REAL TALK: Finding Your Writing Community
’Cause it’s Really Hard to Do this Alone!
Writing is a solitary endeavour. Most writers find it helpful to be part of a writing community that can help them feel less alone, fine-tune their work, and later, find a place in the world for their writing.
We’ve brought together four writers to talk about how they built their communities and how that has helped them:
CAITLYN PAXSON, writer and reviewer – her work can be found at NPR Books and Quill & Quire. www.caitlynpaxson.com
DOMINIK PARISIEN co-editor, with Navah Wolfe, of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales and Robots vs Fairies, and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Author of the forthcoming poetry chapbook We, Old Young Ones.
ANDREW WILMOT, author of The Death Scene Artist (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018); co-publisher, co-EIC of Anathema: Spec from the Margins. Freelance editor and reviewer for hire.
CP: I’m going to get started by talking about my writing community journey – if that’s not too cheesy to say – and how I found the ones that work for me and support my writing.
When I think back to my first writing communities, I have to go all the way back to the sixth grade, when I started writing my first novel (a work that remains unfinished and consists mostly of things I stole from the Princess Bride). I knew even then that I couldn’t do it alone, so I rounded up a couple of friends and made them write novels, too, so we could share our progress every day at school and encourage each other. I was the only one who wrote more than a page.
I’d say my next attempt was in college, when I joined a writing club that shared short works with each other. I hadn’t yet realized the impact that genre has on the cohesion of a writing community, so it didn’t really help me the way I hoped. But it planted a seed for me – a desire to find the folks who were writing the same kind of literary and folkloric fantasy that I was interested in.
I found that community though an online poetry magazine called Goblin Fruit. They accepted one of my poems, and then I became friends with one of the editors and was welcomed into the glorious coven of myth and language obsessed word alchemists who wrote for and edited the zine. I started going to fantasy conventions, specifically Readercon, which takes place outside of Boston, and meeting these folks and their friends in person. A decade later, and we’re still friends and, I think, each other’s strongest writing community. I don’t know how I’d write without their support.
Since moving to Toronto, I’ve also enjoyed finding community here – both through my fantasy writing network and also through the kidlit network that a friend was kind enough to introduce me to – there’s a facebook group of kidlit authors and illustrators, and we meet up once a month to chat and hang out. I’ve had some great friendships come out of that, and some creative collaborations as well.
JG: I’m not sure why writers are compelled to “find the others,” but we seem to be. Maybe because writing can be such a lonely business. But also for professional development … I mean, who reminds you when grants are due, or to apply to a conference? Other writers. They save you! I have one group I meet with on an ad hoc basis–we text each other to see who’s free to hang out and write. And another one that’s more structured–it meets every Tuesday to write. Three online groups I dip in and out of; we share contest dates and encourage each other. And a Toronto-based group that socializes at a restaurant every month. And of course, my writers’ critique group; we share our work with each other and make specific suggestions about work-in-progress. It may sound like a lot of groups, but each one has a purpose: support, advice, celebration, consolation, expertise. We each write alone, but we get support from our village as well.
AW: Community for me is a bit of an odd thing because, to be perfectly honest, it’s not something I’d ever experienced before moving to Toronto in 2012, at the age of 31. But then my writing career is also a slightly circuitous, non-linear path. I wrote here and there when I was younger, and always wanted to write, but was far more focused on Conservatory piano and painting as career options. The piano faded away by the time I got to university and art took over my life. I didn’t start writing again until a brief period in 12th grade, and then fully when in my final year of undergrad. Later, after becoming entirely disillusioned by the visual art world, I dipped my toes into writing and editing on a more full-time basis (this would have been around 2005-6). And now here we are.
I grew up in a small town in BC, and while I had a great time in university (visual arts for undergrad, publishing for grad school) and spent most of my waking hours in Vancouver itself, I never successfully found or worked my way into a community there, creative or otherwise. Growing up I never went to cons or anything like (what’s up, extreme social anxiety), so, really, it wasn’t until much later in life that I even found people with whom I had more than just one or two things in common. That’s a large part of why Toronto has so quickly become what I think of when I think of “home”—I’m not from here, but the publishing and arts communities here are so much more warm and welcoming than any I experienced out west, or during my years spent in Edmonton and Montreal (the latter being a mere five months, but still).
Because of all this, when I think of community I don’t necessarily think of a large group or organization that I meet up with from time to time, but a select few writers and editors with whom I’ve crafted a very special and open bond. I’m a private person by nature, and don’t freely give of my emotions or inner thoughts (save for anxious rants on FB). I came into this city from the other side of things, as a working editor and former in-house marketing and production coordinator for a small press, and have spent the bulk of my publishing career not as a writer but as a reviewer, editor, and/or publisher, so I actually have a larger community on the non-writing side of the industry. But for those select few I connect with as a writer, it’s a more intimate and less group-focused experience. Even then, we don’t necessarily pass work around like you would in a writing group; we spend most of our time just tossing ideas back and forth, and of course venting about the industry and what things are currently driving us up the wall.
All of this is a very round-about way of saying that my writing has largely been done with the absence of an actual community of writers. For the most part, I work and lead a solitary existence, not unlike The Littlest Hobo but without the excellent theme song. I do, however, have a very awesome and reliable circle of beta readers that I foist my work on from time to time, but only if and when I feel like a project is ready for public scrutiny. As I’m an editor myself, and my very small writing circle is also made up of writers who pull double duty as professional editors, I tend to workshop less and push forward on my own or with input from just one or two trusted sources before considering something “done.”
Would I like to experience more community as a writer? Some days yes, some days no. I know that’s not much of an answer, but it’s true. I do sometimes wish I had more writers to regularly bounce ideas off of, but I also know myself and my idiosyncrasies. I know how much I love silence and privacy when working, and how I recharge in solitude. And I know, sometimes all too well, of the predators and bad faith individuals that operate in our industry, especially on the spec side of things, and that knowledge does colour my interest in being part of certain writing groups and/or going to cons. Also, I know how much I doubt the quality of my first drafts, which, to be fair, read like cobbled together messes of ideas and bits of dialogue I desperately want to work into the narrative somehow. But I guess that’s part of writing as an editor: you understand that the first draft is just to get the ideas on the page. It’s after that, during the first self-editorial pass, where the clusterfuck of loose threads and concepts actually becomes a story.
Sorry. That was a mouthful. I tend to ramble.
DP: Gaining access to a writing community was one of the defining moments of my life, both personally and in terms of a career. Early on I found it difficult to think of myself as a writer. I wrote, certainly, but it was never something I pursued with any real drive. Conventions changed that. My first con was Worldcon in 2009, and while I was too shy to engage with just about anyone, I was deeply inspired by the passion I saw on display at panels. While there I somehow managed to approach an editor I admired, Ann VanderMeer, and we struck a friendship. Ann was my first real connection to the field, and her friendship and encouragement drove me to seriously pursue editing. My next convention wasn’t until 2012, but there I met a group of writers who would become some of my closest friends and some of the most positive influences on my writing. That was the first time I had a core group of people around me who wrote, and even though we were all separated by considerable distance, the sense of community was powerful.
Seeing the people around me succeed, drive themselves to push their writing, made me want to improve, want to generate more writing of my own. It also helped that many asked for feedback on their work, and offered feedback in return. Access to community forced me to put greater thought into my craft, and the type of work I wanted to generate. Up to that point I had always put great care in my editorial projects, but I tended to devalue my own writing, to play it a bit safe because I wasn’t submitting much of it. Being lazy, or safe, or uncritical, became increasingly difficult as I saw my friends develop. I didn’t want to waste their time, so it drove me to do better. It reinforced the idea that all writing is in dialogue with other work in one way or another, which can be easy to forget when you’re completely on your own. Essentially, finding my community turned one of my interests into a passion and a career.
CP: Now that we’ve described how we found them, I feel like it might be interesting to talk about the logistics of how we stay in touch with the communities who support our writing. For me, it’s a really wide range of interactions! For my local Toronto community, I tend to mostly use facebook – groups and private messages, and then in-person meet-ups. For my wider community, it’s a little more varied. In addition to the expected social media connections, I try to do regular skype dates with writer friends. With one friend, we actually do cheerleading sessions over skype – we read each other our work in progress and gush about all the things we like about it. It serves a very different purpose than a critique – it’s to help us get through the hard times! I also belong to a Slack chat of a small group of women writers, and try to occasionally meet up with people in real life for working visits. On a very practical side, the clients of the agency that represents me have a facebook chat group where we can talk about our experiences and cheer each other on. That’s a community I wasn’t even looking for and don’t participate in very much, but I get a lot of insight from belonging to it. It’s sort of funny to me writing all of this out, because it makes me sound like a real social butterfly, when in fact I am a socially anxious introvert! But I think that the key thing about all of these communities that support my writing is that there isn’t a lot of expectation or obligation involved. They are there when I feel like I can engage, but they don’t judge me if I need to step back, and there always seems to be someone there to help anyone who is in need.
JG: I agree with Caitlyn — I think most of us are introverts. But we’re so often called upon to do extroverted things, like speak in front of groups and push our work on social media. The rules have changed in the publishing industry. Publishers don’t do all of the publicity; most of the time it’s up to the author. And that’s precisely why “finding the others” is so important, I think. Doing something a bit scary is a lot easier together. I touch base with other writers on Facebook and email, mostly. Facebook Messenger is really good, because there are loads of times I want to ask another writer something, but don’t have their email address. If we’re friends on Facebook, then I think that kind of gives you permission to reach out to them about a writing issue–Messenger allows for that.
Does anyone here use any other social media to say in touch? LinkedIn?
AW: Honestly, most days I forget LinkedIn even exists, except to job hunt. But then I exist on that site more as an editor than a writer. For me, because it’s such a small group of just my nearest and dearest, we just use FB messenger and texting, and get together at this point almost every weekend, writing or not, just to hang out. We also email back and forth quite a bit as we work together on a magazine and have edited for one another, so basically it’s less like a writing community and more like a writing marriage (which is probably a weird way of putting it since the other two are actually a couple and I’m the permanent third wheel, but you get my drift).
I do have a community of writers I know through social media (and many in person), but I don’t write with them. We speak with one another and help promote each other’s work the way you do anyone you might follow on, say, Twitter, but I do not consider it a writing community in the sense that I write with them, in person. But I find, for myself, that I want the writing to be a mostly solitary thing, and that only when something is “ready” do I want to engage with a larger assortment of people, to garner feedback and/or support.
DP: Like most of you messenger/email have been hugely important to me in terms of remaining in regular contact with other writers, but, while it sounds archaic, actual letter writing has also been really powerful for me. Messenger and email have that instant gratification, which can be useful for immediate concerns, but I have a few penpals who are writers, and taking the time to engage with them in a thoughtful, slower method of communication has been really lovely. Because I work online so much, switching to a paper letter, and knowing the person won’t see it immediately, also seems to force my brain to think a little differently. It’s actually a nice writing exercise, in addition to being a valuable means of meaningful communication. In terms of community, I also love having physical tokens of my friendship with other writers — sometimes it makes it feel a little more tangible than something online, which feels like it’s there one moment and gone the next. It helps me feel physically connected to that community and to those people.
JG: Beyond writing, there have been tons of things my writing communities have helped me with. Freelance work, for instance. I have gotten jobs from other writers, and I’ve recommended people in my writing communities for jobs as well. Not just writing jobs, but things like invigilating (overseeing exams) and other work that helps fill in the gaps between books.
DP: Attending readings has also been key to the development of my community. I really enjoy listening to authors read their work, so for me it’s worth attending readings just for that, but the social engagement before and after the actual events have lead to some important friendships, as well as some professional opportunities. My health often makes it difficult for me to attend readings, but when I do I almost always encounter someone new and interesting. Some of my best conversations about the field have been with brand new folks at readings. People I’ve met at events have also introduced me to work I might not have encountered otherwise, and through casual conversations I’ve learned about great writing opportunities, new grants, and new festivals.
CP: I think for me, the most important thing I figured out about building a writing community was that it’s basically just making friends. I think I started going to conventions and meet-ups with this idea that I was “networking”, but ultimately, I just ended up getting to know folks and finding that I genuinely liked them. When we started helping each other in the way that communities do, it just felt like a natural progression of the relationships we developed.
I think we can all agree that there’s no one right way to build a writing community – it’s a matter of connecting with people on the same path as you by whatever means work for the level of engagement you’re looking for – whether it’s online, in person, or a combination of the two.
Thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences and thoughts – we hope it will be helpful for anyone thinking about seeking out a writing community!