Art, Writing

Writing community.

 I have been using this blog more as a way of highlighting things and less of a way of sharing things. Perhaps I’ll be able to shift it towards being an open notebook, perhaps not. But I offer this post in that spirit.

For the past few years, I’ve been sitting around my house going, “Gosh, you know what I need! Writing community. That would fix everything.

My day job is community-focused. My life in the dance world has been nothing but community. Writing community, though, has proven elusive.

In early 2020, I resolved to go to a writing event every month, and on every business trip I took. I was going to build my writing community one class, reading, and workshop at a time, dammit!

We all know where that ended up.

Still, this drumbeat in my heart called out: Get you a writing community. Find your people.

Why? What even is a writing community, and what would I gain from finding one?

I looked back through my history, to times when I felt like a Real Artist who was Known as a Real Artist. It led to the ten or so years I spent in the heart of the Minneapolis dance community. I was happy with my own commitment to my artistic life, and I had people around me who validated that commitment. Lots of them.

These days, I don’t feel that.  Instead, I feel the loud and persistent presence of the Shadow Artist, The Failed Artist, the Wannabe Artist walking alongside me. They hiss in my ears, “If you were a real artist, you’d quit your day job and plunge off the cliff. Trying to do both is a sign you don’t care.” I have supportive family and friends in my life, but the scale is different.

So what did I get from the Minneapolis dance community that I don’t get now?

Julia Cameron talks about people who are “believing mirrors”. She writes:

When people ask me what I think is the single most important factor in an artist’s sustained productivity, I know I am supposed to say something like ‘solitude, or ‘an independent income,’ or ‘childcare’. All of these things are good …but what I think is better and more important than any of these things is what I call a ‘believing mirror’.

“Put simply, a believing mirror is a friend to your creativity–someone who believes in you and your creativity.”

The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

And I absolutely got that. I got camaraderie — People understood that I couldn’t come out on Thursday because I was hot gluing white fur into the shape of a polar bear. Of course. I didn’t have to explain or apologize about my weird life that wasn’t quite job, wasn’t quite hobby.

I got a map. Very early in our career, a dance community elder sat me down and explained the landscape of the dance world. He pointed us at the next best step for us, and the next best step after that. He explained the ebbs and flows of popularity and the role of the Golden Child of the dance scene.  And, over the next four or five years, we crossed off every item on that list.  We did every festival, every grant, every residency, everything we could get our hands on.  He took a scene of chaos and confusion and distilled it into a map, and I will forever be grateful for that. (Thanks, John.)

I got opportunities. People needed a piece to fill out a show, or a person to wear a bunny suit and do the tango, or wanted us to apply to their grant program.

I got feedback and conversation. We held informal showings, inviting others in to tell us exactly what we needed to move forward. We went to other people’s feedback sessions, watching with a careful eye and asking the best questions we could. 

I got an education. In dance, yes, and in dance administration (see also: fundraising, marketing, promotions, event planning, stage managing, garment construction, lighting design, vocal performance, blogging, website design, Q&A facilitation, the creation and clean-up required for fake blood, IP laws, tax laws, networking, and hundreds of other subjects I’ve forgotten). I learned that after a show, your heart will fall apart. Eventually it will come back together. I learned how to hold the light, how to weave a spell, how to draw timing so tight the audience gasped when I let them go. I learned what to do with negative reviews and people who walked out mid-show.

I got friends. Smart, funny, kind friends, who care so damn much about this world we’re all born into and who live in the biggest picture and the smallest details, and everywhere in between.

I tried to give these things back, too, though I failed in many ways. My inability to live up to the dance community was part of the reason I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t find my full, rounded, 360 self in that space. Always I felt compelled to round off the pointy bits, hide the job I had, pretend that it was always and ever dance, and only dance in my heart.

The culture of dance is, for the most part, supportive and communal.  From the first time you put together a performance, you’re working with other artists — they’re performing in your show, they’re running the lights at the show, they’re MCing for you.

A large stage made of bricks, with three people dancing on it -- one of them is me. There's also a small elephant in the back.

Writing, well, writing you can do all by yourself from a closet in the middle of nowhere, to some extent. You may not get anywhere with it, but you can write and write and write without a single other soul knowing you’re doing it. (Hi, Emily Dickinson).

A cat looking at the camera, with a mug that says "Look at me becoming an author and shit" and a notebook.
Writing community: A two gifts and a cat.

So as I’ve set about this writing path, and I’m not finding this elusive writing community, I think to myself: What am I missing? Where have I gone astray?

First, it’s not even accurate to say I haven’t got any writing community. I have found community in the writing world: A small group of women who write and work in the software industry have made a happy home for ourselves on a community Slack.  These folks give me such joy and share so much wisdom, I wouldn’t be where I am without them. It’s easy to overlook what you already have.

I look around at the questions I have unanswered: Should I get an MFA? What kind of MFA would I even want? Should I apply for Clarion West? Where do people even find writing opportunities? How do you keep track of it all? I’m writing a novel and it’s taking forever and I’m worried everyone thinks I’m not doing anything creative at all — help!

I had a call with Andrew Simonet this morning, and among several dozen other gems, he said to me, “There is no writing world.  There are just writers and publishers doing interesting shit.”

There’s no secret club to which I need to find the doorway, the key, or the magic password.

No amount of changing who I am or what I’m into will grant me that secret door into the literary world. 

So I’m rewriting the question. No longer am I going to sit here and wonder: Where can I find writing community? When will I find it? Where can I go and get it?

The question is now: What do I need right now? Feedback? Believing mirrors? Information? A general open-ended sloppy conversation about art? And who do I already know who can help me get there? What can I offer in return, and who do I know would benefit?

It’s just one day at a time, one conversation at a time, one person at a time.