There is a perceived dichotomy between the very personal business of writing, and leading a social life dedicated to building strong communities. What seems to be lacking is an understanding that writing is not just about a lonely writer pounding out the words on a computer and pursuing publishing deals. Quite the contrary, especially with the wonderful communications tools we have these days. What are some of your personal experiences with regards to building communities of writers that challenge the lonely writer stereotype? How would you say these experiences have helped contribute to creating a stronger community and, at the same time, helped individuals writers become both better writers and better people?
This question is lifted from author Sahar Sabati's informative Ask an Author series, which ran from 2015-2016 and included responses and reflections from English-speaking authors from around the globe. Since I'm often asked these questions by readers, I have republished my answers here with Sahar's kind permission.
It’s a familiar stereotype, isn’t it? The writer, hunched over a desk, in an attic or a darkened back room, living on cups of cold coffee while scratching out words late into the night. There’ll be a waste basket overflowing with rejected pages at his feet; perhaps an ashtray in arm’s reach, several cigarette butts curling in a bed of grey ash. The writer’s clothes, from last season or maybe the season before, are dishevelled, and his hair is matted at the back, as if he has spent the night, or several nights, in the armchair in the corner. Sometimes, the writer pushes back his chair and steps to the window to gaze out the over city rooftops, the light from the streetlamps reflected off his face as he stands half concealed by the curtains. He’s spying on the late night passers-by, people spilling out of bars, heading home after an evening out with the girls, laughing, living their lives. The writer is observer. An archivist of sorts. Impartial. Detached. It’s a handy skill, and one he’s nurtured carefully, already prepared for the moment when the precious manuscript ‒ his life’s work ‒ is complete and he’ll be forced to shop it to hardnosed publishers who don’t want to know.
It’s a long-held stereotype of a lonely writer, and yes, some of it applies to me. My office on the porch is not much bigger than a wheelie bin, discarded drafts litter the floor, and a couple of half empty coffee cups have been pushed to the back of the desk while they wait to be taken out to the kitchen. And yes, there are times when writing is all about being hunched in front of my screen bashing out words ‒ although in reality I have a very nice ergonomic chair. Because that’s what writing’s all about, isn’t it? Logging the words. Pushing out pages. But it doesn’t have to be a lonely enterprise; I’ve found that time that invested in communities can be as important as the time you spend at your desk.
I don’t mean formal writers’ groups, although I’m a member of many: The New Zealand Society of Authors, Bookrapt (children’s writers group), Freelance, SpecFicNZ, Tauranga Writers (New Zealand’s longest standing writers’ group), Horror Writers Association, and the Australasian Horror Writers Association, for example. Professional groups certainly have their place, offering their members, mentorships, market advice, contract help, networking, conferences, professional development, and publishing opportunities, but today I want to look at the informal communities, those loosely constructed attachments, which grow out of a common passion.
The first writing community of this nature that I was involved in was an APA (an amateur publishing association). A big thing in the late 1990s, APAs were the forerunner of the modern online blog. Ours was a closed group of twenty writers, based mainly in Madison, Wisconsin, who wrote and published a print magazine called Turbo-zine once a month. Some of the group are established writers now, a couple are well-known literary commentators, but back then my fellow APAs were mostly amateur writers: bigger-than-life folk, warm and intelligent and full of energy, people who would weave riotous stories from everyday events.
I’m not quite sure how I got in. Someone nominated me, I think. However it happened, this amazing community welcomed me and, in the text of those APA magazines, they let me write. Month after month, they let me question the weirdness of American culture: to ask what exactly is a half bath and why Americans blush crimson if you use the word ‘toilet’? We wrote, and wrote back, about the correct way to shovel snow, about Wisconsin building permits, the cultural and nutritional value of the humble corndog, and even the subtleties of pronunciation (apparently New Zealanders pronounce scones the ‘posh’ way). Through that shared writing, the group helped me to assimilate into my new life in the mid-West. And then, when I was starting to feel at home, they encouraged my clumsy efforts to write the first pages of what would eventually become my middle grade novel Battle of the Birds. One of the scenes in A Dash of Reality first appeared in an APA magazine, too (see Ask an Author: Most embarrassing thing to happen to me one summer). It was a safe place to write and invite commentary. That little community let me belong.
Of course, the group has long since disbanded ‒ technology has marched on ‒ but nearly twenty years and half a world away, many of the APA members remain my friends on Facebook. I occasionally get email invitations to The Purple House cook outs, organised by one of my APA friends ‒ invitations which always make me smile. They kindly ask when print copies of Into the Mist are likely to be available in Madison bookstores. Without that first community, would I be writing now? I’m not sure.
Another of my writing communities involves just four people. We meet in a café once fortnight and over scrambled eggs and pots of tea, we critique 4000 words of each other’s writing. I’m told being part of a constructive, nurturing critique group is one of the most uplifting and rewarding exercises a writer can undertake. The Clark’s group is nothing like that. On the face of it, they are lovely people, but under those sunny facades, they are ruthless serial killers, fearless vigilantes laying waste to my darlings with a single decisive flourish of their red pens. My writing has never been cleaner.
The Refuge Collection is another of my communities centred around a collection of dark, supernatural and terrifying tales set in the mythical town of Refuge, where every house is as different as the people who live there. I joined the Refuge community in November last year after coming across a post by horror writer Steve Dillon on Facebook. Like most people, I’d been following the refugee crisis in the media and agonising about my inability to do anything meaningful to help, and suddenly here was this community of talented writers and artists coalescing out of nothing, all fired up by Steve, and all with the same determination to do something positive. Already eighteen singles have been published, including my story The Thief’s Tale, a finalist in this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Three Refuge volumes have been released to date with plans for another six as well as an illustrated print compilation. The energy and enthusiasm of this community has been humbling. Writers like Ramsay Campbell, Paul Kane, and Kaaron Warren, pitching in to make the collection something special, none of them expecting anything in return since all proceeds from the collection are going to sanctuary charities. Writers are very good at building communities around causes. The Baby Teeth group, involving mainly New Zealand writers, was a similar project, raising funds in support of children’s literacy.
One of my teeniest groups involves just one person. We meet on Saturday mornings and we walk for an hour, discussing all things writing. We untangle the plot holes in each other’s stories, discuss tropes and trends, and brainstorm new ideas. And it was on one such walk that this tiny community came up with the idea for my next