It’s raining in New Orleans and it finally feels like winter, or at least our version of winter, wet, gray, sixty degrees, and gloomy. I’m mired in edits, nudging everything around with my brain, thinking about it before bed and then waking up early to tackle it again. Sleeping with a notebook next to me, as a safety measure, to make sure I don’t won’t miss one single idea, even if what I scrawled down doesn’t make sense in the morning. I’d write about what I’m going through more specifically but in order to describe it, I’d probably break it. Best to let things alone for now.
Instead, I’ll tackle a question from a subscriber, looking for a prescription. He writes:
A very encouraging thing is hearing that you never got an MFA. I’ve been struggling with this feeling that I’ll never be able to reach the level of skill necessary to bring my writing to the next level without one. One thing I’d love your thoughts on is advice specifically for writers who didn’t pursue MFAs and feel a little disconnected from the whole subculture of writers who came from that world. And, I guess related to that, any advice on plugging into the writing community?
I have absolutely no statistics to back this up (although I bet someone does), but I genuinely believe there are just as many writers getting published that don’t have an MFA as those who do. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard to form a writing community. But just to say, there’s a lot of us working and thriving without an advanced degree.
Obviously, it’s extra tricky right now because of Covid, so a lot of advice I could give is mostly not applicable until we can all meet in person again. For example, the most helpful action I took early in my writing life, hands down, was going to readings, and also forcing myself to do open mics at readings. I met so many people that way, and even if we didn’t sustain relationships forever, it is that kind of churn of new ideas and personalities that can help mutually drive writing.
Of course, this was in NYC in the early aughts, a very specific scene, a very specific time. But I think the logic behind it still applies: finding people who are at the same place as you in your career, with the same level of energy, too.
The best comp I can suggest at the moment is taking a writing workshop with non-MFA programs, like Catapult in NYC or Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, for example. These programs were originally centered in their respective cities and have expanded beautifully during this moment in time. These programs can be about improving your writing, but also tuning up your brain and connecting with other writers. You may find an accountability partner in the class or even be able to eventually turn the workshop into a separate writer's group after the class ends.
Another suggestion: If they’re open in your city, you could also post a notice at cafes or libraries to see if anyone is looking to start a zoom writer's group. Having a regular set time to discuss your (and their) writing with people is a great first step to building a community.
And of course, there is the internet, which works best when things happen organically or accidentally. This is how I’ve made some of my best writing friends. By liking things someone else says or likes, by paying attention to what people say, and not just skimming. Looking for depth, stumbling on ideas. Craving collaboration, a shared sense of something bigger than myself, and finding people seeking the same. If this is starting to sound less like advice and more like a personal ad for friendship, it probably is.
Because I understand your feelings deeply. I have always wanted a writing community myself. I would hurl myself at a writer I liked when I was first starting out – and I still do. And the beauty is there are so kinds of writing communities out there, because there is not just one kind of writer. Even with my own sphere, I have different kinds of friendships, and I bet lots of people reading this do, too.
Are you trying to write the same kind of form or genre? Do you have the same taste in books? Is it just that you live in the same city? Do you all have children and are just trying to steal time to write? Is your writing pace compatible, or are you competitive in a friendly way and drive each other to finish your work? Do you just like to make fun of other writers? Is your writing time just a gossip session to let off steam? Is it a way for you to walk and talk and get some fresh air? Or can you sit alone in a room together in utter silence and scribble furiously in your notebook, feeding off the energy in the room? Or, lately, can you sit on a zoom together quietly and write? Followed by one stiff drink, perhaps. Cheers, we survived another week.
The best part of writing friendships, for me, is when we support each other in our work. I’ve talked before about the magic of being a first reader, but sometimes it’s just about finding someone who will hold you to a promise.
One of the first times I hung out with Alex Chee in New York, we made a commitment to each other. We had befriended each other on twitter, and now there we were, sitting at the back porch at Rosie Schaap’s bar in Brooklyn, talking about where we were at in our writing goals. It was 2015. We both promised to finish our books by the end of the year, made an actual vow, and Alex and I do not fuck around with writing vows. Both of us completed our goals: His book was The Queen of the Night and mine was All Grown Up.
I don’t consider myself a friendly person, and yet, I am a maker of friends. Because I appreciate them so damn much. We need each other in this lonely profession. You can’t force a relationship, but you still have to make some effort. Take a class, join an online discussion, watch those zoom readings, reach out as much as you can. There’s someone like you waiting on the other end. I know it’s hard right now, but we’re all out here, too. Trying to connect.
Note: I’m opening the comments today to subscribers and non-subscribers on this post, in case anyone is seeking a writing group or accountability partner. (Please do not promote any resources that cost money!) We have a long winter ahead, let’s look out for each other.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to Second Harvest Food Bank.