It’s well established that writing is a solitary art form. It takes discipline and focus to forgo the social events and TV shows in order to slowly compose and polish a poem or short story or essay. And there are lots of books and blogs and, probably, TED Talks about how to make that happen. I mean, there’s an entire month — November — dedicated to writing a novel in 30 days.
But what’s equally important to the writer’s life — and this is less-often discussed — is community. I’ve spoken about this, recently, to creative writing students at my alma mater and a writing/marketing class, and was met both times blank stares and skepticism and protest. And I get it. We’re all too busy and meeting new people is weird and we’re comfortable with our own writing voice/style/process and don’t need outside input. Only, the thing is, we really do. Here’s why:
1. Like nearly all art forms, writing needs an audience. Our journals are our own, but our creative work has to, at some point, make the crossing from the private into the public. And when that happens — either through publication or a reading — the words magically change. Story, it turns out, is an amorphous thing capable of myriad interpretations. Putting the work out there not only informs our readers about who we are as artists, but informs ourselves about who we are as artists. And the endgame is actually about self-discovery. A book deal is how we get monetarily compensated. Finding an audience is how we grow as human people. Although it may not a popular opinion, I advocate for caring more about the latter than the former.
2. Other writers need an audience. Let’s show up for them. Every time we venture out to a book launch or open mic or reading, we learn something about the craft of writing. In fact, one of the best ways to study writing (beyond, you know, reading and practicing writing) is to go to author events, stay for the Q&A, and ask questions. Not only does that affirm the existence of the author who is sweating behind the podium, but it gives us valuable information. Ask about how he or she makes time to write, or deals with insecurity, or keeps a story going when inspiration has run thin. Ask how he or she got an agent or publisher, what was said in the successful query letter, what sort of mistakes he or she made and what literary advice they wished they’d received sooner. Ask anything: It’s all good information.
3. By being there for others, we build a base of writers who will be there for us. No matter how big our goals of fame may be, we first need to focus on our local community. Those are the people who will cheer us on at open mics, fund our Kickstarter campaigns, come to our book launches and BUY OUR BOOKS. So get to know them. Follow them on social media, go to their events, offer them words of encouragement. That whole golden rule thing: It’s legit.
4. And if such a community doesn’t exist, or if there isn’t a good fit for our writing genre, we should feel empowered to build the writing world we wish to live in. No flash fiction open mics? Start one. Can’t find a critique group? Invite someone. Just need some support, inspiration and encouragement? Host a networking meet-up where fellow writers of all genres can connect, commiserate and get out from behind their laptops for a glass of wine or cup of coffee. It all counts, and it’s all cumulative: The effort we put into building literary community and supporting the creative work of others will come back to us with compounded interest.
But don’t do it for the payback. Do it because building a writer’s life is its own reward. Some people say we should show up to our creative work like it’s our job. I say we should show up like it’s our joy. Our privilege, our turn on the dance floor, our truest expression of self — of which is worth sharing.