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.

Elementary Romance

Before I say more about how play deepens my relationship with language and writing, let me backtrack a bit. Up to now, I’ve framed my discussion of writing in romantic terms, casting language itself—particularly written language—as the object of a writer’s romantic intentions. But I haven’t described that romantic object. I mean, if I’m going to pursue someone romantically, it helps to know something of that person’s identity, at least superficially. What is writing? What are its elements?

Writing students often stumble over this problem. A student enters a class confident that she understands clearly what “writing” involves. She doesn’t realize that her concept differs wildly from her teacher’s and just as widely from those of her fellow students. So the teacher uses the word “writing” and each time activates a chain of associations and values unique to each student. I experienced the same problem in my MFA creative writing program. Each program participant brought his own idea of what “fiction” or “story” meant to the discussion of his classmates’ work—as did the professor—so that we spent much of our time talking past one another, imagining that we were using the same language, not realizing that it amounted to very different vocabularies and sets of values. No wonder discussions frequently degenerated into confusion and contention, spoken or unspoken.

But the trouble isn’t limited to students. Ask a different writer or writing teacher to name the essential elements of writing, and you’re bound to get some variation in answers. Some will emphasize style or voice; some will take apart the writing process; another group might focus on theme or content or message; some will head first to genres of writing (fiction, essay, poem, memoir, etc.); others will find the essence in conventions or mechanics or rules; and there will be those who most value emotion or expressiveness or genuineness of feeling.

So for clarity’s sake, let me offer my answer to the question, “What do I talk about when I talk about writing?” Simply this: A written text generates an experience that the reader undergoes while she reads. And the writer’s ability to influence that experience boils down to her use of four elements: the words she chooses, the syntax she uses to relate the words to one another, the larger organization of the text, and the content or subject matter of the writing. Take away any of these and a written text ceases to be a written text. It may become something else, and that something else may have interest or value, but it’s not writing.

An individual writer’s style or voice amounts to the way he or she combines—either unconsciously or deliberately—those elements. A genre means nothing more than a standardized, recognizable pattern for how they’re combined. Conventions are simply expectations for how they will be combined. And any sense the reader has of “knowing” the writer (aside from knowledge gained outside the text), any emotion the reader feels, or the reader’s sense of trust (or distrust) comes from the combination of those four elements.

When I play or shape or engage in any of the interactions with language that I discussed here, these are the elements I am playing or shaping of engaging with. And what I’m exploring here is how I can know and accept the unique characteristics and tendencies of each of these elements to creating experiences that matter to readers.