Want a writing community? Attend a writing meetup, or participate in an online writing forum. Attend a webinar. Go to a conference. Form a writer’s group. Take a fiction course. Join a Facebook group. Contribute to a Twitter weekly writing prompt. As easy as that. And it’s hard.
There’s too much out there to do, and it’s an undifferentiated revolving mass of hype, promotion, and exceptionalism, all with fees and time commitments. And risk. Lots of risk.
We are writers. We really don’t want to get dressed, go out, and join with other solitary animals in an uneasy group, eyeing one another sidelong and agreeing not to attack or escape, unless we know it’s worth it. How can we possibly find out in advance what’s best to do, without committing ourselves? We can’t. We have to risk it.
We have to try things out.
In the last year, I’ve tried most of it. Webinars don’t work for me; they’re canned PowerPoint lectures you can attend in your pajamas, without eye contact, and in that case I’d rather read a book.* Conferences felt pretty lonely and were expensive and short, though they gave me good information.† The local writing meetup was pleasant but spotty; I didn’t want to drive that far if I didn’t know who was going to show up.‡ Then I decided to take an online fiction writing course taught by a writer who had written a book I liked. It was not her fiction that drew me to the class, though she’s a good writer. It was her book about social media for writers. Fiction writers don’t automatically make the best teachers. You have to find someone who cares about helping other writers.
I was nervous. It was actual money I was committing, and real time. But I lucked out.
What made it worthwhile? The platform (a Google Hangout where you could see everyone else), the teacher (a kind and knowledgeable person with a deep background), the format (some lecture, short writing assignments, and lots of critique) and the other students. But especially the other students.
Everybody in that class could write. Everybody knew something about the field. And everybody could critique without being either fulsome or mean. They addressed the strengths and weaknesses of each piece with specificity and good advice.§ In the process, I learned all kinds of incidental things about the genre in which I write, and about the publishing industry. And about kindness, and good humor, and the shared experience.
I liked those people. That’s a hell of an admission for an introvert with the social instincts of a river clam.||
And in the process, incidentally, I wrote some stories I think will be publishable once I fix them.
* Seriously. What the HELL. It’s a misconception that learning occurs through the delivery of facts via PowerPoint and droning lecture. Why are people convinced that “online learning” is a thing if it doesn’t involve interaction? If it doesn’t involve action on the part of the student? Do we think that you can become educated by watching a bunch of television without any pictures? Learning isn’t about memorizing facts, unless you’re planning to be an encyclopedia for a living. I took a webinar once, a webinar about how to use interactive educational technology online. The teacher stopped and told us all to stop horsing around in the chat window and scribbling on the interactive main screen. At which point I realized I was sadly mistaken about the purpose of interactive educational technology, and spent the next hour doodling on a piece of scrap paper.
† Conferences are great if you already have community. You get to see people you know. But at my stage, I spend a lot of time saying to myself gamely, “This will pay off in the long run,” and attempting to have brief conversations with people who move away from me soon thereafter. Or else I move away from them, to be fair.
‡ Last time it was a mother/daughter duo who described themselves as film makers, a retired school principal who was starting out as a writer, a beautiful young man who wrote brief informational articles about dinosaurs, a teenaged girl who wrote heartfelt poetry, the leader, and me. Apparently, the attendance changes drastically from month to month. I liked it all right, but there wasn’t anyone else there doing what I’m doing.
§ Critique is HARD. I was an English teacher for a long time, and I can see all the flaws in a piece in one glance. But red pen, like lecture, does not produce learning. More often it produces a nasty feeling of pride and superiority in the wielder of the red pen, and discouragement and annoyance in the writer. You have to pick a few things that the writer can fix and wants to fix, and you have to pick a few strengths, even if the piece is one dry factual paragraph full of jargon about dinosaurs and you don’t particularly like dinosaurs.
|| River clams bury themselves in mud and stick their siphons up to filter the water and shoot out their wastes. Did you know river clams can produce little lumpy pearls? Did you know that mud is saturated soil and dirt? I used to make mud pies as a child, because I had read that was something children did and wanted to try it out for myself.**
** I like research. Does it show? I just wrote a story about a trash collector, and a neighbor caught me out on the street photographing the back of the little rear-loader that picks up on the street around the corner. She tried to engage me in conversation, but I told her I was busy at the moment.