I still remember the circle in the Old Schoolhouse very well. 25 young poets with our welded desks turned toward each other, the writing surface fall too small for everything we were trying to fit in. Some of us read every class, and Julia Kasdorf talked about elements of poetry and gave us assignments. (My favorite was to write a poem using the rhythm of a nursery rhyme.)
When I think of a writing community, this is the first image that comes to mind.
Or this one. 8 or 9 writers, again in a circle of desks, on the first day of our MFA residency. I have brought in an essay about how I felt I needed to read Madeline L’Engle’s Walking On Water *in the bathroom stall because it was scandalous to read something so artful and decadent in my Anabaptist Christian college. The other essays include a piece about seeing the ghost of Charles Manson’s victims in a cabin, about having sex using wind-up toys, about a first lesbian relationship, and about drowning baby mice in a toilet. To say I felt a bit out of place is a prime example of the art of understatement. But by the end of the day, that group of writers became my community, the people who I knew would speak the truth about the value of my work.
Now, my community includes some folks from that first poetry workshop – including the amazing Shawn Smucker – and folks from the latter group, too. I’ve also connected with some other great folks including Jane Friedman and Gayle Brandeis and Ed Cyzewski and Alexandra Moffett-Bateau online and through the ties that these two schools gave me. These are the people I turn to for a gut-check when the writing process feels too heavy. They give me advice and read my pages, and they encourage me when the world seems too dark for words.
A writing community is indispensable in this world where art is undervalued and often dismissed. We need people who “get” what we do. We need people who support our efforts to do it. And we need people who will hold us true to the goals and dreams we have for our words.
Finding a writing community can be quite tricky, particularly if you aren’t a part of a formal program. It’s hard to meet other writers who take the work seriously, and when we’re first starting out – during those days when we haven’t yet been able to take on the title of “writer” for ourselves – it’s even harder. We find it challenging to claim our own space, much less reach out with that claim and ask for others to join us on the journey.
But I want to encourage you to find “your people,” the people who will support you, read your work, and cajole you into writing even on the days when you’d rather do anything other than write. I’ve found a few things to be helpful in finding these folks:
- Claim your identity as a writer. No matter what you may think about the qualifications to be a writer, the bottom line is that the only thing that it takes to be a writer is that you write. If you put words down on paper for the sake of creating, then you are a writer. Now, repeat after me, “I am a writer.” Maybe even tack that sentence onto a space where you’ll see it every day.
- Join a community. Maybe you’re looking at MFA programs. Maybe you’ve found a local writer’s group at the library or community center. Maybe there’s a Facebook group for writers (I like the folks in the Writers’ Group.) Or maybe there’s an online community like the Redbud Writers Guild that is made up of people who share some of your worldview or write about similar topics or in similar genres to you. Once you find a group of writers with whom you would like to connect, join them. “Like” the page or fill out the application. Attend an event and get on the mailing list.
- Be faithful. Building relationships takes time. So engage with the groups you join. Attend events regularly. Reply to questions that people ask in online forums. Try to be helpful, but also don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just stay connected. The connections will develop if you stay true to the people you meet.
- Be a good literary citizen. Recommend books you love. Write reviews for the books you read. Share blogs you appreciate on your social media pages. Tell the people you know about a writer whose work you can’t stop thinking about. Connect with people by sharing their work. Join writers’ mailing lists. Trust me when I say that writers notice these things, and sometimes, it’s these gifts of appreciation that begin friendships.
Just this morning, I’ve gotten an email from Ed Cyzewski about a project that he, Shawn Smucker, and I are working on. A few days ago, a friend of mine from my MA program (I went to school a lot) sent me the contact information for his agent since he knows I’m shopping my YA novel. This spring, 5 dear writer friends read that novel and gave me feedback on it.
I truly would be lost without these folks – wandering around and trying to find my way with my arms outstretched in the forest of words.
I still feel that way sometimes, but then, I reach out to one of these amazing folks, and they reach back to me. A hand to hold mine in the hours when the darkness is rich and strong. I’m honored when they reach for my hand, too.
You don’t have to do this writing thing alone. You just need to put out a hand. We’re here. We’ll reach back.
What ways have you used to connect to other writers? Any tips you’d like to share? How can I help you find “your people?”