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Finding the Tribe that Fuels Your Writing

[1]Have you ever felt stuck in your isolation as a writer or mired in the world of your story? For months, I revised my novel and tried to turn it into the best version of itself but something was missing. I hadn’t explored the fullness and complexity of what it meant to be a writer in the world today.

I knew it. I felt it. Still, I couldn’t unlock what was missing in my story or in me as a writer.

Sometimes, you just have to switch things up and risk everything to engage with a new community of writers. The day I arrived on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon to study at the Tin House Summer Workshop [2], I gawked at literary luminaries like Lauren Groff, Alexander Chee, and Benjamin Percy.

You don’t belong here with real writers. Many of these writers have MFAs and book deals; you don’t. This isn’t for you.

Self-sabotage is real. If I told myself enough times that I wasn’t worthy and didn’t deserve to be in that writing space, I would eventually believe it and inoculate myself from tough critique and defeat. My workshop leader for the week was Tayari Jones, whose bestselling novel An American Marriage was the Oprah Book Club pick. Imposter syndrome stalked me in the classroom. It’s hard to learn in workshop when you’re fangirling but by mid-week I’d settled in enough to soak up her wisdom.

Tin House Summer Workshop

Tayari’s advice will forever transform the way I tell stories. She taught me that conflict isn’t borne of hostility, that too much estrangement and anger strangles narrative. Our workshop inspired me to soften the mean mama in my novel and bring the temperature down on my protagonist who “yanked curtains” and “snatched silverware.” Tayari said, “We learn to connect with characters by seeing them connect. You want to make all your characters feel like they’re right, like they have a legitimate point.”

 Lectures from the most unapologetic badass authors I’ve ever met buoyed my spirit and girded me for the fight we’re all in to make our voices and stories heard. Memoirist Kiese Laymon talked about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse and the secrets and lies we tell in our nonfiction narratives in hopes that readers will forgive us for the hurt we’ve inflicted upon others. “In our intent to write honestly, sometimes we write other people’s trauma out of our stories,” he said. If Kiese could courageously tell his truth, I could at least own the space I had earned as a writer at Tin House. 

The only writing tips I’d ever received about sex scenes focused on avoiding “heaving bosoms” and “throbbing members.” Usually, those talks involved lots of blushing and giggling. I hadn’t yet encountered the fearless memoirist Melissa Febos. She challenged us at Tin House to undo the rules others have imposed on our bodies and how we write about them. The most repeated quote of the entire week was hers: “My sexuality has been the single-most disruptive force mankind has ever known, and its repression has been the work of centuries.”

Kimbilio Fiction annual retreat

I left Tin House fired up to continue revising my novel but I only had one week of respite before my second writing workshop of the month. I traveled 8,000 feet above sea level to the mountains of Taos, New Mexico for the Kimbilio Fiction annual retreat [3], a gathering of 25 African-American writing Fellows and five author faculty members. What a treat to discuss literature and workshop fiction in an environment where I didn’t have to explain my blackness or make the case for diversity in writing communities. I could just be.

David Haynes, the founder of Kimbilio and my workshop leader, counseled me on how to write broken characters, how to explore through narrative the heartbreaking naiveté of my 11-year-old character who is desperate for family connection. My workshop group talked me through narrative distance and point of view choices.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for a class assignment but Queen Sugar author Natalie Baszile challenged me to see that book through new eyes and view setting as a character in the novel. “Place is never neutral; it always shapes our point of view,” she said. “Characters rise through that place and it’s your challenge as the writer to make your readers understand the meaning behind what they see.”

From the author Martha Southgate, I gained new appreciation for the musical Hamilton and will now study it for story structure to understand the wants of my protagonist. Then we applied physics to storytelling when Jacinda Townsend spun a gyroscope in class and demonstrated the necessary tension created by opposing forces of character motivation and conflict. I’ll always see narrative distance like a camera lens widening and moving in closer for tight shots after Dana Johnson’s lecture. She also showed us how to take risks on the page and experiment stylistically with form in fiction.

At Kimbilio, I saw myself mirrored in every writer there, published and yet-to-be-published. When I walked into workshop, I had a point of view on my classmates’ manuscripts. I had something valuable to say. One explanation is that I grew as a writer and became more comfortable with the workshop method. There’s also something affirming about surrounding myself with writers who share a similar culture, history, and place in the world. It’s freeing.

I recall asking Benjamin Percy for advice on how to handle all of the amazing yet sometimes conflicting feedback I would inevitably receive after two weeks of workshopping. He said, “Go where the electricity is.” At an earlier stage in my writing life, those words would’ve left me confused and empty. But now I have the benefit of craft and community. I’m a writer. I know what to do.

Which writing communities support you best on this journey? How have workshops, retreats, and conferences helped you grow as a writer? Share nuggets of wisdom you’ve learned after setting aside dedicated time to nurture your writing self.

About Nancy Johnson [4]

Nancy Johnson [5] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [5].