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It Takes a Village

Flickr Creative Commons: Jeff Kubina

Last week in the creative writing workshop I teach, one of the students shared her latest short story with the group. None of these kids—ages 13-17—know each other outside our class. They all attend different schools. One is an outgoing 6’5” 17-year-old rower who loves fantasy fiction; another is a shy and brilliant 14-year-old who writes realistic fiction about the terrors of high school. Anyway, we all read Riya’s story and one of the students immediately said, “I love this. This story is just CLASSIC Riya.” And I thought, Bingo!

My thought wasn’t a response to the student’s comment; it was a response to the meaning behind the comment—I know you, I know your writing, you have a voice that is only yours, I get you. It was the validation we all hope for—to be seen and heard and understood. It was also affirmation that our little workshop of 6 (including me) has become a real community, a group of people who are working hard, making themselves vulnerable, challenging each other, and rooting for each other’s success as much as their own. It took me many years to understand the important role of community in my writing, and I couldn’t have written—let alone published—any of my novels without the various writers, readers, students, teachers, friends, and family who make up my communities.

Here’s what I love about my writing communities:

A community keeps you honest. I wrote half of my first novel sitting alone in my house without showing it to a soul. I had no idea what I was doing or whether or not it was any good and I was stuck. So I took an online novel-writing class. Every week, the instructor and seven or eight other students read whatever chapter I posted. I was warmed by the positive feedback—they liked it! They really liked it!—but they also pointed out that the reason I was stuck was because I had taken the plot in a direction that was way too complicated, difficult to follow, and didn’t make a lot of sense. It was hard to hear, but it was also true. It gave me the courage I needed to delete the chapters that didn’t work and forge ahead in a new direction. Now I’m in a critique group with four other published authors. We genuinely like each other and admire each other’s work, but we also tell the truth. When one writer showed us the climactic chapter of her crime thriller we congratulated her on getting the book done, then pointed out the flaws that made the chapter totally implausible. We hashed out all the reasons it didn’t work. She was embarrassed (she’s a pro who had published four novels by then) but also agreed. The next week she rewrote the chapter with a brilliant, unexpected twist that couldn’t have worked better.

A community keeps you going.  Have I told you about the hell that was my second novel? I’m sure I have, because I’ve told just about everybody. I struggled to write it and rewrote it and rewrote it and despaired and it took me YEARS. But my community—in this case, my Fiction Writers’ Co-op, a private Facebook group of 50 writers—kept me going. I would post about whatever roadblock I encountered—I don’t know who this character is, my agent read a first draft and hates it—and friend after friend in the Co-op would respond with words of encouragement, tales of their own nightmare novels, and a steady belief that I could do it. I didn’t believe I could do it, but they did, and that was enough to get me through.

A community understands what a difficult, crazy life this is. Once I was so deep in the throes of my second novel (set in the San Juan Islands), that when I emerged from my office to get a drink of water I actually said to my husband, “God, it’s good to be home.” “Where have you been?” he said. I’m sure you’ve all had moments like that, and nights in which you couldn’t sleep because your characters kept you up, etc. I’m sure, too, that you’ve struggled to find an agent, or figure out a pitch, or tried to deconstruct what type of book might sell best in today’s market (if you figure it out, give me a call). It’s nice to have colleagues to commiserate with around the virtual water-cooler, or who can provide insights into part of the process or the business that seem shrouded in mystery.

A community lifts you up. When one of the writers in my Co-op or my critique group finishes writing a first draft or sells a new manuscript or hits a bestseller list or a huge sales benchmark (100,000 copies sold!), I feel genuinely, radically happy for them. Writing is hard and success does not come easily or often. We spread the word about each other’s new releases on social media, we congratulate each other (and mean it), we pass along referrals to manuscript editors or agents. Success is not pie. One person’s bestseller doesn’t mean none of us can ever write a best-seller. It means people buy and read good books and there’s hope for all of us.

Finally, as wonderful as communities are, they should never drown out the quiet, steady voice that is your story. Writing communities are not about editing by committee, or writing the story for you. They’re there to shout encouragement when you’re stuck and can’t cross the river, or to congratulate you when you pull ahead, but they can’t carry you. It’s still up to you to plow ahead, step by step, with your own inner voice as your guiding compass.

But take it from me: it would be a lonely, impossible journey without them.

What role does community play in your writing? Do you think writers need community?


About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.