What's on my mind lately
ON the importance of writing tribes
Every spring I organize a writers conference in the Northern California wine country. The attendees are graduates of MFA programs, and people with corporate jobs who have published one or two pieces in literary magazines, and moms working on memoirs—writers who work on their projects in the margins of their day.
In the hours between our workshops and panels, mealtime and bed, I come upon these writers sitting in bunches at the picnic tables in the organic garden. I find them with all the lounge chairs pushed together at the pool, their pale writer’s skin covered in whitish blotches of sun screen. I discover them late at night, overflowing the hot tub, brewing up a kind of writer’s stew under the star-filled sky.
When the conference is over—even before it’s over—they begin coming to me with the same request, stopping me in the dining hall, or on the dirt path to my cabin. It’s not the contact information for the big-shot New York agent I’ve flown in they want, or the email for the Pulitzer Prize winning author I’ve put on staff. What they want to know is whether I will give them a way to keep in touch with each other.
And perhaps this is not surprising. It’s easy for published writers to form community—we meet each other at festivals and readings. But emerging writers—like the ones at my conference—are often isolated.
When I got the contract to write my first book—a memoir—I was practically unpublished and knew almost no writers, which is a feat in itself, since the Bay Area probably has as many writers per square inch as Brooklyn.
I had a year to write my book and a husband who was mostly on the road. The second my young son went down for his nap, I was on my laptop, and I didn’t leave it until I heard him rattling the bars of his crib. And while the other moms at the coop preschool were full of wisdom about fruit roll-ups and tooth decay, they had nothing for me on the breathless fear that woke me each night. The fear that even if I did manage to finish my book, once it was published the entire world would learn the truth about me being a talentless fraud.
When I sold my second book—a historical novel—on contract, I still only knew a couple of writers in San Francisco. My agent got me a year to write a book I knew would take longer, and two months shy of the date I was supposed to turn in the finished manuscript, I was only halfway through a first draft that was already a hundred pages longer than the 350 pages I’d promised my publisher. Also, my marriage was coming apart.
Those couple of writers I knew, I didn’t really know. Not well enough to call and say, Come over and tell me how to keep writing when everything in my life is collapsing. Come over and tell me what to say to my agent when I don’t even come close to making this deadline. Come over and pour me a really big drink.
When I began my third book—a novel that’s recently been published—I decided I needed to know more writers. I didn’t have a contract for this book—I’d had enough of trying to do good work under deadline—but without a writing tribe, without a group of people who were my people, I was afraid I might not have the will to finish.
I joined a writers’ coop. Rented a small office with a window that was mostly blocked by trees in a space filled with other writers. All of us tucked away in our own small offices. All of us writing.
At lunchtime that first day, we gathered around a big conference table—the dozen or so of us who had come in—with our sandwiches from the deli up the block, or our Tupperware containers filled with last night’s meat loaf, or our bowls of noodles from the Thai place around the corner. We talked about our kids, and what we watched on cable TV, and because I was new, a couple of people asked me what I was working on. And because they were writers, I told them. I talked about my book in the weirdly disjointed way you talk about a new fiction project you can barely explain to yourself.
The first week I was at the coop, one of the other writers sold her book. And everybody seemed genuinely happy about it. We toasted her with sparkling wine around the big conference table, and then we all went back to our small offices with the reminder that people really do sell their books.
It took me seven years to write the novel I came to that space to write. And during that time, a dozen or so of the writers in that coop sold their books. Every time one of them did, it reminded me—it reminded all of us—of the possibility inherent in what we do all day.
More than that, working in that space—being under one roof with other writers—produced a kind of creative synergy. It might be only that I was around people who understood that writing is work. A job that, if we’re lucky, we get to toil at every day. But I think there’s an energy that happens when people write together. Perhaps that’s what draws so many of us to cafés, to sit for hours with the same latte turning cold next to our humming laptops. The sense that we’re in this together, this work of telling stories.
These days, I know a lot of writers. Once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, ten or so of them come to my house and we write together for a couple of hours while I roast chickens. We don’t write to prompts, and we don’t share our work. We just write under one roof.
When the two hours are up, we open the wine, and eat the chickens. And we talk. Sometimes we talk about our work. Sometimes we talk about the business of publishing. Sometimes we talk about nothing of any importance at all. But we know—because we are all members of the writing tribe—that if one of us is waking up breathless with the fear the world will learn the truth about her being a talentless fraud, or if another of us needs someone to come over and tell him how to write when his world is falling apart, or if any of us needs reminding of the possibility inherent in what we do all day, we will be there.