Community vs. Solitude for Writers
October 14, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Lisa K. Buchanan
Workshops, writing groups, classes, and conferences can all be lifelines for writers. It is only as a grateful beneficiary of such bounty that I’ve also come to know when it’s important to work alone.
In an online writing group awhile back, I received the happy news that a short piece of mine was chosen as a finalist in a competition. Savoring the treat, I kept it to myself, grinning stupidly. Meanwhile, a fellow writer in the group announced her own finalist win—but with exasperation. Her piece had “finalisted” many times already. Always the bridesmaid… Accordingly, colleagues’ congratulations were more sympathetic than celebratory. Finalist again? Aww, sucks! Next time, for sure! I stifled an impulse to post a bumper sticker: Cartwheels Not Condolences. I knew my own finalist win would help counteract rejection and boost my stamina for subsequent revisions and submissions. Ultimately, both my piece and the piece by the disappointed finalist were published. At the time, however, I cherished the award, but kept my cartwheels private, sidestepping the risk of group sympathy.
In addition to online communities, I’ve also enjoyed destination workshops, a two-year MFA program, and, more than one enriching run of monthly meetings in the living rooms of fellow wordmakers. Most of my colleagues in these groups nurtured and respected and celebrated and commiserated in just the right way. In one particular constellation, though each of us had published shorter forms exclusively, I received thoughtful responses to scenes from a novella I’d been writing. My colleagues were helpful and astute, but the piece decided to stop, butt-to-concrete, mid-sidewalk like a tired toddler. Long after the group had amicably disbanded, I was traveling in Ireland, and asked a bookseller for a reading recommendation. When he asked for a title that had recently thrilled or disappointed me, I cited a thick novel I’d eagerly begun; after a gripping thirty pages, however, I’d irrevocably lost my connection to it. The bookseller had too, calling it “a novel that should have been a short story.” The impact was swift and startling; the recognition, absolute. The bookseller’s comment only reminded me that I had suspected as much for my tired toddler. On the ten-hour flight home, I began condensing my novella into a story. I also began to see that my writing-group hadn’t been well positioned to assess the arc and momentum of a longer work. I’d shared only individual scenes, out of order and separated by weeks or months. By design, we didn’t sit with each other’s work in advance, but usually read aloud and discussed our excerpts or flash pieces in-progress. Though my colleagues had been kind and encouraging, I’d benefitted greatly as well from a stranger who didn’t know my novella existed. Additionally, the bookseller pointed me toward Foster by Claire Keegan, a powerful work that had been published both as a long story and a short novel.
Lastly, I find that pain often begets writing, and colleagues often beget comfort—which can, in turn, blunt the pain that drives the writing. In an elevator at an AWP conference, I overheard one writer explaining the plot of his novel to another writer. They seemed to have only just met. The listener was kind, the novelist was stuck, and as the plot summary had a well-rehearsed sound, I doubted the novel would be finished anytime soon. Had the writer inadvertently transferred too much energy from the page to the (possibly numerous) confidantes? Or perhaps, I had it all wrong, and it was this very telling, whether the fifth or the fifty-fifth, that enabled the novelist to work out a literary problem. In contrast, I often find that the less I say about a work in progress, the stronger the writing. When I witnessed a stranger’s suicide a few years ago, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew I needed to keep my shock and sorrow intact. By taking notes and denying myself the relief of conversation, the emotional pressure continued to build until the words were finally ready to find a form. I worked on the piece quietly and sporadically for about four years. A writers’ group might have sped and smoothed the process, but then I might not have ended up with the published piece as it is, potent and still sore to the touch.
I recently heard a journal editor cite “community” as one of three essential components of writerly success. While I wholly embrace the first two components, (reading in and about one’s chosen genre), I initially bristled when I heard the third, that of participating in the exchange of writerly feedback. I suspect the editor’s intention was to caution against insularity or isolation; hard to argue with that. But when I’m lucky enough to be immersed in words—from both reading and writing—I’m usually engaged and rarely lonely. When I next feel the need for community, I won’t hesitate to embrace it. For now, however, I’ll keep cartwheeling alone, just a little while longer.
Lisa K. Buchanan’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, New Letters, Narrative, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Awards include the Sweet 2020 Flash Nonfiction Contest (winner), The Bristol Short Story Prize (shortlist), and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (honorary mention). She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her at www.lisakbuchanan.com