Get thee a community

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

I just returned home from the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, and whew. I am tired. Not only physically tired from days jam-packed with amazing panels and breakout sessions, followed by nights spent laughing with friends until we couldn’t hold our heads up or our eyes open. But also mentally tired from all the wisdom that was shared, and creatively tired from untangling the knots that had been littering my latest WIP.

I could sleep for a solid day, no problem.

But first, if you’re a writer, I’m going to tell you something important. Something that I’ve known for a while, but that attending this conference reinforced in an undeniable way. Are you listening? Good.

Whether you are a NYT Bestselling Author or a dreamer still plugging away at your first novel, community is vitally important. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that should be true — writing is most often a solitary pursuit, after all — but trust me on this. Without community, most of the authors I know would not be authors. Yes, even the naturally talented ones. Yes, even the ridiculously successful ones.

Without community, the voices of doubt can be deafening. Without community, rejection can be crippling. Without community, giving up may seem like not only the easy choice, but the obvious choice. The smart choice.

I’m lucky. I know this. I live in a city that has one of the most vibrant and supportive writing communities in the country. Most of my best friends are writers, and several of them are successfully published and willing to double as mentors.

These are the people who have slogged through all my various manuscripts when they were rougher than sandpaper, and helped me hone and revise them into something worth reading. They’re the ones who helped me craft a query letter and put together a list of agents. They’re the ones who clinked glasses with me when I signed with my agent. They’re the numbers I text when I get good news, and the ones who respond with a flurry of raging emojis when I get a pass.

They’re also the people who cried with me when I got my diagnosis, who have made me dinner and taken my children to gymnastics. We have celebrated birthdays and marriages and holidays together, road tripped together, run races together, and moved more boxes from Old House to New House than I can count. We have had the same conversations so many times we can rant each other’s rants.

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The Nashville writing community, New Years 2014

This is my writing community. This is my family.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things. You’re nodding along knowingly, because you have a community, too, and you relate to everything I’ve just said.

Or you’re despairing, because you feel like an island, and have no idea how to change that.

To that I have two things to say. One, you’re not an island. I promise, there are those out there in the same stage you’re in, suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, working toward the same goals. Somewhere out there is a friend you can lean on, confide in, celebrate with. You just haven’t met them yet.

Two, you are capable of finding them. No matter how shy, how insecure, how introverted, how geographically isolated, how young or old, how experienced or raw. You can do this. It will involve stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something that scares you. But you can do this. I believe it with my whole heart.

Maybe you can muster enough strength for a Big Action, by joining an organization or going to a conference or a retreat or book launch and introducing yourself to strangers. I’ve done this, and trust me, I know it is terrifying. I’ve gone to book launches and hovered in the back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves just so I wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve signed up for a retreat where I only knew one person, and felt the urge to run and hide in a corner with my laptop instead of talking to people. The fear can be paralyzing. But if you can push through it — even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person, the least-scary-looking person at the event — maybe that’s all you need to do. Sometimes one person is all it takes.

And if that person doesn’t end up being Your Kind of People? Try again. And again and again. It’s daunting, but remember, a person is only a stranger once.

Maybe that’s just too much, and no amount of pep talks will make you physically walk into a place where you don’t know anyone. That’s totally fine. Maybe, for you, stepping outside your comfort zone involves becoming active in an online forum like Absolute Write, or following the #amwriting tag on Twitter and engaging in those conversations, or emailing another writer you know vaguely through social media and asking if they’d be interested in exchanging work.

That’s what I did. Three years ago, when I was considering writing a book and didn’t know any other writers, I emailed another blogger I’d interacted with on Twitter and asked if she’d ever considered writing, and if she’d be interested in having a critique partner. I have no idea what possessed me to do this — I am Introverted with a Capital I, and do not voluntarily reach out to strangers — but that tiny step turned out to be life-changing. Today, that blogger is not only still my primary critique partner, but also one of my best friends. Because of that email, I wrote a book, and then another and another. I found my local writing community. I discovered a sense of belonging I’d never felt before.

Photo taken by Carla Schooler

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

And before you say, well, you’re an anomaly, let me tell you, it happens more often than you think. At the SCBWI conference I attended this weekend, one of our keynotes was given by the writing team of Gail Nall and Jen Malone, who met online when they entered the same writing contest. Now they’ve published multiple books together. Since they live halfway across the country from each other, they’ve only met in person a few times, but that doesn’t make their friendship or their writing camaraderie any less true.

During their keynote, Jen asked all the published writers in the room to stand, then told them to sit if they thought they could’ve gotten to where they are without the support of other writers. Want to take a guess at how many sat down?

No one is surprised when I say zero, right?

At the same conference, a pair of men — obviously good friends — was introduced to me, and then the mutual friend doing the introduction said, “Guess how they met,” in a voice that told me I’d be surprised by the answer.

Yup, you guessed it. Twitter. It was only their first or second time meeting in person. Not that you’d ever know it to see them interact.

I hear stories like this all the time. Even in my own life, I have multiple good friends where our first interaction was online. Forget what Buzzfeed or HuffPo tells you — you can make friends and find community anywhere. It just takes some effort.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013 Betcha can't tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013
Betcha can’t tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Bottom line is, wherever you are in your writing and your friendships, don’t discount the importance of finding other writers to commiserate with, to cheer on, to ask for feedback and wisdom, to celebrate in times of accomplishment and grieve with in times of disappointment (and not just yours — one of my favorite things about having talented writer friends is being able to celebrate their successes, even if I’ve just suffered a failure. It’s a much better mental place to be in when you can always find something to be happy about).

Not every writer I know has a critique group, or lots of local events to attend, or a love of social media. That’s fine. But every writer I know, published or pre-published, without exception, will tell you that they would not be able to keep making books without their writing community, whether it is vast or intimate, local or online, public or private.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes and locations. Yours doesn’t have to look like mine, or anyone else’s. It can be entirely unique to you and Your People. But please, don’t try to do this alone. Don’t let fear or pride make you an island. Find the people that give you the fortitude to keep walking this road. Putting words onto paper may be a solitary activity, but Writing — as a career, as a dream, as a life — is better with a team.

 

Sitting at the Cool Kids Table, and other musings on the writing community

If you follow many authors on Twitter or Facebook, read their blogs, attend their events, or read the Acknowledgements pages in their books, you’ve probably noticed what I have. Authors tend to hang out with other authors. They critique each others’ work. They go on retreats together. They cheerlead and support each other, and attend one another’s events. They have inside jokes and speak in code.

For a while, to me, it seemed a little like an exclusive club. Sure, I met some authors at various events, but without the secret password, I would never be permitted to cross the velvet rope and transition from “fan” into “friend.” I was an aspiring author, but they were authors. I could no sooner propose we meet for coffee than I could call up Jennifer Lawrence and invite her to my birthday party. (Sidebar: Jennifer, if you want to come to my birthday party, you are totally welcome to do that.)

They were the cool kids, and I was the friendless nerdling, longing to cross into their ranks but knowing, not-so-deep in my gut, that I was unworthy.

Then something interesting happened. I started seeing the same authors over and over at different events. Because here’s the thing about writers: they are readers. They love books just as much as you and I do. And that awesome book event I was so excited about? They were just as excited. Maybe even more so, because the featured authors were their friends.

After rubbing elbows with people a few times, eventually you have to stop gushing about only their books. Seriously, no matter how awesome the book is, it can only sustain a conversation for so long. So without quite realizing it, I found myself discussing other topics with these authors I so admired. Our kids, and if all of them are so weird, or just mine. Doctor Who, and whether or not it is permissible to skip the Ninth Doctor (in my opinion, no). Harry Potter, whether Snape redeemed himself by the end, and which death was the worst. The love triangle in The Hunger Games, and whether or not it even exists.

Movies. Pets. Books. Chocolate. The kind of topics you talk about with normal people.

Here is the secret: writers are people. And not in a creepy, Soylent Green sense. They are readers and critics and fans and dreamers and doubters. Just like the rest of us. And as with any group of people, there will be some that are just your people. It won’t be everyone, but trust me. They’re out there.

When I found my people (and for me, it was kind of a magical all-at-once experience, a combination of putting myself out there and Twitter and joining SCBWI and divine providence), it opened up doors in my writing journey I didn’t realize were possible. This new community — that I never learned the secret password to, by the way — has enriched my life and my writing more than I can explain.

The beauty of having writer friends is that we are all creators and thinkers and analyzers. Writers understand the relentless gnaw of a new story idea, the satisfaction of seeing an empty page fill with words, the strange gleeful terror that comes with deleting a huge section of your book because you figured out a better way to do it. Writers understand the voices of doubt in your head that whisper “this sucks and no one will ever want to read it.” They don’t think you’re crazy when you’ve carefully plotted out a story, and then your characters insist on taking it in a totally different direction. They are excellent at hearing a broad synopsis for your broken story, hearing where you’re stuck, and coming up with absolutely brilliant ways to fix your problem. They are adept at talking you off the ledge when the query rejections start rolling in, one after the other, and then again when an agent does want to see your story, but then doesn’t get back to you in less than 24 hours salivating over your manuscript like that-magical-How-I-Got-My-Agent-blogpost-I-read-last-week (there is nothing like a freakishly rapid How I Got My Agent success story to make you come down with a debilitating case of Iprobablysuckandtheyhatemeitis).

So I guess I have a few points here.

1) The writing community can seem daunting to break into. I thought it was utterly intimidating. Until it wasn’t. A big part of that was realizing that other writers are like me. We share passions and interests and fears. The relationships don’t have to be forced. If you are a writer (and if you understood the entire above paragraph about writer brain, you are a writer), it will come naturally. And when it does, it is a beautiful, amazing, soul-enriching thing.

2) Writers are writers are writers. If you’d have told me a year ago that some of my favorite names from the book spines on my shelf would become the top contacts in my phone, I wouldn’t have believed you. But if you live in a city that’s not crawling with published authors, that’s okay too. Some of my best friends in the writing community aren’t published yet. Some aren’t even agented, or don’t have a completed manuscript. And that’s okay. The important thing is we’re all writers, our brains work similarly, and we are there to support each other, no matter how fledgling or established our writing careers

3) Joining a community requires putting yourself out there. And trust me, I know this can be hard. I am shy and introverted and awkward (which are not synonymous, by the way), and at first, going to events where I didn’t know anyone had me sweating like an Eskimo in the Sahara. But something I’ve learned is that the reading and writing community is built on shy, awkward introverts. I’ve found I work best when I interact with people online first (generally via Twitter), then meet them in person. Joining SCBWI and getting involved with my local chapter was also huge for me (RWA is another fabulous organization). But it’s different for everyone. (And if you live in the middle of nowhere with no other writers – BEHOLD the beauty of the Internet! Online friends are just as real as local friends.) The only universal truth here is that you won’t join a community if you never, ever reach out to other humans.

4) Writers make you a better writerI don’t have a single writer friend whose writing has not benefited from friendships with other writers. Books are often group efforts. That’s why acknowledgement pages read the way they do. It’s not a club, and it’s not a Who’s Who. It’s like-minded people collaborating on stories, because that is what they love to do. Personally, one of the biggest things I’m looking forward to if (“when,” my writer friends would correct me, “always when”) my book ever becomes A Real Book is writing my acknowledgements. Not to name drop, but to publicly thank those people who have helped me grow so much from where I used to be, both as a writer and as a person. (Also, the other funny thing about all those Big Names in acknowledgement pages? They weren’t Big Names when they started. They were friends and critique partners all starting out together as newbie writers. Everyone has to start somewhere.)

5) A writing community and a critique group are not necessarily the same thing. I have a lot more writing friends than I do critiquers. Just because you know other writers or are friends with writers does not mean you have to always critique each other’s work. You may have totally differing tastes or writing styles, or you may write for different audiences. Or they may already have their own established critique groups and partners, and no time to work your writing into their schedule. Even if someone isn’t a great match for you as a critiquer, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a great friend and part of your writing support system.

6) You can be a writer even if you haven’t written anything yet. I think some of us unpublished, uncontracted, unagented, unfinished writers can tell ourselves that we are not “real” writers. We can’t attempt to join the club yet, because our credentials aren’t good enough. And that’s simply not true. The more time I spend with writers, the more I believe that being a writer isn’t about how many books you’ve sold or words you’ve written, but about about how you think, who you are, and what you aspire to. If you have stories in your heart and characters in your head and passion in your soul, but only a couple chapters actually written? No problem. You’re still a writer.

Anyway. This has gotten kind of long and rambly. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about the writing community and how the people I’ve met have, quite literally, changed my life. And I’ve said on more than one occasion that if I had to choose between the people I’ve met and ever seeing my books on shelves, I’d choose the people, hands down. Obviously, I hope to have both, someday. But in the meantime, I will simply enjoy how very blessed I am to have such amazing friends (you know who you are) who get me, understand the weird way my brain works, and encourage me as I plunge ever further down the rabbit hole of storytelling.

(And if you’re not a writer, never fear. I’ve got reviews coming up. Just as soon as I can wrap my brain around the books I’ve read recently. Them’s thinkin’ books.)