Community and writing

Photo, Untitled, jason wilson/fekaylius, Aug.26, 2007, Flickr
jason wilson/fekaylius, "Untitled," Flickr, 2007.

Writing is a lonely business.

And for beginning writers, working alone is a major problem. There’s only you, your keyboard, screen, and maybe a hot cup of coffee—which, like inspiration, always gets cold. And usually you’re so misunderstood. How often do you hear, “Okay, you want to write. But what do you really want to DO?” Tell people you aim to be a plumber or even an airport traffic-controller and they understand. But a writer?

Many beginning writers come from environments that simply are not supportive of writing, so they’ve kept their “dream” locked inside them, not because family or friends are against it (though some of them are), but because the “work” just isn’t understood as real work. Or else they’ve churned out stories and novels and developed their craft but can’t find anyone to answer questions about agents, publishers, submission formats, markets, publicity, or “Who will do my cover?” There are writing groups, yes, but they’re unpredictable. There are websites for information, true, but they’re often contradictory or too specialized.

So we shouldn’t have been surprised when we created Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program that a great sense of community resulted. And that, soon, it went beyond the program itself.

Since students stay on campus for only two one-week periods each year (in June and January), their face-to-face contact is limited. We made these periods “intensive” with writing workshops, modules in fiction and genre techniques, presentations from visiting writers, senior thesis readings, and graduation, making for crowded agendas. We commonly told first-term students, “Don’t expect a lot of quiet writing time.” But the students found the residencies not just stimulating but mutually supportive and community sustaining. So they petitioned us on ways to “continue” them.

They had left behind the places where no one spoke their language and came to where everyone spoke it—where “No one understands me” is immediately understood. “I don’t want to be the next George Elliot, I want to be the next Nora Roberts.” We know that feeling. “Sure I’d like to write The Road, but I also want to do the next Hunger Games.” We hear you, no problem. Of course they didn’t want to go home. And thus we did some things to maintain the group feeling. And the students did several things too.

We already had threaded discussions on our website for genre talk, but we instituted several online chats throughout the term to “keep in touch.” These started first as open conversations, undirected, but they developed into teaching opportunities, where instructors offered specific writing, genre, or market topics, and the students then participated in the talks. The students also, in smaller groups, started organizing their own chats and setting their own times, focusing on specific critique groups, common genres, or types of writing.

When we moved to M.F.A., we instituted online courses that focused on genre history and contemporary practice, the establishment of a writer’s platform, and the teaching of writing and popular fiction (for speaking presentations, leading of workshops, or the teaching of classes). Online forums, chats, and wikis maintained weekly interaction. And students have said that many of these discussions continued after the class’s formal get-togethers, at first on email and group chats, but then on social media, especially Facebook, and #shuwpf is now an often used Twitter hashtag.

Furthermore, we were asked by the alumni if they could establish their own writing-workshop to meet on campus during the summer Residency, which would allow them to maintain the inspiration and contacts that had started in the program. This has developed into the independent In Your Write Mind workshop that occurs annually. And the alumni have instituted what now is a traditional Book Signing and Costume Ball where our current students mingle with the alumni, in the same way that the alumni mingle with us by attending the program’s evening guest writer appearance. Though Seton Hill provides the space (rooms and halls) for these events, the alumni are fully in charge of planning.

All this happening has been a wonderful consequence of what is obviously important for a beginning writer: the need to be in touch with practicing authors and representatives from the publishing world. Some student critique groups are still functioning years after graduation. Students who have become publishers themselves solicit alumni of the program for anthology stories or novel manuscripts. Personal contacts grew into important publishing advantages. A fine example is the writing text, Many Genres, One Craft, edited by an alum and a member of the faculty. It includes essays on writing fiction from 65 contributors, almost every one of whom has been associated with SHU’s program (as mentors, faculty, guest speakers, students, and alumni).

So we didn’t just pass on a lot of knowledge about fiction and genres, we built an ever developing and self-supportive writing community. And though we might have been the impetus or inspiration, much of what happened was instituted by the students and alumni themselves.

Writers do not need to work alone. Community is important, whether it starts in an MFA writing program or from a group doing NaNoWriMo for a month and then deciding, “Hey, let’s keep going,” and using social media to continue the interaction, to become self-sustaining and maybe even strong enough to affect publishing itself.

You’re really not alone.

Albert Wendland

Albert Wendland is a professor of English in the Writing Popular Fiction MFA program at Seton Hill University.

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