3 Steps to Finding Your Writing Tribe
Author Mary Shelley once wrote that even the Devil “had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him,” while she was "isolated and abhorred." Being a female author in the seventeenth century likely had something to do with her predicament while crafting Frankenstein. But the myth that you aren’t really a bona fide writer unless you embrace the loner lifestyle desperately needs debunking.
No doubt about it, writing requires dedicated, focused time for words to flow, and to process your feelings about events you’re describing. However, even independent authors tend to have a support team for the wide range of activities involved in being published—such as author coaches and editors to guide and polish content, and a social media guru or others who do things they don’t like to do so they can focus more fully on craft.
Equally if not more important, having a satisfying writing career entails crafting a community for yourself to stay juiced up about this lifestyle by addressing emotional and practical needs. This chosen family is one you can turn to for bouncing off content ideas or business-related questions, and for inspiration and support when the writing process gets emotionally rough. As writer and educator Charlotte Gullick shared at last month’s Writer’s League Agents & Editors Conference about the fickleness of being an author, “the [writing] community can be how you define your success.”
Here are tips for developing your own writing tribe that take into account whether you truly prefer flying solo as much as possible, or prefer having multiple writing pals to keep the writing flame burning bright inside you.
Become Clear About Your Needs
You don’t have to have an in-depth understanding of what you’ll need from other writers at the get go. But it helps to consider whether your personal concerns are a need for inspiration to sit your butt in a chair, to better understand craft, or to talk shop about building financial success in a long-term writing career. Regardless of your interests, there are different interaction options to choose from, which I’ll outline below.
Also, take into consideration whether you’re an introvert or otherwise prefer physical distancing. It could be that you just get overstimulated by other peoples’ energies at certain-sized gatherings, or seek to avoid most contact until Covid-19 concerns fully settle. Then online offerings are likely your best bet, which could involve a Zoom group.
If you’re someone who needs in-person gatherings, see whether writing organizations in your area spearhead such offerings, or use online portals such as MeetUp to learn about writing groups in your or nearby communities (I ran such a group for two years in Central Texas on the craft of creative nonfiction, as an example).
Find Purpose-Driven Gatherings
If you find setting a timer and such doesn’t keep you focused when you’re on your own, you have a range of options. At the Agents & Editors conference, publishing consultant and editor Cyndi Hughes noted she uses an app called Don’t Break The Chain! to record that she’s fit in a daily 15 minutes on her own work. Or some Zoom-type or in-person groups focus just on meeting to be silent company for each other while writing, with intermittent check-ins. An Austin option with in-person or online venues is called Shut Up & Write, and I’ve participated in NanoWrimo, a November book-drafting event that is national, yet offers online, regionally focused check-ins for participants.
For indirect, people-driven inspiration, there’s the white noise of being a stranger at a coffee shop, library or other venue, and flexible office space options you can find through online resources, or by scanning for “Space for Rent” signs in a neighborhood near you (for instance, I’ve considered renting a room in a holistic health studio because they are part of my editing clientele, though it would’ve been pricey). A relatively cheap option can be to use a coworking space that has floating desk/low-use options, such as one I used in East Austin that offered five visits per month for a relatively low cost and included free gatherings to attend.
For Skills Development
To build your understanding of the writing process, learn which are the best craft books and more, you also have virtual and in-person options. Writing -related classes are available online from websites such as janefriedman.com, as well as place-based writing associations such as the state-focused Writer’s League of Texas.
For in-person experiences, see if your community college or a nearby university offers coursework. You can also find craft-specific weekend workshops, such as the nonfiction-focused HippoCamp in Philadelphia, or weekend or longer writing retreats. To learn more about such retreats, here’s a searchable database for conferences and writing centers in which you can put in your genre and preferred country (why not travel elsewhere to learn, if you can?).
Groups sometimes labeled as critique groups can also be helpful, depending on your writing needs and disposition. For instance, kid literature author Candace Buford shared at the A&E conference that her writing has benefited the most from following her agent’s advice to join such a group. "You basically burn each other's manuscripts to the ground, which is where the learning happens," Buford said, adding that it’s important that authors learn to not “be too precious about anything you write.”
The reason I’ve mentioned seeking local writing associations for craft (or business) classes is you can likely ID a few active participants to form deeper connections with. Some could be found through genre-specific classes, while those who focus elsewhere might help you with general questions, and help you see the craft process through a different lens.
The same, find-your-tribe, approach can be used with online groups. A writer I know, for instance, is part of a Slack group that formed after a class, which they use just to check in on each other’s writing progress every week or so.
Seek Your True Champions
Regardless of what community approach you take, be cautious of committing whole-hog until you’re sure a writing group will support you in a helpful way more often than not. Author Laekan Zea Kemp noted in an A&E session on children’s lit that she avoids critique groups and such because, as a Chicane, she’s experienced micro-aggressions that took away from the experience. The same can happen for myriad reasons, such as when a writer of one gender identity doesn’t get the emotional perspective of writers who don’t share that identity, or participants come from different generational, economic or other backgrounds (I’ll cover a way to tackle each others’ identity blind spots in a future post).
If you’re like most authors, you also face moments of imposter syndrome, where you feel your skills aren’t up to snuff. So having a group that is gentle with how they approach providing feedback can be important for many writers. As Cyndi Hughes noted at A&E about groups she’s run, “If you make anybody cry, you’re out.”
The varying level of craft expertise group members will have is worth keeping in mind too, particularly if suggestions on how to address writing glitches are offered. Because of skill variability, it can be wise to focus instead on patterns in others’ comments on your work, such as whether several members were confused at the same point in a chapter. Or you may find one particular member who’s done their homework on craft through workshops and the like, and whose comments often seem spot on.
Beta readers can also be sought out for receiving further comments if you believe you have done all that you can on your own (what these readers involve is among the factors I cover in a post on prepping your work for editing). Following up with a professional editor is also smart, either for developmental editing feedback when the work may be early on, or for reviewing the final manuscript.
If you’re not sure what level of professional support you need, that’s not unusual; I break down the editing-related options to consider in this post, based on the stage of manuscript development you are in. The good news is that, whatever the stage of your writing career, there will be good folks who can help you stay true to your personal path.
Barbra A. Rodriguez