Writing is Lonely. Join a Group…

By Marlena Fiol

Jennifer Harris recently reminded us in Warrior Writers that “Writers Need Community.” Writing is a lonely act and being part of a community reminds us that we’re not alone, she said. Beyond that, she reminded us that writing communities provide opportunities to learn and grow, work together and find new readers. No one can argue with that.

She concludes with “There are many writing communities out there, so it shouldn’t be hard to find one.” Indeed, they are not hard to find. I’m fortunate to be a member of numerous online writing groups on Facebook and Medium. I have also been part of smaller writing groups that I was responsible for establishing and maintaining. I’ll refer to the former as a network and the latter as a community. Both provide opportunities to “learn and grow, work together and find new readers.” But they differ in ways that matter.

Community-Building versus Networking

Definition of Network:

  1. An arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines.
  2. A group or system of interconnected people or things.

Definition of Community:

  1. A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  2. A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

To put it succinctly, one promotes an arrangement for intersecting. The other promotes a feeling of fellowship. Both have their place, but confusing them is likely to lead to frustration and disappointment.

We writers are not inherently community-oriented.

I recently read that many people perceive us writers as selfish, ego-driven navel-gazers. And how often have you heard writers complain that other writers are trying to do the same thing they are, and getting a lot more ‘Claps’ for it? In the September 9, 2018 Book Review section of the NYT, Kate Atkinson, author of the forthcoming novel Transcription, was said to recoil at the idea of a literary dinner party: “Oh, lord, I would never invite writers,” she is quoted as saying. ”They’re so competitive.” If we are as competitive as she claims, we’ll naturally be drawn to largely anonymous arrangements of intersecting networks that can help us get ahead, yet reveal only those parts of us that we’re willing to share with our fellow writers and no more. But will that really get us what we want and need?

Three Characteristics of Networks

  1. Exposure: Most of the online writing networks available to us today are vast and highly populated. This means we can gain nearly instant exposure of our little writing gems, something unheard of even a decade ago.
  2. Ease: All we have to do to join an online network is submit a request to an unknown person and wait a few days for the invitation (which might be an automated computerized response). Done.
  3. Safety: Ah, here’s a big one. We risk putting out there only what feels safe to us, and no one will ask for more. We don’t have to really trust any of our fellow writers on the network.

I’m not surprised that writing networks have become as popular as they are today. I love ‘Claps’ just as much as you do. They are an easy and safe way for us to gauge the extent to which we’re reaching our readers across a vast population. But let’s not confuse these intersections with what I’m calling community. Nicole Bianchi began her call for writers to create writing groups with “Writing can be a lonely activity.”

She argues that Mastermind groups give writers a sense of community and a sense of belonging. Nicole suggests that they should only include members who are serious about challenging and learning from each other. And people must trust each other since they’ll be sharing deep stuff. Does this kind of community sound just a bit scary?

Three characteristics of communities

  1. Limited Size: A community is usually limited in size because members need the time to devote to giving individualized feedback to each other. So they are prepared to work hard to keep their community alive. Unlike a network, if a community doesn’t stop growing, its members disengage, no longer feeling like they belong, and eventually it dies.
  2. Common Purpose: It’s usually best if members of a writing community all have a similar purpose in mind. Otherwise, people will be seriously committed to move in disparate directions, which will tear the group apart.
  3. Vulnerability: This is one of my soapboxes and I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I won’t belabor it too much here. We offer only the smallest of glimpses into our real selves on our various mammoth networks. And sometimes it can get to feel a bit artificial: You ‘Clap’ for me and I’ll ‘Clap’ for you. There’s not a thing wrong with this, as long as we don’t imagine that it’s something more personal and meaningful than it actually is.

People on my LinkedIn network see only one tiny slice of my life, while my Facebook friends see quite another. Neither one is really me with all of my good, my bad and my ugly. Only people in my more intimate communities get a closer look at who I really am and what my struggles are.

Communities and networks aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, they lie on a continuum. Some of the groups I belong to are more like networks; others more like communities. Again, I repeat. Both communities and networks serve valuable purposes. The real problem lies in our frequent inability to distinguish between them and hold realistic expectations about what they can do for us. If you long for deep connectedness with others who share your writing interests, you’re not likely to find it on most online networks. Joining vast networks provides great slices of intersection, but probably not the feeling of community.

So what do you want from your writing networks or communities? If what you want is a safe arena to expose your writing to as many readers as possible, think about energetically interacting on some of the many available online writing networks such as Facebook, Medium and the like. If a deep feeling of connectedness is what you long for, think smaller, think about forming a group with a common purpose, and think about opening yourself up more vulnerably. And if you want both, become a member of both. But know that you will need to show up differently in each one. And each will provide very different benefits.

 

Marlena Fiol, PhD, is a storyteller, scholar, speaker and spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at marlenafiol.com.

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