by Jenna Kalinsky.
Ask any writer what keeps them going day in and out, and nearly all would say their writing community. If you have a body of peers and fellow readers in your life whom you rely on for support, encouragement, and constructive critique, you’re one of the truly lucky ones. A good community lifts you up when you’re feeling down, shares resources and intel, and pushes you to your best work as you prepare it for publication.
(If you need proof of how important writing communities are to writers, open any book to the Acknowledgements section where you will invariably see those names of the writer’s trusted readers and confidants).
But before either seeking out a community, or even at points throughout your writing life in which you are already connected with a community, what writers need above all else is to write alone.
Naturally you must squirrel yourself away in your turret (real or figurative) to get the work done; such alone time has to happen regardless- but spending quality time in only your own company, away from the influence of peers, is what will prepare you to benefit from what a writing community can offer.
Writing Alone Builds a Foundation of Self
“All good writing comes out of aloneness.”
~ Sam Shepard
Life is hectic, full of noise, and it can sometimes become too loud for us to hear our own thoughts. When you begin writing, and at various points throughout your writing career, what you need most is quiet time spent alone with your heart and mind.
Getting to Know Yourself
From your time writing alone, you will develop insights and clarity about who you are and what you want. What writers need above all else before collaborating and connecting with others about their work, is to know with full certainty what we want and who we are, then how to accommodate for our weaknesses and capitalize on our strengths.
Productive solitude, says psychoanalytic political theorist Matthew Bowker, may become the most important relationship you will ever have- that with yourself.
The confidence borne of this awareness has an effect on your work. With stronger clarity of mind, you develop a greater acumen for self-editing, knowing when you’re being soft on yourself and when to push harder; a stiffer BS meter, and a feel for the music of the lines that matches your particular inner music. There’s magic in honoring this, and it ensures you stay true to your vision.
This isn’t to say you need to stick to your convictions until your last breath, only that now you know where you stand as a starting point, which will help you recognize when and how you can concede for the good of your work. When you do step into a community, you will have this tool of awareness at your disposal, something many writers have not paused to hone.
Getting to Know Your Voice
Removed from others’ ideas, suggestions, and opinions as to what is in your best interests- you can get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with your authentic voice, one that is entirely yours: flawed, and unique, and most importantly, uninfluenced by others opinions or thoughts about how it should be.
One of the major criticisms of writing workshops or communities is writers can lose sight of their essential voice as they take the suggested changes from their peers and apply them to their work. When writers try to accommodate well-meaning and educated advice, their manuscripts can start to feel like a pastiche, a pass-the-baton of sentences, and their center fails to hold.
On one hand, such accommodation is our biological desire to show trust and commonality, which is important for the social aspect; on the other, a writer risks losing their authentic voice- their most valuable currency.
Again, once you have some years and many pages under your belt- all of which produced in the quiet time writing alone- you will know when to accept a great suggestion that’s in your best interests, and when to recognize it’s not for you.
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The Value of a Writing Community
Once you feel solid in your awareness of self as writer, you’re ready to enjoy the community and connection with peers. Being able to share ideas, exchange pages, and trade in resources as well as get and give emotional support with others who have your back and understand you and what you do is invaluable.
Creative People Thrive Among Other Creative People
A great writing group will provide insight into your work, encourage you to keep going when you’re at your lowest, motivate and inspire, and share their knowledge and intel. The best writing communities are like family- they make you feel normal in a world where you might be considered anything but. There’s a lot you can happily take for granted when you find your people.
“One of my best days was the day I realized there were people out there who understood me.”
~ Marissa Sharpley, “The Importance of Literary Community.”
Creative Insight, Collaboration & Support
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, worked for years on the novel in her writing workshops, and with her mentor and editor Alexandra Shelley:
“Writing a novel can be a lonely business. Having a first reader who knew when to cheer and when to meddle kept me going through five years and I-don’t-know-how-many drafts of The Help.”
Manuscript Advice & Critique
Many writers rely on their groups for their honesty and skill. They use their knowledge of the craft to help each other better their work, so it is its most readable, engaging, and prepared to be submitted for publication. Some groups edit each others’ writing; others provide overarching advice and feedback on the development of the draft. In all ways, getting such constructive critique is enormously practical and can push a writer to new places in their work.
A Healthy Literary Ecosystem
A writing group can be a beautiful reminder of why you write in the first place; all of you are passionate enough about the art and craft to make sacrifices in order to do it. Being surrounded by others who love literature and ideas provides a very healthy literary ecosystem to all members of the group and serves as an ever-present reminder of why you do what you do.
“Knowing you’re not alone, being able to discuss your story in a welcoming environment, and sitting beside people that you don’t have to explain why you write to, all makes you feel part of something bigger.”
~ Nick Hudson
Writing Alone Is the Best Preparation for Community
Being in the continual embrace of a writing community is fun, good for the soul, and buoys us with confidence that we are held by those who have our backs. A good community makes the world more intimate and much more rewarding.
Some writers at various points in their work sense that they need a self tune-up and begin to crave solitude, dreaming of cabins in the woods, writing retreats, or reading and re-reading Thoreau’s Walden. That instinct is their unconscious mind’s way of saying they’re ready for a return home, like a bird to its nest.
When you surface and return to your writing community or find a new one, you’ll be strong and sure of who you are as a writer and what your goals are. You will know your own mind, be aware of your process, and best be able to stay the authentic course of your writing.
This fall, join up with a community of smart, engaged peers in our online courses. You can learn, grow, produce abundant material, and have 24/7 access to conversation, connection, and the opportunity to share your work and ideas on a schedule that works for you.
This article is the essence of what I felt when I knew I had to get away be alone and know myself better as an individual and as a writer. I was fortunate to be able to do this and returned with new energy and purpose. I no longer feel hesitant participating in a group to which I belong. Had I not found myself I would have continued to spin in a never ending cycle of doubt and procrastination.
Zoe, the fact that you’ve written so prolifically in such a short amount of time is enormously inspiring- your ability to give to your community is probably helped by your intuition for knowing when to curl up and get your work done. The best writing is borne of that balance!
I love the OLP community. How lovely to be able to connect with our peers. Writing is a solitary activity so having other writers to bounce ideas around is invaluable. This is another great article. I especially enjoyed the section ‘Getting to Know Your Voice’. But, here is a funny thing. When I write, at certain times, I have problems finding the right voice for the story. I believe the ‘voice’ of an article will be different depending on the subject of the piece. It may be subtle but voice is distinct and getting it right can be a challenge.