I’m going to give some advice about building a writing community, which is one of the sure ways to build a writing practice. But first, I will start with an anecdote that illustrates the rewards of surrounding yourself with a curio cabinet of fellow writers. If you have no patience for anecdotes, just skip to the end and you will find a list of ways to wheedle yourself into the good graces of your peers. Of course, if you have no patience for anecdotes, you are in all likelihood neither a reader, nor a writer.
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So recently, I had the opportunity to see another writer—Ed Lin—who came to Los Angeles to promote his book, Ghost Month. And sure enough, he was a ham who stole the show. This was to be expected. But what was more curious was that there were a lot of other writers, too, who came to support him. And these writers formed a community in and of themselves.
Right before the reading, I met Steph Cha who writes Los Angeles noir fiction. She is the author of Follow Her Home and Beware Beware, both novels that I would kill to have written.
I also met Yumi Sakagawa—a graphic novelist who does these awesome cartoons, and who was recently nominated for some big prestigious award. She looks as quirky as her cartoons.
The two were introduced to me by the poet Nicky Schildkraut, whose poems are published by the same press that first got Ed Lin his start. And so even before the reading, I found myself at the reading, watching my fellow writers slurping down a bowl of slippery wet noodles at a ramen joint. (I totally would have joined them, but had gone on a low sodium diet).
Writers want desparately to be alone—an island unto themselves—but they also know this fact, a thorn on the stigmata of their existence: they want desperately to be with other people, to feel a connection, even if that connection arrives from desperation.
This is not what I imagined all my life about writers. I had a romantic vision of them—one composed of corrugated cardboard, flat and one-dimensional. I imagined that these rare creatures were hermit crabs—adrift in a world not unlike the subterranean depths described by Paul Auster, a world in which the writer emerges from his dark little New York apartment and realizes that he is such a misfit that he could very well be mistaken for a homeless person.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I learned this first when I started teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College and running Writers At Grinnell. Suddenly, I realized that writers don’t live in a vacuum but, rather, are incredibly social creatures. Writers At Grinnell brought many famous scribblers to campus—Adrienne Rich, Ana Castillo, John Edgar Wideman, Lan Samantha Chang—and that meant I spent my time boozing and schmoozing: before the reading came dinner; after the reading, drinks; then perhaps an impromptu pizza-making session at my house; and stories followed by toasts.
Some were desparate for an ear into which they could pour conversation. Some were criss-crossing the country on manic book tours. All were generous of spirit, ready to take you into their intellectual embrace, and show you the secrets hidden under their cloak. I always gave my students extra credit to show up. I couldn’t stand to see these writers reading to an empty room. And, yes, I was the first and last person at any reading—the guy who was ready to pay for the first round and tell them how god-damn-fucking-brilliant-they-were.
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So here’s my advice, if you want to find a writing community that will help you jumpstart your own writing practice.
1) Attend a reading. Make sure it’s a reading for a moderately well-known writer who works in a genre that you will aspire to.
2) Buy a book, and get it signed. Writers love to feel appreciated, even if they get almost none of the money that comes from the purchase of the book. When you get to the front of the line, ask questions. Better yet, tell them that you’d love to have them come do an event for your church, book club, community center. They will become your new best friend.
3) Stay Late. Mill about. Wait until there is a cluster of folks who seem to be of the event but, also, apart from it. Those are the friends, lovers, colleagues who are waiting to whisk the writer off to an evening of fun and excitement.
4) Talk to People. Talk to the friends of the writer. Talk to the introducer. Talk to the bookstore manager. It goes a long way.
5) Get on a Mailing List. Then, go to the next event and complete the process, again. And again. And again. You need to do this until you become a fixture. You need to become a recognizable face that people will wave to. Stick to a genre; If your genre is Science Fiction, try to make it to as many of these readings as possible!