Picture it – 2 a.m. on a windless summer night. A “writer” is in his backyard with his laptop, working on what he believes will be a classic novel. He will go to school the next day and, between yawning, brag about being up at 2 a.m. writing. He will read stories of Emily Dickinson, J.D Salinger, and Thomas Pynchon and romanticize the life of a recluse author—those mysterious figures whose work surpassed them.
Why did I idealize this lifestyle? Somehow, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I absorbed the notion that writing is a solitary art, that in order to be truly great, I had to disconnect myself from the world, retreat to a cabin in the woods, and just… write.
Sixteen Years Later
It is March, 2020—enough said.
The idea was that, if forced into isolation and forced into reduced working hours, those of us striving to carve out time to write would have no more excuses. We were finally primed to write the works we were meant to write.
And some did, which is great. But many did not.
There are many reasons for this. I am not inclined to psychologically probe our collective consciousness, but it is worth seeking out.
My takeaway, upon examining my writing during the past two years is that writing and isolation are not the dream pair I once thought.
Disclaimer: what follows is my opinion based on experience. If you have embraced the recluse author lifestyle, you may not agree with what I say, but know that you have my admiration.
Sure, on a micro-level, isolation can be beneficial for writers. I have done many a clichéd coffeeshop writing session, and while I enjoy group writing, I do my best work on my own, in my own space, with my own routines. But, if we take a longer view of the writing process, I believe that a form of writing community is beneficial for motivation, productivity, and yes, creativity. It goes without saying that eventually selling and marketing a book is not an isolated process, but that is for another time.
What is a Writing Community?
Here are a few examples.
The Writing Group or Critique Group is the most local level writing community. A small group of writers who frequently share their works in progress with each other and (depending on the group) provide varying levels of feedback. I find this form of community invaluable: consistent “submission deadlines” keeps me writing, and the feedback I receive is thoughtful and critical. This experience is, I believe, common among those who have a good writing group. This form of writing community is not, however, without its dangers. Particularly if you are working on a longer project (a novel, or long work of non-fiction), receiving constant feedback during a first draft can stall the process. Some people, me included, enjoy constantly editing as they write. For those who believe in writing a first draft uncensored, recognizing that it is a first draft so it doesn’t have to be perfect (“yes I know my character ages up and down between chapters, I’ll fix it later.”), constant feedback can be at best distracting and at worst demoralizing.
The beauty of a small writing group is that you can tailor it to your collective needs. Writing groups don’t have to be focused on critique. If you can find a small group dedicated to holding each other accountable to productivity, and who welcome the opportunity to share their work, this can go a long way to getting those words out while also building the confidence needed if you plan to send your work into the world.
In short, if you can, I highly recommend seeking out a writing group.
Online writing communities exist, and they are, in my opinion, mixed.
My foray into this type of writing community dates back to my 2 a.m. writing sessions, or when I was in high school. I accidentally stumbled onto a forum (the pre-social media online communities) where I “met” a group of people who enjoyed talking about Charles Dickens and Shakespeare as much as I did. It was also here that I first shared my writing with strangers, and I first received excellent critical feedback and, on occasion, not-so-excellent harsh feedback, which is a lesson in resiliency. While not as intimate as a local writing group, I learned a lot from the wonderful people in this community, and it furthered my dedication to my writing while introducing me to a wider literary world. My writing tends to incorporate elements of magical realism, a genre I became fascinated with because some stranger on the internet wrote a post about Allende and Calvino.
This is the true greatness of an online writing community: a global group of passionate people to inspire you, introduce you to new ideas, and (if you find the right one) encourage your writing.
Since the demise of forums, these communities migrated to social media, notably Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. There is certainly value in these platforms, but I have found that due to size and intent, the “community” aspect is a biproduct. Early Facebook was meant to host these types of intimate groups (and inform university students where the best party was). Modern Facebook, and especially Twitter, are marketing tools first, communities second.
The #writingcommunity thread on Twitter is a bit of a paradox. There are wonderful people who follow that hashtag, who respond to posts, pose interesting questions, and who are extremely encouraging to fellow writers. But it is hard to ignore that most are there to grow their own numbers, to sow the seeds of their present or future marketing strategies. Still if you can accept that, and want a burst of positivity, a place to commiserate over the struggles of being a writer, to address current topics, or if you want to try to grow your online presence, it’s a great place to start.
The deeper benefits of community
I’m not going to speak for anyone but myself, but I can easily point to why my creative writing suffered during Covid. It wasn’t because I was working too much. It wasn’t because of crippling anxiety. It was only in part because I had shifted my focus to getting my editing certificate (shameless plug).
It comes back to the old adage which I hate--
Write what you know.
This quote, attributed to Mark Twain, is an oversimplification of the idea, and can better be explored by the concept of dasein, as philosophized by the problematic Heidegger. Essentially, dasein is “being in the world”. What this means is that we define our existence and our reality (or "being") by how we interact with the world, and others.
This same philosophy speaks well to how we write.
Even if you are not writing what you “know”—even if you are writing fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction—writing is fueled by characters’ emotions and interactions. While this all springs from a solo writer’s imagination, the metaphorical stream must have water. The mountain in this analogy is our “being in the world”: how we interact with situations and people and warp them to fit unique characters. Place a dam (here played by Covid) and the stream runs dry. Writing runs dry.
A community, writing or otherwise, is necessary for creating great works.
As much as the stereotypical creative writer may be an introvert who luxuriates in the solitary waters, take it from one such introvert that once you spend too long in your own head, having no experiences but the same online encounters, the thought of writing fiction, let alone writing anything good, is akin to leaping into a dried-up stream.
So, writers, find yourself a community. Online, in-person, writing or not. And remember to live in the world.
And as always,
Thanks for reading.