Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part Three: Community)

Engineers spend their days around other engineers; lawyers pair off with other lawyers (birds of a feather, etc.); in the absence of being paid to practice their art, artists and writers are the only careers (vocations) that need to keep this in mind and consciously seek out others of their ilk. Of course, increasingly, writers can - if they are lucky - gain admittance to a creative writing program / programme, make friends with writers as good as themselves (or - importantly - better), make contact with teachers who might become mentors, and thus become part of a community.

Wordsworth and Coleridge; Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon as students at Queens, Belfast; Renaissance artists in the apprenticeship system - they all made contact with their peers at a relatively early age, and formed unofficial schools, exchanged drafts, helped each other in ways both tangible and intangible. Apart from reading like a writer (with a mind to learning from others and what you would “steal”, or be influenced by), and developing an as close to daily writing practice as possible, this is one of the key pillars to becoming a writer, and making the leap from amateur to professional (note: the writer who is professional is not necessarily making a living at it: see Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art on the importance of attitude to the writing life. It can make all the difference).

How can you find or develop a writing community?

(1) Pay for it or (increasingly more difficult) get a fellowship that pays for most or all of it (this is a rare beast): the MA or MFA in Creative Writing. Much has been written about it, and there’s no bones about it: spending a year or two around talented and motivated writers of your genre can be a big help. Is a writer born or made? Can writing be taught? To the first question, the answer is both. To the second, yes it can be taught, but there has to be some germ there in the first place, and perhaps interest and passion is what constitutes that original spark. (Working at your craft is more important than talent, btw). The America MFA, or the MA in Creative Writing in Ireland and England, is made up of the workshop, the craft class and the literature class, the private consultation with teachers who can be inspiring, or not; one of the most important aspects is the non-tangible: forming “writing friendships“ with your classmates. If upon graduation you have three writer friends to share work with and lean on in your darker moments, then you’ve done well. Hold onto them.

(2) Like many writers before (Thackeray wrote several thousand words a day before clocking on at the post office), keep your day job and attend workshops in “the community”. After all, until the mid 20th century in the USA, the MFA didn’t exist, and the MA in Creative Writing has only recently come into existence in the UK and Ireland. For centuries poets learnt by palling around with other poets, and the same for novelists. So, don’t go into debt for a creative writing degree: find writing groups in your local community, pay for one-off creative writing workshops - this is the “slowly does it” approach, and although it’s time tested, the weakness in it is that as most of the “best” (are they?) in the po-biz teach in universities, it may be hard to find fellow writers. That said, if you live in a bigger city, many graduates of creative writing programmes are eager to find other writers and continue to invest in their craft, and you can find them if you look for them. If you live in suburbia or in the rural hinterland, don’t despair: the internet is a great resource. You’ll find it if you look hard enough.

(3) Mentorship and Community (or “communion”) through Reading. If you can’t find a living writer of your own generation or older, don’t despair: reading the work of the august dead has always been a great way to learn, and one of the most important. You can improve your craft, and - by reading biographies - find inspiration in the lives of those who have gone before.