Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Writing: Culture and Community

Write-a-thon fundraiser for the 49 Alaska Writing Center

 Recently, I joined four other authors in a panel that discussed “Isolation and Community: How We Live It, How We Write It.” At a conference that drew some 12,000 writers, the topic felt especially fitting. Were we all one big tribe, a la Seth Godin? Or was belonging something altogether different, or even insignificant for writers, whose creative work is inherently lonely?

In the days leading up to the panel, I was reading MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of AmericanFiction, a new collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach. As a writer, I’ve hung around the periphery of these two cultures while belonging to neither. As a reader, Harbach points out, nearly everything I read is influenced by these cultures, even if it’s independently produced.

Add to the notion of culture and community this phrase dropped often at the conference: “good literary citizen.” While the idea of literary citizenship is particularly important in the MFA culture, it’s a healthy concept for all of us who write. It means we support our fellow writers and their work, and that we value our writing communities.

When it comes to culture and community, writers have a heap of options: MFA, NYC, indie writers, hybrid writers, writing centers, writers groups, social networks of every shape and size. How to know which are best for you and how much to involve yourself? Here, a few considerations:

·         Cultivate an awareness of yourself as writer and the cultures and communities available to you. Assess your need for affirmation and do your best not to let it control your choices. Instead, consider your needs and goals. If you want to write the best books you can, seek out those who value the same.
·         We’re social creatures, wired for belonging. But every culture and community has good points and bad. Consider how yours shift and shape your thinking. Be especially alert to tendencies to view others as enemies and the in-crowd as superior.
·         Each of us assumes a role within the cultures and communities we inhabit. That’s part of belonging. But if your aim is to grow as a writer, look for new roles to embrace. Seek out communities where you can both give and grow.
·         Some communities are dynamic; others, more stagnant. Recognize when you’ve outgrown the latter and move on.
·         If you’re not finding the community you need, start one. That’s why I co-founded the 49 Alaska Writing Center, and it’s how my smaller writers group began.

·         In person and online, writers are good company. It’s easy to get all wrapped up in being part of the group. If you hang out with writers, you must be one, right? Beware this trap. You’re a writer because you care deeply about language and form and connecting with readers, because you embrace the joy of a good poem or story or book and long to create one yourself. No matter how much you love your writer friends and how much you help one another, the hard work almost always happens alone.