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. [Read more…]