need, as much as skill and patience and determination and discipline, that alchemical mixture of generosity and honesty, of encouragement and skepticism, and most of all expressions of faith in their efforts, however great the distance we have yet to travel to become the writers we might yet be. We need communities. And what communities we cannot find, we need to muster the courage to build. It is often, though not always, the case that writers write alone, but it is not—or should not, the present opportunities for self-publication notwithstanding—be the case that writers develop and polish and publish their writing alone.

That’s what communities are for. And that’s what I’m intent on experiencing more of.

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7 thoughts on “Building the Village

  1. What a great post! I’m so glad it landed in my inbox this morning. I agree about the importance of “community” for writers, but LOVED hearing it in your own words. What a great way to start my day.

  2. Oh I so fully agree…for any art form community is necessary and one I’ve found here on WordPress in a way I never have, even when I was a professional actor. The support, feedback I receive (and give) here is parallel to none, for me. The best part of WP is creating a community…wonderful to hear you expound on this theme today. Thank you!

  3. I agree.

    ‘Writers need, as much as skill and patience and determination and discipline, that alchemical mixture of generosity and honesty, of encouragement and skepticism, and most of all expressions of faith in their efforts, however great the distance we have yet to travel to become the writers we might yet be.’

    The above quote from your post…goes right to the heart of it for me. True words.

  4. first, i want you to know that YOUR writing is enjoyable.it’s very sophisticated, but there isn’t a trace of pomposity (was that pompus? lol) in it. *

    i am bipolar, so i can never predict when i’ll be able to create. it has to be on the fly. however, i have a very rigid schedule that is controlled by alarms on my phone that tell me what medications i have to take at the appointed time. despite the alarms, my moods change very quickly. they give me a structure to hang on to, but inside that, i’m wild.
    visual traditional art) whenever i feel like i can, or more importantly, when i feel like i can lose myself in the process. it’s very powerful therapy. 🙂

  5. Excellent post. As a spec fic writer, I would not be where I am now if not for the community of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, or the OWW. I learned everything I needed to about the craft and the industry from the friends I made there. It directly led to my publication, though not before I was ready, of course. It’s a large community, so you get out of it what you put in. But reviewing and reading the works of your peers prepares you in many helpful ways–too many to list. I also got a glimpse of where scifi and fantasy was headed and it stood me in good stead after living for so long with old books and long dead writers. Can’t agree with you more. Any one wanting to write should at least try a good, professional community before they even think of publishing. The feedback is invaluable.

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