I found my literary community online on Twitter.
It was 2012, or maybe 2013, I’m not exactly sure – basically it was such a short while after I’d signed my first publishing contract (with Allen & Unwin for Every Breath) that the ink of my signature was still wet on the page. This was about the moment when my brother, Jared, said, ‘Ell, you’ve got to get some platforms, mate. I’m getting you a domain name. And while you’re at it, learn how to use Facebook properly and get on Twitter.’
Twitter? I thought he was mental. Why would I want to send 140 character missives about what I had for breakfast out into the universe? What could possibly compel me to –
‘There’s loads of writers on Twitter. You could be involved in the community.’
Well, that made sense. Living two hours away from the urban action in Melbourne made me feel disconnected from everything. I’d always worked alone. I’m not into scenes, I didn’t do parties or events, and I was crap at ‘networking’. I had no writer’s group, I’d never had a writing buddy. I’d tried a few things online – writer’s forums – to give me some perspective on whether what I was producing was any good (I even made one friend that way – hi Denis!) but I really had no idea about the industry or the community that I purported to be interested in joining. I’d attended one writer’s course (and I made some friends there too, although they lived far away in Melbourne). The only solid connection I had to other writers was through their books – books that I devoured, sighed over, read and re-read. The information that I gleaned about craft, about submissions, about the professional aspects of writing…I got most of it from books, or authors’ blogs, or whatever articles I could find online with my wonky internet modem humming in the background.
Which was…fine. Really, it was. I got by pretty well with what info I’d managed to scrape together for myself while working alone. I managed to fanangle a publishing deal, didn’t I? I was doing okay. I have to admit, being a solitary writer in a rural zone gave me a feeling of specialness, a real ‘pulling myself up by my bootstraps’ sense of myself. I didn’t need anybody! I was a literary island! No derivative outside influences for me – my singular voice would be my stylistic benchmark. I could make my own rules and do it solo, and my writing would be better for it, because it would be ALL ME.
The only problem was, it was a crock of shit.
When I hit a wall with a manuscript, I had no one to turn to (except my books, my faithful friends). I think I gave up on a few pieces because I just bounced them around inside my own head without respite. I didn’t even realise you could hit the wall that way – I’d never heard of anyone else doing it. I figured it was just my own faulty wiring. Working out solutions to problems of craft took a long time, because it was just a slow process of trial and error, and checking back with dog-eared pages or bookmarked articles (a lot of which contradicted each other).
And then, when negotiations began for book deals and so forth, I had no freaking idea what I was doing. Was this how it was done? Was this normal? I had a bad experience where a publisher gave me a twenty-four hour ultimatum to accept a deal or forget it – I angsted about it, because I really didn’t feel comfortable, and in the end I passed, but I had no other experiences, no other yardstick with which to measure this, and I felt terrible.
What about problems with tax or legal issues? Is this advance split okay? Should I change the POV – can I even do that? What do editors really want from you? Am I being unreasonable? Do you have to promote your book yourself? Really? Should I speak up more in editorial meetings? And what about speaking engagements? What about book launches? Does this chapter really have to go? Why?
I had so many questions about the industry, about writing, about the profession in general, and no one to ask. I’d been alone for so long, hunkered down in my writing cave, that I’d almost forgotten that there was a world of other people out there who were struggling along the same way I was.
Then I discovered Twitter, and suddenly the universe expanded. I connected with the larger community of writers, in this country and overseas, and found a great number of like-minded people who shared my concerns and questions, confronted the same obstacles. Collectively, they knew a heck of a lot more about the industry than I did, and they were generous with their wisdom. Plus, y’know, being in their company was just nice.
With the benefit of their frank advice, I was able to tackle craft issues in new and more constructive ways. I worked out how to handle my own business affairs (and I’m still learning on that front). I was encouraged to engage more at events (and that was a big deal – for city events, I have to make arrangements for my family and then travel a long way, so it was good to know which events were good to attend, and whether new friends would be there to back me up). I developed a much greater understanding of the industry I was working in, and the professional standards and expectations of the literature sector. Above all, I discovered a great feeling of collegiality and support, that I was not doing this on my own, and with that came a renewed confidence in my own abilities, both in writing and in handling the concerns of my new chosen field.
Twitter was great for me, because of the distance factor – I could be involved while still far away. Other writers I know who live closer to urban centres have the benefit of meeting writer friends in person, or use alternative ways to connect. Facebook, monthly meet-ups, newsletters, cons, beers at the pub… Whatever your preferred method, there’s bound to be a way for you to touch base with your writing community in one form or another.
I’m extolling the virtues of community here because I recently read two articles that lamented the involvement of writers in the social sphere. One was about a new anthology of American writing from The Paris Review,called The Unprofessionals – the editor of this book, Lorin Stein, prefaces the anthology with the complaint that many young contemporary writers have become ‘unthinkingly proficient’ at self-promotion and networking, and that such engagement often draws writers away from the art of writing itself. According to Stein, this results in “less close reading, less real criticism, lower standards, and less regard for artistic, as opposed to commercial, success.”
The other article I read was a criticism of ‘literati communities’ in urban centres, specifically in Melbourne. In her piece titled ‘Literati cities: just the spot for networking, less so for writing a great novel’, Brigid Delaney highlights the idea (suggested by Adelaide writer Jonno Revanche) that compared to writers who live and work in the urban ‘literature hubs’ of Australia, outside voices are undervalued and aren’t as easily heard. Melbourne comes in for some particular criticism for its ‘cliquey’ scene. This is a fair cop – I understand what it’s like to be on the fringes of urban networks – but what bugged me about the article was the idea that to be a real writer of Great Novels, one has to abandon community and lark out on one’s own. According to Brigid Delaney, the literary community may actually be holding you back from producing something of real artistic worth. She says, ‘You may need the scene to get job opportunities but you don’t need the scene to write a really great book. In fact the further away you are from any type of group-think, the better your writing will be, the more unusual, the more surprising and the more vivid.’
Both of these ideas stem from the romantic concept of the writer as The Great Artiste, slaving away over a hot Remington in a garret somewhere. Real writers – according to these articles – don’t engage socially, don’t mix well with others. Their focus is exclusively on The Great Work. Writers are a class apart, observant of but clearly above the squalid affairs of human life, and they would never stoop to something as crass as networking or (god forbid) self-promotion, because they don’t even care if anyone reads their work – the artistic merit of the writing is its own reward. If writers involve themselves in the petty concerns of Real Life (like, I dunno, talking to other writers or even *gasp* promoting their own books) they will lose that Specialness, that Unique Voice that sets them apart from the rest of the proles.
I’m sorry, but this is horseshit.
It ignores so many issues that…well, I’m struggling here to put the issues into some sort of coherent order, there’s just that many of them. For one, writers are people, just like all the other people you see around you. They have jobs, and friends, and families (shocking, I know) that ‘impinge’ on their attention to their Great Work every freaking day. I’m not about to tell my seven-year-old, ‘Sorry, darling, but Mummy is too busy with her Great Work to involve herself in your petty breakfast-making concerns right now’ (no matter how much I sometimes might like to). Writers are forced to engage with others, because social engagement is a part of what makes us human.
For two, writers are always solitary – always, in their own head. We don’t need to deliberately separate ourselves. Let’s face it, even in convivial groups of friends we can’t wait to get away and be alone with our inner voice. Writers are always thinking about the story, the words that bring it to life, and sure, everyone needs alone time to make those words happen on the page, but you don’t need to isolate yourself from social engagement to ensure that your focus is laser-pointed all the time. That would drive you mental.
Are you worried that if you engage socially, your Inner Voice will be watered down, or polluted, or somehow disappear? Really? How insecure are you? (Okay, writers are insecure, but…) I’m pretty sure that your unusual, surprising and vivid voice is still there, inside you, no matter how much you communicate with other people and involve yourself in normal life. Amazingly enough, it might even benefit you to have some input from other sources. Talking to people and engaging socially means hearing about other stories, other lives – maybe that might add to your voice, not detract from it (it’s not a negative-sum game, folks).
And are you quite sure that your issues of craft will be magically resolved, if only you could have complete isolation? So I’m picturing you, the solitary Great Writer, bumbling along like Thoreau in the wilderness, reinventing the wheel every time you have a problem… Uh, no. Just no. Give yourself time alone to work – obviously – but don’t cut yourself off from your other writer mates who might (gee, I dunno) have gone through the same problem and have some wisdom to share. Writers need professional friends to lean on in times of trouble, to ask for advice, to share the hard struggles of day-to-day work with, and to offer encouragement and support. And if people are distracting you, then back off – give yourself some space, absolutely! But don’t worry that your Specialness will somehow up and vanish cos you’re not living like a hermit.
Finally, I’ve got to ask the question of what you think you’re writing for. Are you writing exclusively for you? Then fine, live like a hermit, write your stuff, then stick it in a drawer and pull it out every few years so you can have a nice read. Are you writing to enlighten yourself, or enrich your own life? Again, that’s fine, and maybe you will only have a readership of one, but at least you’ve done something – you wrote! – and the writing has fulfilled its function.
Maybe that enrichment might extend to others. Think of LaMott’s patients in the emergency room. Do you write to tell a story that you think others might empathise with, a story that they might see reflected in their own lives? Do you write to explain something you’ve realised about human existence, an explanation that is so full of beautiful words and imagery that it resonates with others too? Then congratulations, you might have a publishable work. Somebody else might find something good and true in what you wrote. Maybe lots of people might find your book resonates with them – you have engaged, in the deepest way, with people from many different perspectives.
This is social engagement. The life of a storyteller is one of giving, of connecting with people, of hearing the chord thrum in every soul. Your writing does not exist in a social vacuum. To think anything else is dishonest. Your writing – your published writing – is going into the hands of many people, is connecting you to them with a fine golden thread that is no less real for being invisible. Again in LaMott’s terms, you are the host, the person people come to for food and drink and company. That is a wonderful, humbling role to have in our society.
You are a storyteller. Own it. Then live life, get out there, and find your community.