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

§ 21 Responses to Community vs. Solitude for Writers

  • […] Community vs. Solitude for Writers — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • You’ve given me a lot to think about. My experience in groups has been all over the map. My MFA program was non-residential and drove an enormous out-pouring of writing. Writing groups never did though I tried and tried to find that comradeship that so many writers I admire seem to enjoy. (Ultimately, I blamed and blame myself for the inability to work in a writing group.) I felt the loneliness and struggled to find union, but I can see the wisdom in your approach.

    • Lisa says:

      Jan, thanks for writing. I think those great group situations are rare. And even when they’re great, they have limits–for example, the group I mentioned above was probably not the right place for a novella. However, I loved the writers in it and they helped me with countless other pieces. Other constellations, however, have certainly left me lonely–as I’m sure I have left others. Wishing you all the best.

  • What an interesting perspective! Thank you. The only time I’ve been in critique groups they took the wind out of my sails, though I also learned some things.

    • Lisa says:

      Oh, I’m sorry to hear about the sail destruction. Groups are not for everyone. Too, rare is that combination in which everyone can both give and receive in the language of craft. Thanks for commenting. Wishing you all good things with your writing.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Love this conversation about writing groups and community… feedback is most helpful to me when it points out one of my many blindspots.

    Although it can be a tricky balance between remembering to be discerning about the feedback I receive – keeping in mind the expression, “We don’t see others as they are, we see them as we are.” …and recognizing what will strengthen and deepen the writing.

    I also like to look at feedback as market research – if the writer is able to simply share with me how the writing landed in them, that can offer me valuable information.

    I like how in your article, you point towards the importance of knowing ‘time and place’ i.e. when it’s a good idea to share a piece of writing, and when it’s not.

    Thank you for this thought provoking piece!

    • “We don’t see others as they are, we see them as we are.” Learning to respond to the the work the writer is trying to accomplish instead of our own goals is the great challenge in offering critique.

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks for commenting, Camilla. Tricky is right. Fortunately, there is now plenty of conversation online about how to give helpful feedback–example, the blog articles I read here on Brevity. Love your market research angle–how it lands. All best to you.

  • I could not agree more. I have lost interest in writing groups, as they have always ended up being mutual admiration societies, or full of useless advice like, “I want more!” and I spent endless time working on characters I eventually dropped. Not really helpful. I so appreciate the confirmation that for some folks, alone is best.

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks, Julia. Solo is sweetness much of the time–which, I suspect, is why many of us chose the writing path. Too, I think some people say “I want more,” when they mean well, but don’t know what else to say or don’t have sufficient language of craft. Do you agree? Thanks for commenting.

      • I used that recently with someone only because I felt that she was mid-stream, and my feedback wouldn’t necessarily be useful. It seemed that there was more work to be done and she could very well find her own way into what resonated to her. Because it’s seems that that is the most important, that we like our own work.

  • Vickie says:

    I found this very interesting. When I write short stories or short nonfiction, I won’t share until I feel the piece is finished. I know that doesn’t mean it’s good or that it can’t become better. But I need to know the story is where I think it needs to be before I can share it. Then, like happened recently, I got some very good feedback on a story I thought was finished, and my story became better. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks for commenting, Vickie. I know what you mean about not sharing till truly ready, but then remaining open. Sometimes, I like to refrain from sharing even with myself–holding off on the writing till the piece is ready to leap out of my head fully formed. (Thanks, Athena!) Timing is so important. All best to you.

  • Thanks, Lisa! Long ago a well-respected publisher told us in a workshop that the best person to critique a manuscript is the author. That we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, what works and doesn’t work. Since then, I’ve pretty much eschewed “workshops” that provide group feedback. Instead I rely on one or two trusted individuals whose opinions I highly value to give me feedback. When I want community, I attend virtual readings.

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks for writing, Barbara. And one of my favorite forms of community is the virtual webinar, speaking and listening as an exchange. As to the writer being the best person to critique her own work, I’d say, ultimately yes. However, I have received excellent help from other writers (mostly trusted individuals, as you mention) who saw what I could not. Group feedback is such a gamble. All best to you and your writing.

  • Janet Alcorn says:

    Interesting piece. I was lucky in that my first-ever critique group was helpful and supportive, and their feedback made my writing better and gave me the courage to submit for publication. But like Vickie, I don’t usually share till I have a near-final draft, because I want the work to embody my vision, not someone else’s.

    Oh, and I just have to say: “The piece decided to stop, butt-to-concrete, mid-sidewalk like a tired toddler,” is such a wonderful simile.

  • Cassandra Hamilton says:

    Ah to write (alone) or in company: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in mind to suffer silent
    The slings and arrows of one’s thoughts,
    Or to link arms against a sea of blank pages,
    And by opposing end them? To write; to die;
    No more; and by writing on say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d.

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you, Ms. Hamlet. Er, I mean, Hamilton. Appreciate the chuckle.

    • Cassandra Hamilton says:

      I figured after digging in to write this piece a chuckle would be welcome. I did flip “To die: to sleep;” penning “to write; to die” because sometimes we writers feel the writing is the dying. 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Community vs. Solitude for Writers at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

meta

%d bloggers like this: