I just returned from a long weekend in New York City, where I joined seven other Writer Unboxed contributors—Donald Maass, Erika Robuck, Heather Webb, Dan Blank, Porter Anderson, Brunonia Barry, and Vaughn Roycroft—for a panel called Writer Unboxed, LIVE at the Writer’s Digest conference. As often happens for panelists as a courtesy, our moderator—Jessica Strawser, editor of Writer’s Digest magazine—let us know a few of the questions she’d ask ahead of time. This was the first we knew to expect:
Why is the Writer Unboxed community important to you, and what have you gotten from it over the years?
The answer should’ve been easy, right? Yet I couldn’t settle on how I’d respond, and that showed in my stumbling start when it came time to answer, live.
“What the community means to me… It’s a hard question for me to answer, honestly. It’s these people,” I said, gesturing down the table to my fellow panelists, “and it’s everyone who comes to the site on a daily basis and leaves comments, and creates legs for a conversation that has started on the blog and may continue on the Facebook page. It’s seeing people support other people in very generous and unique ways. And it has at times kept me going when I felt I might stop.”
Jessica then asked:
“You’re a novelist, and I know a lot of writers struggle with finding enough time to write and have to be really selective about what else they commit their time to. I assume for you in particular this is a huge time commitment to be so devoted to Writer Unboxed. Was there a point when you realized that maybe this was growing into something bigger than what you first envisioned, but then also realized that this was something you did find worthy of so much of your writing time?”
“I almost remember the day that I called it a community for the first time. We had started to bring on contributors to the site. You know, the site originally started as…Kathleen and I were simply writing a post every other day, and it was a good day if we had three comments, and it just sort of grew from there… Over the course of maybe five years, instead of posting every other day I was posting every other week. And (eventually) I was able to stand back, and it was almost like there had been so much momentum in the thing that I didn’t really need to be a part of it anymore. And that isn’t to say that I’m not involved, because it is like a full time job, but it had a life of its own, and an important life of its own, and I think that was the day that I realized it was a community.”
The panel moved on, and each person described their connection with Writer Unboxed. Here’s what was said:
“I find that the importance of the community and my own involvement to be in the fact that it is not just a good-times group… We discuss (things) at great length in comments. This is one of the great strengths of the community, is that we talk and talk and exchange ideas respectfully, and we’re able to do it without calling each other names and we walk out still friends from a heated discussion at times… The reason I’m staying with Writer Unboxed and have enjoyed staying with Writer Unboxed as long as I have is because we can do serious conversation and we can get at hard issues, and debate and discuss them in an adult way.”
– Porter Anderson
“For my involvement, I contribute one post a month. To be a member of this community is truly just a privilege, because you see it as a community…Just managing all of the contributors is an astounding feat. Managing the conversation on the site itself and on Facebook is an astounding feat. The fact that they’ve kept it up for so long, for nearly a decade, is an astounding feat…. You want to live up to a standard that has been set, and that’s why every month I come to my post, and it’s really kind of trying to push that boundary of understanding what would better serve this community, because it is a very rare thing.”
– Dan Blank
“I dipped my toe into a few communities, and it seemed like there was a lot of negativity out there–trolls and spam, sarcasm and snarky stuff. I stumbled upon Writer Unboxed…It kept me from quitting because over time I saw that there’s so much more to this than just getting a draft done and writing the world’s worst query letter and sending it out. One of my mentors–Cathy Yardley–always says ‘We all write alone, but none of us succeeds that way.’ I’ve come to totally understand that now, because it’s the example of others. Not so much your critique partners or your beta-readers; it’s learning from each other and sharing…These people who I had begun to admire so much were so willing to give of themselves and spend the day that their post was up and say something about what I had said. And it’s truly a conversation so often on the page, if you look at what’s going on. And you like that feeling… ‘She actually talked back to me!’ People are actually respecting what you have to say. What I realized from that is we’re all–all of us up here, even Don, even Porter–trying to get better at what we do, and we’re doing it together… That’s when I realized it’s a journey, and a journey is better with a community of people.”
– Vaughn Roycroft
“I was also a lurker first, and then Therese interviewed me for Writer Unboxed and I was floored because I was a lurker. And three hours later we were still on the phone. Then I happened to go to Boston, to Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, and met Therese there, and she was giving a seminar. And she off-handedly said, ‘maybe you’d like to contribute,’ and I went ‘yes!’ and it was tweeted, and so we had to do it. But I do have to say writing every day is a very solitary thing to do, and I save my reading of Writer Unboxed for the point where I get stuck and start throwing coffee cups at the wall… It’s inspirational as well as community.”
– Brunonia Barry
“I was also a lurker. We only have so much time, so we have to figure out where we want to spend it. It was on the Facebook group that I found Writer Unboxed. It wasn’t until later that I really started reading the blog. I found that I could post a question–anything from a very basic craft question to something complex like ‘who made slipcovers here?’ or ‘do you have a recommendation for an agent-tracking website?’ Anything you’d want you could ask, and it wouldn’t be one answer, it would be seventy-five. And it was all very upbeat and supportive. It sucked me right in. I think I’m one of the industry’s few extroverts, and so I began chatting with all of these people and really liking all of these people, and all of a sudden I wasn’t alone.”
– Heather Webb
“For me, for writing, I think all of you need a tribe. You might have a small tribe, you might have a writing partner. But that’s what I was seeking…I go to Writer Unboxed to fill the well. So it’s when we hit the wall and when things get stale, when I can’t see my work anymore and I need to step away from it, that’s when I’ll spend two days bingeing on posts and there’s always something there that lights a fire in me.”
– Erika Robuck
“I think I was originally interviewed for Writer Unboxed for my role as an agent, but the first thing I really remember was that I was promoting a book of advanced fiction craft…So I approached Therese and said, ‘hey, how about I contribute a couple of posts on the craft of fiction.’ I think I promised her five posts, so that’s five months. It’s now six years later and seventy-some posts on craft later. So why am I there as an agent? I hardly need to drum up more submissions for the agency; we get plenty of those. There are a couple of reasons why I continue these monthly posts on the advanced fiction craft…One of the reasons is that in the book publishing industry in New York, you tend to get a little bit…I’ve noticed that agents and editors…can get a little bit self-absorbed. If you go to lunch, if you’re up on the industry news–who’s where and who’s changing jobs and who’s selling what…It’s nice to be plugged in, but that’s only part of what we need to do. I think we need to understand writers and their process, and looking at it from their point of view is important too. Writer Unboxed is a tremendous window to the angst and struggles and triumphs and wisdom of the collective writers there. The other reason I’m there is that it gives me the opportunity to continue to develop my thinking about the advanced fiction craft. A lot of my book Writing 21st Century Fiction originally appeared as posts on Writer Unboxed, and currently I’m working on some new ideas for a new book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction. It’s been a great way to stay connected to the community of writers. It’s a very respectful, very thoughtful, very wise, and a very craft-focused community, and I find it very valuable to be there. It’s time out of my day–I have plenty to do–but honestly it’s the best part of my day.”
– Donald Maass
What is this strange magic we’ve made? I think of it as a sort of catalytic energy, and when it’s really working it gives as much as it takes. My husband says the Irish call it craic (some spell it crack, which is how it’s pronounced)—an exchange of positive energy in storytelling or music-making or conversation. That’s the environment I thrive in, but one I lacked for much of my life. And right there is what I didn’t say at the conference, and probably why I struggled with the question. But it’s at least part of the reason why this community is important to me and what I’ve gotten from it over the years. For me the question remains somewhat difficult to answer, because the answer might fill a book. Writer Unboxed has changed my life, and after nearly ten years I’d say it has helped to define it. And better it, make no mistake.
So thank you, WU’ers, for being here, and for bringing your great energy and conversation to the community table. As the Irish would say, you’re good craic. Write on.
Your turn. Why is a writing community important to you?
By the way, I learned at the Writer’s Digest conference that many writers out there who visit the site are still lurking. I hope you’ll read this as an invitation (to you, yes, you) to step out of the shadows and join the conversation. It doesn’t matter what you write—sci-fi, romance, literary, fantasy, women’s fiction, horror, young adult, historical—all voices are welcome.