It seemed as if there really wasn’t a community on campus. There were the Creative Writing majors, there were the Playwriting majors, some poetry club, and a couple of students who hung out with professors after class to talk about their work. So a few of my friends and I got together and decided to start pushing to get a community going.
In some ways, we were successful. We started The Writer’s Guild at DePaul University. We brought together about forty students at one point in a collective workshop, and filling the entirety of the Student Center’s third floor with college kids excited about not only sharing their own stuff, but helping others with theirs was exhilarating.
Those who were involved in the Writer’s Guild or some other group of writers became better by leaps and bounds. And here are some of the reasons why:
It’s great to have a family member or a friend read your work. But what you really need are a lot of voices with a lot of different opinions and points of views. Especially some who you don’t agree with or are offended by. Which leads to my second reason …
BUILDS A TOUGH SKIN
There’s always that one person in a writing group who doesn’t like anything anyone does, who has read some very impressive book more times than you’ve read Harry Potter , and who believes he is the next big thing to hit the scene. This guy is annoying, but you need him in your life. Why? Because he’s going to make you stronger. When you work on a short story for a month nonstop, barely stopping to eat and sleep, and you’ve built it up in your head to be the next great piece of American fiction, you have to eventually bring it into this guy. And this guy is going to tear it apart. He’s going to stomp on it and laugh as you cry. And regardless if he’s right or if he’s dead wrong, you’re going to have to deal with him. This builds up tolerance in you, so when you get that very not-nice letter from the publishing house or agent about your “baby,” you can already have the antibodies to deal with rejection.
It’s not easy to stand up and read. I had a friend who was terrified of sharing her work, but she went to the Guild and was forced to share. She was the best writer out of all of us, and a year later, she read a portion of the story at a reading at school. Public speaking and sharing our hearts and souls (i.e. our writing) is very difficult. But communities give you practice.
BRUSH UP ON YOUR EDITING SKILLS
You know that age-old bit of wisdom that everyone gives you about the more you read the better you’ll write? Turns out it’s true. If you can read other people’s work and see what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, you won’t only be a more productive, helpful writer in a larger community, but you’ll also be a better editor to yourself.
Everyone needs a support system. Does it feel like you’ll never get that book done? Are you stuck on the fiftieth page and don’t know what else to write? Did a character totally boggle you and you have no idea what to do with him? Chances are there is someone else in your group that has gone through the same thing or is going through it right now. Comradery goes a long way, and sometimes other writers have brilliant ideas as to how to work through the rough patches.
In college, I had a very special group of friends who I called my “writer friends.” I met my best friend and soul sister through writing. I met a cool girl who opened for Suzanne Vega. I met a cool guy who became one of my closest confidants. I met a ridiculously talented playwright who has gone on to do work in LA and New York. A lot of my closest, most dearest persons were those who read my stuff and who let me read their stuff. Through sharing comes a bond of understanding that you will only share with those people. There’s no feeling like making an inside joke about one of your characters and having someone else laugh. And there’s definitely no feeling like watching one of your friends go on to do wonderful, successful things.
On the reverse side, I’ve seen writers who don’t join communities. They don’t go to coffee shops and chat. They don’t let anyone else edit their work. They only can muster up the courage to show off their writing to those who they know will love it. These writers did not grow as fast as those who were involved in a community. They were lonelier. They were more frustrated. They had less of a gauge on what they needed to work on and what they did well. And they missed out on opportunities to meet amazing people.
Writing Communities are one of the most important things in our profession. It’s a lonely, lonely road without one. So next time you have a script or a manuscript in a good place, call your friends over. Put on some music. Order some pizza. Invite them to bring their own work. And start the conversation.