It’s a lonely life, the writer’s life. Or is it?
We love the myth of writing as a lone activity, the writer huddled in a cold loft wearing fingerless gloves and turning out pages by the light of a single candle.
(Just me? Possibly my English degree has steered me wrong here!)
In my own experience, this has been an important challenge in building a writing life I love. Writers need enough alone time – and I say this as someone who needs a LOT of alone time – to get our writing done, but if we’re not careful we can also isolate ourselves and end up feeling alone.
For years I didn’t share my writing with anyone, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about writing. It took a long time to feel comfortable sharing work-in-progress, and to feel like I could contribute something useful to writing discussions – particularly on the technical aspects of craft which often felt more like magic to me in those early days.
But as I’ve grown as a writer, and as a human, I’ve come to prize the connections I make through writing and to value how those connections keep me motivated and inspired to keep writing, even when it all feels harder than I think it should.
If I am always alone with my writing, I can easily convince myself that my work isn’t terribly good and has no meaning, and if I spend too much time entertaining thoughts like this then I eventually give up altogether and stop writing.
And I don’t know about you but when I stop writing it can take a while to start up again. Months can go by and I’ve lost all that time when I could have been writing consistently and enjoying my writing life.
As with most things, finding a group of lovely humans to share the ups and downs of the writing life makes it that much richer.
But it doesn’t just happen. You can’t sit at home wishing for it and then: LO! Community came to pass!
Being intentional about building community – as hard as that can sometimes be for hard-wired introverts – is the key to feeling connected.
Here are some of the ways I’ve made this happen for myself over the years:
Create a Writing Group
I’ve written before about how to create your own writing group. Sometimes you can get lucky and find one already in existence that you feel comfortable joining – just ask any/all writing friends you know about their writing groups – but often, you have to just create your own.
My writing group has been working together off and on now for almost 20 years now. It existed before I was invited to join, and since I joined 12 (?) years ago we’ve gone through several iterations, taking a pause as we needed it. Mostly we focus on short fiction, with the occasional novel thrown in for kicks and giggles.
I almost always leave my writing group inspired to head back to my desk and go deeper with my own work.
This week we met and reviewed some great work by two group members, had our fill of yummy snacks and a little white wine, and talked about where the Young Adult/Adult boundary lies and how much it even matters.
My friend Kathlyn had a short story this week that she had whipped off as something light and fun, and the group helpfully turned it into a six-book YA series.
Because we’re just helpful like that – get on it, Kathlyn! (Kidding. Except that Kathlyn has published this fabulous novel already so we know she’s totally up for the challenge, and already has another story started.)
But maybe without us giving her that feedback and encouraging her to see the story in a larger light, then maybe she’d have thought “well, that was fun!” and set it aside to move onto something else, depriving 15-year old girls everywhere of an engaging heroine they can look up to and learn from. (No pressure, Kathlyn!)
And as I watched Kathlyn think about what she could do next with her characters, and my friend Vicky figure out how to write something that has some political commentary embedded in it but is still an engrossing experience for the reader, I’m really just a) thrilled to be talking about writing with people who GET it, and b) inspired to try something fun of my own that also has some political commentary in it.
Because, why not? The other thing my writing group routinely reminds me is that the best writing starts out as play.
Go to A Meet-Up
Maybe you’re not up for a multi-year commitment, though? In that case, start out small and try a Meet-Up.
Meet-Ups happen pretty much everywhere and they are open and welcoming to newcomers. You can look for a writing Meet-Up in your area, or maybe even start up one of your own if one isn’t running already. (Apparently there’s one in Montreal called “Shut Up and Write” – those are my people. Any Meet-Up called “Drink Wine and Write” would also have my number.)
And if you don’t want to meet with complete strangers, you could always invite a few friends who write to join you one night a week at the local library branch or coffee shop for a quick chat and a writing session.
Take a Course or Workshop
You can do these in real life (IRL) by checking at your local library, community centre or college where instructors often host regular short-term workshops. A quick Google and/or Facebook search of “writing workshop + [your city]” should yield results for you.
The online world is another option. I did my Masters of Fine Arts partially online through the University of British Colombia (UBC) in their Optional Residency Program, and before that I enjoyed the 1:1 mentorship program at Humber College. I found writing friends in these programs that I still hold dear to this day.
There are tonnes of online courses for writing. When you’re searching for one, look for either the genre you most enjoy (short stories, poetry, screenwriting) as well as for an instructor with writing experience of their own.
Naturally I’m biased because I’m creating my own online course to help women finish their books (First Book Finish, coming your way in June 2019) but I don’t think you should take writing courses from people without publishing experience. Self-published is fine, if that’s the way you’d like to go, or traditionally published, but you want someone to guide you who really knows what it’s like for writers out in the real world, someone who’s been brave enough to put themselves out there for others to comment on and critique.
Here are a few online courses I’ve heard good things about from folks who’ve taken them:
The Story Course and the Story Intensive, by Sarah Selecky – for short story lovers
Lit Mag Love, by Rachael Thomson – for folks wanting to pitch to literary magazines
Spark Your Story, by Nicole Breit – for people wanting to write from their own life experience
Learn Writing Essentials, by Chelene Knight – a mix of courses to select from, including some for poets
Gotham Writers Workshop, by same – courses held offline in New York City, and online (I did one of these waaay back.)
I'm not trying to sell you any of these, just passing along the word on some possible options. With that list to start, plus your handy-dandy search engine you should be able to find something that meets you where you are with your personal writing project right now.
Get a Mentor
I’ve written previously about how much mentorship meant to me in terms of being able to really advance my work beyond what I was capable of doing by myself at the time.
Mentors are indispensable for providing deadlines and feedback, accountability and encouragement. Any mentor who doesn’t believe in encouraging new writers should be avoided. Sometimes you won’t know until you’re already engaged, but take my word for it and drop them at the first sign of harsh criticism on your new drafts. Life’s too short for that kind of ego-driven B.S. – especially if you’re paying for the privilege!
What a mentor offers is that one-on-one intimate attention to your work. This is something completely different to what you’ll get in a course or group environment and, if you can afford it, it’s worth investing. Ask fellow writers who they’d recommend as potential mentors and approach them to see if they’re available. (More on that here.)
Attend Local Literary Events
If you can’t afford a course or a mentor right now, you can still build a writing community and connect with other writers by seeking out local literary events.
Where I live (Ottawa, Canada) we have the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival for two editions each year, and I’ve been attending for almost twenty years now. Sometimes I stay after sessions and chat with other writers, or a few of us head out for a drink, but just as often I skip home as quickly as I can to get back to my own writing because I’ve been so inspired.
And in any larger town or city there are likely other literary events, such as reading series or book launches. Check bookstores for notices of launches and Google up some reading series options.
Many local series offer an Open Mic where you can read your work aloud to a (usually) supportive community, and because these events are regular, they’re a good way to get to know a group of writers over time.
And hey, if you're in Ottawa come join me at my reading series: This is Short — where we're all about short stories, alla the time!
Cultivate Writing Friendships Over Time
Building up community does takes time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
If you let yourself feel alone in your writing, the odds increase that you will give up on it – it’s just so easy to let it slip. So make an intentional effort to surround yourself with other writers, both in your local community and online, and you’ll find yourself with a renewable source of motivation and support.
By offering support and constructive criticism to other writers in return, you can surprise yourself with new insights into your own work. And if you never publish another darn thing (sorry if that's too close to home!) the friendships you make will still make your writing life — and possibly even your non-writing life — that much richer.