Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.
How do you move from being a writer in the corner to a writer at the table? Writing may happen in solitude, but careers are built on community. This panel will explore how to create accessible writing communities—particularly among marginalized, underserved and non-traditional writers—where members provide feedback and share information about craft, publication, and more. Panelists will discuss existing resources for developing platforms and cultivating support in real and virtual communities.
How do writers find communities for peer support, mentorship, and inspiration, especially if they face geographical, social, or cultural barriers? This panel will provide vital information about how to build such connections through virtual learning, social movements, local writing groups, and online platforms. Panelists include prose writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters who have made it their mission to build communities that are inclusive, dynamic, and responsive to their members.
Tell me briefly how you came to writing.
Shaula Evans: I was an early and voracious reader. I wrote plays that my neighbourhood friends performed on the stage my father built in our basement. My brother and I also made up horror stories and recorded them on a cassette player; we’d play them back in the dark and scare ourselves to death. I had a disheartening experience with a university creative writing class that turned me off creative writing for many years, but I came back to creative writing as the house writer for a theatre group and I’ve been writing in a range of forms and styles ever since. When I lived in Japan, I was editor-in-chief for three monthly journals (in English, Japanese, and Portuguese) and wrote non-fiction for a number of publications, which was my start in post-academic non-fiction writing and editing.
Ashley C. Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and for a long time I assumed I would go into acting. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year of college that I realized I could give this writing thing a shot. I was quite content once I changed my major to English, but when I took my first class for creative nonfiction, I fell in love.
Colette Sartor: I came to writing as an adult looking for a way out of an ill-chosen career as an entertainment lawyer. While I was still practicing law, I took classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and at USC’s MPW program. I finally realized that I wouldn’t take writing seriously until I left law altogether. Once I quit, I spent a year writing, taking classes, and applying to graduate school, and then spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop completing my MFA. It was only in graduate school, though, surrounded by a community of writers who took themselves seriously and who were as in love with the written word as I was, that I started calling myself a writer.
Leigh Stein: At 19, I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and instead of getting close to the other students in my program, I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room posting stories and poems to my LiveJournal. I had my first short story published that year and realized that I could pursue this other thing I loved (writing).
Tell me about a specific community that has been critically important to you along the way.
Shaula Evans: I am deeply indebted to Francis Ford Coppola for the Zoetrope.com website he launched in 1998, which hosted a vibrant and dynamic community of screenwriters, poets, and short story and flash fiction writers. I was an active member in the early days of the site where I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly talented people. Those years were highly prolific for me, in no small part because of the stimulation and feeling of momentum that came from being around people passionate about writing.
Ashley C. Ford: The community of writers I’ve met and made online have been essential to any success I’ve had as a writer. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, online in 2010. Since then, I’ve been building community as authentically as I can, and trying to be as supportive as they are to me.
Colette Sartor: Both UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been essential to my development as a writer. As a student at UCLA Extension, I worked with gifted teachers who encouraged me and supported my decision to attend grad school. I also met lifelong friends with whom I formed a writers’ group that still meets today.
It was at Iowa, though, where I started thinking of myself as a writer. The beauty of being in an MFA program is that you become part of a community where people live, breathe, and talk writing. We compared ass-in-the-chair time. We read each other’s work and argued passionately over whether our characters were believable enough, real enough, driven enough by desire. Plus, many of the people I met in grad school became lifelong friends, the way my UCLA Extension friends did.
And writer friends are an essential part of being a writer. The actual act of writing may be a solitary endeavor, but on every other level, writing can be a communal experience. I rely on my community of writers—whether from UCLA Extension, Iowa, my UCLA Extension writers’ group or my writers’ group formed by women who attended my college—for advice, support, honest criticism of my writing. I can bounce ideas off these friends, read them rough drafts and cover letters, and I know I will get honest yet supportive responses based both on the work on the page and my vision for what I want that work to become.
Leigh Stein: I found a really supportive community on LiveJournal in the early aughts, and some of the people I met there are still my close friends today. More broadly, the Internet has always been the place where I go to find community: from LiveJournal to Facebook (I administrate a private group of over 30,000 women writers) to Twitter. I’m a high school drop out without an MFA. I would not have been able to write three books without the community I’ve found on the Internet over the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been pursuing writing seriously.
The word community implies a symbiotic relationship; there is as much give as take. While you gained a lot from community as a writer, you’ve moved on to create opportunities for others to access support, mentorship, inspiration, and connection. Tell me about that.
Shaula Evans: I have run two workshops within the Zoetrope site (in the private office area): a creative writing workshop for writers in different media to discuss craft and play writing games (for over 10 years); and a comedy workshop that explores the theory and practice of writing comedy (for over 5 years). In 2012 I launched a public forum for film, TV, and comedy sketch writers called The Black Board which ran for two years. My current website, ShaulaEvans.com, offers support and inspiration to writers—I have plans to expand it to build on some of the features of my previous projects but for the moment I’m too busy with my own writing, a good kind of problem to have. The focus of all my community-building efforts is to create safe and inclusive creative spaces.
Ashley C. Ford: Sometimes I’m simply enthusiastically supportive of the work those in my community put out, sometimes when I have to turn down work I direct it their way, and sometimes it’s just late night gchats about what’s hard, what’s good, and what we hope for our futures. Most of being a good community-member is the same as being a good friend.
Colette Sartor: I’ve benefited so much from being part of numerous writing communities: UCLA Extension, Iowa, my private writing students, the various writing groups that I’ve sought out. I wouldn’t be able to write without my community. My writer friends give me honest, brilliant feedback that bolsters me and inspires me to work harder, write better. My writer friends and students alike inspire me with their brilliance and thoughtfulness and willingness to bare themselves for the sake of their work.
I try to give back as much as possible by meeting with students and friends to discuss their options in pursuing their writing dreams: Do they go to graduate school or stay in Los Angeles and build a community of writers here? How can they meet other writers? What writing communities exists here? I’m constantly emailing students about readings to attend, new magazines to check out, podcasts to listen to, books to read. I plaster my social media accounts with links to inspirational articles and essays about craft and literary life. I’ve created a Writers’ Resources page on my website where I list links to online writing communities as well as links to posts about craft, publication, and blogging. And I’m always willing to write recommendations for friends and students whose work I know well. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without the encouragement and recommendations of some very generous teachers and mentors. I want to do the same for other people who are looking to expand their own writing communities and advance their own craft.
Leigh Stein: In 2014, I was so inspired by the online community of women writers of which I was a member that I had the idea to organize a conference, so we could connect face-to-face. This idea became Out of the Binders, a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, and BinderCon, our semiannual, bicoastal professional development conference. I co-direct the organization with Lux Alptraum, and we oversee a team of about 30 volunteers across the country. Organizing BinderCon has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.
What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks of writing communities?
Shaula Evans: Some of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered include:
1. (Lack of) Moderation
Whether a writing community convenes on- or offline, it is imperative to establish a healthy culture where no one is bullied and writers feel safe to take creative risks. Good communities don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of work, conscious decision-making and social engineering to make a community feel welcoming—and most of that work should be invisible to the community at large.
2. Social Pressure
I’ve witnessed a number of workshop-oriented communities where there was social pressure to write in a certain way. Some specific examples:
– Pressuring writers who are not white, cis, het, male, etc., to write in a way that conforms to the expectations of members of the local dominant culture, rather than writing in their own voices and writing from their own experiences.
– Subtle encouragement or rewards for writing to please the subjective tastes of a workshop leader or workshop regulars—i.e. writing for short term peer popularity vs writing to grow or excel in one’s own voice.
– An unchecked herd instinct to mimic the style of a popular member.
The unifying theme is the problem of one or more people imposing their own writing views and preferences on other writers. Going back to #1 above, good hosting or moderation are one of the critical strategies for making sure this sort of problem doesn’t happen.
3. Gaming the (Formal) System
I have belonged to a number of writing communities that had formal review systems, where participants had to write a certain number of reviews before they could submit their work for revision. The problem with setting up formal systems is that they inherently incentivize certain behaviours; in the case of formal review systems, some writers will feel they come out “ahead” by writing the bare minimum review in order to earn their submission opportunity, which shortchanges both the reviewer and the writer whose work is being reviewed.
Good moderation can mitigate this problem, but my preferred solution is not to set up formal systems at all. (Avoiding formal review systems may run into problems of scalability for larger communities but can work well for small- and medium-sized groups.)
Ashley C. Ford: Every once in a while, there’s someone in the community who feels like competition is more satisfying than being empowering of their fellow community-members. Those are usually people who only know how to be motivated by competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from celebrating your community’s wins. If you can’t do that—bring yourself to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success—it’s hard to be a healthy member of that community.
Colette Sartor: There’s always the danger of conformity. I don’t believe that MFA programs necessarily encourage or even demand that students produce a generic kind of writing. That’s something of a myth people like to pull out when bashing degree programs. In fact, I found that my fellow grad school colleagues produced a glorious array of writing styles and stories, each with unique, identifiable voices that they maintain to this day. It’s the same with my students, both from UCLA and in my private classes: these students come in with a spark, a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs. It’s my job to nurture and encourage that individual voice, not to conform it to my vision of what fiction should be.
The danger of conformity that I’m thinking about is more individual in nature, one that I’ve encountered and succumbed to myself. When you immerse yourself in a community of writers, particularly in a writing group, you find yourself tempted to produce writing pleasing to that particular group of people, whose opinions you so value and whose praise you grow to crave. It’s human nature, to want to please those you’re close to; however, that need to please can encroach on your writerly vision, stilt your voice in an unnatural way. When I first started writing and didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my own voice or in my ability to tell stories worth reading, I found myself trying to write pretty, flowery metaphors and similes to please my first writers’ group, or to craft happier, more uplifting endings in a story that needed to be darker simply because I knew I’d get a more positive response from my group. My writing suffered for it.
The solution is to take care in building your writing community around you. Trust your writing only with those whose goal is to help everyone in your community realize each individual’s vision of the stories that person’s trying to tell. Even more important, trust yourself to know what’s best for your own work. Listen to criticism with an open yet inquisitive mind: does the person offering critique understand and appreciate your vision? Is that person’s criticism geared toward helping you advance that vision? If so, then listen away, knowing that it’s your job to take whatever criticism you find valuable and incorporate it into your work in a meaningful way that reflects your voice and style.
Leigh Stein: Money! I’m not paid a salary by the organization, but I spend about 20 hours a week administering the Facebook group, organizing events, strategizing marketing opportunities, writing our conference program, booking speakers, etc., etc. It’s obviously a project I’m passionate about, but it’s ironic that I donate so much of my time to helping other women writers advance their careers (and get paid). So much valuable, necessary work in the literary community is being done by collectives and nonprofits, and they need our financial support, not only our high-fives and gratitude. I’m thinking of VIDA, WAM!, the Belladonna poetry collective, and Brooklyn Poets, to name just a few.
What are your top five community resources, especially for writers who face geographical, social, or cultural barriers to access?
1. Twitter — a great way to connect with other writers
2. The (Submission) Grinder — a free, searchable database of submission opportunities and submission tracker
3. ManuscriptWishList.com — where literary agents and publishers share what kind of manuscripts they are looking for (in astounding detail)
4. Lit Rejections’ International Literary Agent Database — listing literary agents from around the world
5. OneLook Dictionary Search — — one of my favourite writing tools, especially for poetry
Ashley C. Ford:
3. Blogs of writers you enjoy (and the blogs THEY follow)
4. Online writing courses
5. The library
Colette Sartor: Building your own writing community can mean going to graduate school, but that isn’t your only option. You can build your own writing community wherever you live. To do so, you need to meet other writers, both in your own city and around the world. This task is made easier by the numerous online resources and communities for writers. Here are a few:
– Most cities, no matter how small, have a thriving writing culture, if you know where to look. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where there are several great reading series (e.g., at Skylight Books, Vroman’s, the Aloud series, the Hammer Museum series), as well as writing classes and seminars. The key is figuring out where the literary “hub” of your city exists. Ploughshares did a great series of articles a while back called Literary Boroughs, which highlighted literary culture in various communities. Also look at libraries and local bookstores for readings by published authors. Writers flock to readings, both for the joy of hearing beautiful work read aloud, and to meet and congregate with other writers.
– Writers’ conferences are a great way to meet other writers and to experiment with being part of a writing community. When I was first thinking about becoming a writer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. At both conferences, I met writers and authors with whom I still stay in touch. Conferences can be pricey, but most of them offer some kind of financial assistance in the form of fellowships and/or work-study. Poets & Writers offers a great database of conferences and residencies to help you narrow down which conferences might be right for you.
– PEN Center USA offers a wide variety of resources to writers, from onsite, affordable seminars with outstanding writers, to posts and interviews about craft, to programs like the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship that provide new writers without access to writing communities various tools to help them launch writing careers—like mentorship by professional writers, seminars, public readings, classes, and a small stipend for eight months.
– There are vibrant writing schools/communities that have popped up all over the country such as Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and The Center for Fiction. Each of them offer classes taught by outstanding professional writers as well as other community components. Some also offer fellowships to facilitate writers in need.
– There are online literary communities like Figment and Fictionaut that offer writers the support of a literary community through discussions and chats, critiquing groups, etc. Many of them are free, or at least have free components. Take care, however, to explore the sites and make sure you’re comfortable with the tone of that particular community. Sometimes the anonymity afforded by online communities can result in negativity that is more easily controlled in onsite communities. And take care about posting work there. Many journals consider your work “published” if you’ve posted it online in a group that isn’t private.
Leigh Stein: The BinderCon scholarship program (we award up to 50 scholarships to each conference, and this fall we offered travel stipends to trans and GNC attendees, through a grant we received from the Esmond Harmsworth Foundation). Also, BinderCon NYC will be livestreamed (free!) for the first time ever, thanks to the Harnisch Foundation. Would also recommend checking out VONA writing workshops for writers of color, WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) with chapters and events around the country, The OpEd Project seminars, and Hedgebrook (fee-free writing residencies in the Pacific Northwest for women writers).
Lisa Mecham (panel moderator) writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Juked, and BOAAT, among other publications. She serves on the Advisory Board for Origins literary journal and as a Senior Editor for The Scofield. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Online at lisamecham.com and @lmecham.
Shaula Evans (not pictured) is a writer, editor and translator. Born and raised in Canada, and educated in Montreal, France and Japan, she currently resides in New Mexico after spending 6 ½ years traveling around North America in a Mini Cooper. You can find her online at shaulaevans.com and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.
Ashley C. Ford (not pictured) is an essayist and editor currently living in Brooklyn via Fort Wayne, IN.
Colette Sartor‘s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Carve, Printers Row Journal, Hello Giggles, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her colettesartor.com or follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.
Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, a collection of poetry called Dispatch from the Future, and a memoir forthcoming from Blue Rider Press in 2016 called Land of Enchantment. She co-directs the literary nonprofit Out of the Binders.