Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Writerly Camaraderie

I've gushed countless times about the community here at MSFV.  Today I'd like to broaden that gushing to include All of Writerkind.

Well, perhaps not all.  But it remains true, to a large extent, that writers as a group--as a community--are kind to and supportive of each other in a way you don't see in other industries, or even in other branches of the fine arts.

True, there's something about the geekiness of "all musicians/thespians/ballerinas/artists together" that creates a special kind of community for each of these.  As a music major at a small, liberal arts college, I experienced the "small family-ness" that came with being a part of the music community there.  We all KNEW each other.  Those of us who were serious about our instruments were ALWAYS IN THE MUSIC HALL.

The doors to the practice rooms had tiny windows in them so you could peek in to see who was practicing (though, you usually knew, anyway, by the instrument and repetoire; the school was that small).  When I wanted to have a serious, non-interrupted practice session on the piano, I would tape a piece of notebook paper over the window so nobody would bother me.

Of course, those who loved me most would barge in, anyway--they knew it was my Mozart or my Brahms or my Beethoven coming from behind that door.  Once, a friend brought me a sandwich from the snack bar because he knew I wasn't going to stop practicing to eat supper (he was right).

It was my favorite kind of sandwich, too.

That kind of community, I think, dissolves when you move to higher levels.  At a top-notch music school crammed with Very Talented People, the level of competition is going to be a lot higher.  Cut-throat, even.  The biggest competition at my school was getting the best piano in the practice wing (And boy, did I get angry when another piano major stole my room!)

The same goes for dance and theatre.  At lower levels, there's more camaraderie than competition, except for those occasions when, for instance, two or more divas are vying for a coveted lead role in the high school musical. At a professional level, though, this competition becomes so fierce that, honestly, I don't know how people survive it.  (Have you ever watched a documentary on professional ballet dancing? It's almost frightening.)

In the non-arts world, competitiveness often outweighs camaraderie, too.  While there certainly exist those groups of people who are truly supportive and in it for the "us" instead of the "me", in the end it's an each-man-for-himself world.  We all know this; many of us strive to swim upstream and not live life this way.

Yet you have this wonderful cross-segment called "Writers", who seem to instinctively and collectively live life this way. And it doesn't change as the writers morph from "newbie" to "on my way" to "agented" to "published". The support and encouragement and cheerleading and book-buying and back-patting continues.

And I believe it's sincere.

If we thought about it, we could create a you-against-me atmosphere pretty quickly.  Both querying the same agent?  She's mine!  Both published by the same house? My book will sell more!

But it doesn't happen.  It really doesn't.

Perhaps the journey itself creates this phenomenon.  Aside from the occasional, overnight super-success story, we all slump our way through the valleys and over the hurdles together, and those who go before us help lead the way, even though our personal twists and turns will differ.  Then, as we turn to look over our shoulders, we see those who are coming up behind us, so we offer our own brand of wisdom and help and you-can-do-it-ness.

It transcends everything, too.  Gender, age, race, socioeconomics, religion.  When we are together, we are, simply, writers.

What's your take on this?  Why is it, do you think, that writers are so universally supportive of each other?  Why does this community feel so much safer than a lot of what's out there?

If only we could bottle this and apply it to every other portion of our lives!  I'm so thankful to simply be a writer.  To simply be a part of all this.

Something tells me that you feel the same way.


  1. This is SO INTERESTING. And I think you're right.

    I think it all boils down to one thing: Even though we're all competing against each other for the Big Prize (whether it's agent, book deal, bestseller list, awards, whatever) we have NO IDEA how the prizes are ever won. Subjectivity is the name of the game, and the odds of "winning" are so low.

    So we have two options: support each other, and hope that if the subjectivity doesn't land in our favor, it at least helps someone we love; or let jealousy and anger and frustration kill the joy. Not that I'm not jealous, or angry, or frustrated ever - in fact, it happens more than I'm proud of, for sure - but I'd rather find a way of bearing the rejection than let it kill me.

  2. This is wonderful and completely expresses how I feel about the writing community.

    Sometimes I feel like a major part of wanting to get published is just so I can pass on what knowledge I can to other writers! Is that strange?

  3. It DOES boil down to a choice, Leigh Ann--and it's just so amazing that the same choice is made over and over again -- the choice to SUPPORT!

    Victoria -- Not strange at all! I derive MUCH joy from passing on what I know.

  4. While I do agree that the writing community as a whole is far more supportive than competitive, I think this is mostly because there is little room to be competitive. Books do not have 'time slots' that compete with each other. Books do not have certain parts of the year when all the 'good ones' come out. A reader of your genre won't often choose between your book and another author's -- they'll buy and read both books.

    That said, I have seen rare instances where writers are put into a competitive environment. While they are still outwardly supportive, they can end up just as competitive behind their smiles.

    On one critique site I used to frequent, writers gave star rankings along with their critiques, and these stars would determine your overall ranking on a monthly list. The people at the top of that list would get critiques from literary agents.

    I know for a fact that some authors were very stingy with their rankings, especially if they read something that was incredible, because knocking down other writers let them climb closer to the top.

    I think your contests mostly avoid this by having a lottery system. You are either in or out, and the secret agents aren't forced to pick an arbitrary number of entries to comment on or request. This allows everyone to relax, and be their normal supportive selves.

  5. Great post - and so very true. I stumbled into the writing community a couple of years ago. I've been continually amazed at the people who are willing to help. This is indeed one of the most generous, kind, genuine groups I've ever had the priviledge of being a part of. From newbie writers to published authors to agents and editors - it's truly heart-warming. :)

  6. This is an interesting question.

    I wonder if it's just the nature of the written word. The writer creates alone, and the written word is typically enjoyed alone. Even the painter or sculptor can sometimes "share" the moment when someone sees and appreciates what he or she has done.

    Because of the disconnect between the creation and the reception, a writer has to love the written word for what it is. I can get just as much joy from reading great writing as (trying) to create it.

    I don't think it's the same for other disciplines. When I hear a great singer, I often wonder how awesome it would feel to be able to produce that sound. When I read a great writer, I can enjoy the writing for itself.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not always altruistic. But even if I read a great novel and long to be able to write like that, I know that there was nothing particularly glamourous about the process. Even great writers like Anne Tyler probably spend a lot of time frowning at the computer screen (or blank page).

  7. I agree with Chro that while we're certainly a special kind of group, writers are still human and sometimes our claws do come out. On the whole, though, I think the nature of our art might have something to do with the way we act as a group.

    Whenever I used to picture writing, it was always some hermit in a cabin, drinking and chain smoking while he hammered out his masterpiece on a typewriter in perfect solitude. Now, I realize we don't write in a vacuum. We need people to bounce our ideas off of, beta readers to help us with our MSs and query letters, agents to guide us, editors to help us clean up issues, publishers to get our books out into the world, and finally, readers to buy our books. Our efforts are actually pretty interactive, and we've learned that sometimes we do have to make compromises with some or all of those people if we want to succeed. And our trade is all about communication, and that goes a long way toward fostering cooperation.

    I think something else that helps us be happy for the success of others is that even if we're not the ones who make it and sell big right then, every success in the industry means publishers are going to have more revenue to take chances on new and unknown authors. The better the industry as a whole is doing, the more likely we are to get our big shot.

  8. Wow, a wonderful discussion is unfolding here!!

    Chro, I absolutely concur. And it's why I avoid against-each-other competitiveness here on the blog. There's a time and place for fun contests that pit us against others--iron sharpens iron, right? But in the spirit of learning and growing together, it's not the atmosphere I desire for this blog. And, for the most part, it's not the overriding atmosphere that's out there in "writerland."

  9. I think much of what Chro said is right on. Writers don't compete with each other in the same way. It would be a lot different if all books were written via a system where the publisher put it out for bids from authors - 'wanted, 300 page murder mystery with plucky female protagonist'. Then you'd really see the fur fly.

    I, for one, am glad it's not that way.

  10. Wonderful post Authoress :).

    maybe it boils down to one thing? Madness loves company ;). You have to admit we are all more than a bit mad to do what we do day after day with no clue as to if we're pushing the right pellet bar.

    So we hang on to those other madcap fools, the ones who understand us, and keep each other afloat.

    Thanks for a great post to start my morning- and thanks for this group you've created.

  11. This is an amazing post and it's so true from what I've seen and been a part of so far in my journey. I think the difference is that, in writing, we're not competing for the same spot. There can only be one prima ballerina in a ballet, one lead singer, one best actress--they are competing for one single slot in a film, show, production, whatever. We all want shelf space, but that doesn't mean there's not room for hundreds of us on that same shelf. Books are a magic unlike any other art form and I think we all just want to share a piece of that.

  12. As usual, Authoress, I agree.

    I think it's because writers are very intuitive and emotional types who care about the human condition.

    We realize there's enough success to go around and we wish it on others.

  13. Okay, I'm distracted because It's thesPians, not thesbians. :-)

  14. Well said! Here's to us -- all of us -- writers! Stick together!

  15. Yes! I've always sort of wondered WHY this is. I do a lot of community theatre, and everyone is always so competitive. But every writer I've met has had nothing but well-wishes for other writers.

    Maybe it's because the success of one writer doesn't obstruct another's? In theatre and music, people compete for parts. But a piece of writing belongs so entirely to one person's mind that it doesn't feel like anyone's beating anyone else to the punch when they do well.

    *shrug* Whatever it is, I'm glad. <3

  16. The community of writers are some of the nicest and most generous people I've met. Paying it forward is something I see over and over in this community.

    I think one reason for the lack of cutthroat professional competition is because we aren't competing against each other. If one person's sales go higher this week, they didn't "take" someone else's sales. No one--not publishers, not big-name authors, not agents--no one knows what will make one book more popular or successful over another. The subjective nature of this business erodes that sense of competition.

    Unlike music, authorial fame and fortune aren't directly correlated to skill (though there is some correlation). Unlike art, the low prices of our products means it is more accessible to the general public; larger audience means less competition. Unlike theater and dance, there is lots of shelf space for number of parts for a large number of actors.

  17. Authoress, it's like you read my mind with your posts. You always manage to post on a topic I've been thinking about lately!

    I only got involved with the online fiction-writing community last year, after spending the better part of the last decade immersed in the playwriting world in NYC. The number of new friends I've made and amount of support I've received here is staggering compared to my experience in theater.

    I think that it definitely has to do with competition, as Chro and some others have pointed out. For playwrights, the potential audience is so small, and so regional, that if you have a play up at the same time as another writer in the same city, you most certainly are competing for the same audience. You have a limited number of performances, so if the audience picks the other show one night, your production is screwed.

    On the other hand, there are millions of fiction readers, all around the country and the world, who are just as likely to buy your friend's book AND your book as they are to pick only one. And while agents and editors certainly don't have infinite lists, there seems to be a good amount of wiggle room in how many clients they take on or how many titles they put out in a year, so someone else getting representation or a deal doesn't take a slot away from you.

    So, bottom line, I think it's not just an issue of writers being supportive people and non-writer-artists not, but an issue of how big the market is for your writing. I imagine that TV writers, competing for limited numbers of positions on show staffs, don't have very warm and fuzzy feelings about their peers, either.

  18. Ack! Thank you, Anon (I've fixed it). Really, you should sign your NAME when making a correction. ;-)

  19. Great post. I've met so many wonderful fellow writer-bloggers in this writing process! It is a great community.

    That said, I know some (a very small percentage of) writers struggle with jealousy/bitterness when they see someone's gotten picked up by an agent or is getting published. And it CAN be hard to bear (let's not lie), when you're in those query trenches.

    But I love looking at those who are one step ahead of me in this process, since it encourages me to keep pushing toward that goal of publication. And I'm thankful for the friends/followers who cheer me on every step of the way!

  20. You're SOOOO right about the writer commumity at large being so supportive. I myself was so impressed by the support system I had to toss in my own sort of support system as well! I'm one of the co-founders of the #wordmongering & #editmongering hashtags on Twitter...I promote words & writers with a positive yet competetitive environment. ANY word count is amazing since it's moer than they had a 1/2 hour ago...but you also get to work to try to "outdo" your fellow Mongerers. Ultimately it satisfies our basic urge to be competetive...yet lets us all support one another! And like someone else here had said, since there's no rhyme or reason to what does and doesn't work in the publishing world, we get to beat our own drums and march at our own pace and still come out where we want to be. That's what's so amazing about us as writers.

    Keep up the good work Authoress! You're one of the most supportive voices out there! From what I've seen in the past year that I've been following you is that you have launched so many careers and you're just amazing at it! Plus, the karma that you're generating has it's own force! (Although, I'm pretty sure that your karma never entered your head when you started doing this and that's what makes it all the more wonderful!) Again, thank you soooo much!!

  21. What a great post, Authoress! I've been writing for over seven years, but my background is in the arts community. With art, you are so very conscious of the artist's personal vision and are mostly guessing at their intentions. With writing, you are immersed in the creation as much as the author in that you are recreating their vision in your own mind. The experience of reading other writers' work is very intimate. It creates a deep bond between myself and my writer friends. Yes, I've also struggled with the envy, the rejections, etc. but in the end, there's just the words and the stories inside of us. Sharing those ideas and love of language is what it's all about for me.

  22. Excellent post and excellent comments! I agree with pretty much everyone!

    I think writing is synergistic- the more we all do better, the better we all do. The 2+2=5 syndrome. Maybe it's a spiritual thing- we enlighten and entertain, so we bring good vibes to the world. And yes, we're not all competing for the lead role, which gets really tiring. We want all our writer friends to make it, so we help them and they help us. Wouldn't it be nice if everything in the world was like that?

    Sigh...maybe it's that we're all dreamers and lovers at heart. And that's not a bad thing!

    (Yo, JeffO- when you find that "Wanted- 300 page murder mystery with plucky female protagonist" post, let me know, will ya? I promise to keep the claws in- for now! =^..^=)

  23. Excellent post! I think one thing that contributes to the kindness of strangers in the literary world is the fact that it's not an either/or business (or at least most writers hope it's not). I for one want people to read more period. Often I've discovered new authors through other authors' recommendations. It certainly doesn't prevent me from buying Author A's book. It just encourages me to buy Author B's book as well.

  24. I totally agree. For the most part, writers tend to nurture one another. Sure, every now and then you come across someone who seem a bit TOO gleeful when pointing out a mistake or typo, but the majority of them are sincere.

    My (then 8 year old) daughter decided to write a "book" and diligently typed up a piece, illustrated it, and had me "bind" it for her on the spiral binding machine thing (yes, I know it must have an actualy term for it, but I don't know what it is). Anyway, we packed it up and mailed it off to her favorite author...Neil Gaiman.

    I thought it was sweet of her, but I did not expect anything of it. But no. This is NEIL GAIMAN. First, his assistant emailed me to tell me that he received it and he loved it and that he was writing her a letter. Then she got The Letter. You cannot imagine a happier young author.

    She still has the letter. She still adores Neil Gaiman. She still writes.

    Writers help one matter WHERE they are in their journey.

    She will never forget that...and neither will I.

  25. Who, but another writer, knows the sorrows and joys of writing? The risks we take on so many levels? The gnawing self-doubts? The heady excitement when our work receives validation? We are vulnerable and yet, we're brave enough--perhaps, crazy enough--to take that leap of faith again and again; to put ourselves out there. The irony, of course, is that the fruits of our labors are borne in private, and yet we open ourselves to public scrutiny, knowing full well that we will likely fail more times than not. It is our fellow writers who urge us to get up and try again; who pull no punches and tell us the truth for no other reason than to help us become the best we can be. . .to help us become better writers.

  26. Ah Authoress! T'is a wonderful community, no doubt! It's wonderful to take pause and remember that. And the lady in the red hat-- she's very good at reaching her hand out and pulling a few stragglers in and showing them the ropes! : )

  27. The perfect venue for thanking Steve H., who has selflessly shared his amazing talents to help unlock the talents of this fledgling literary artist. Thank you, SH!

  28. What a lovely, thoughtful post to wake up to, Authoress. You are so right, there is some energy, some fulfilment in the creative industries that you find nowhere else. I'm so grateful to belong.

    That generosity of spirit is not unique to one place either, it's the same here in Australia. I'm so pleased to belong to the community of Aussie children's writers - we share out triumphs and our frustrations (facebook helps make our huge continent smaller). :) I can't imagine what it must be like to be alone in a writerly world.
    Thank you for your always thoughtful, entertaining and helpful blog.

  29. If only we could bottle it and make the rest of the world drink...

  30. Haha oh my gosh, your music experience sounds so much mine! I study music at a small liberal arts college, and there's a group of us who say we "live" in the music building, especially because we're often there late at night. A running joke between a friend and me is to say, "Fancy seeing you here! "

    I think in the end, comraderie is most important for the creative arts because they're so unpredictable. When we make friends who do what we do, not only does it show that we can't be THAT crazy for making the attempt, but it legitimized us when we meet really cool people who are making the same attempt. That's my theory, anyway.


  31. Ditto all the thoughtful and insightful prose written before. I'm so elated for US, our community, and can't wait to give back. I learn so much from every critique, every class, every other artist in our comunity of artists....Thanks to all who so eagerly and willingly share their talents with the newbies like me.

  32. This is really super true!

    Also, I was a music major for one semester at a tiny liberal arts college and I got subsumed into that music community for all 4 years, even after I went music major - it was very much like you described your experience.

    But the writer thing is something I have noticed and commented on to people I know. When people find out I'm on Twitter, they're usually like, what do you do?!

    And I say, well I mostly follow writers, so we have random conversations. It's true. It's like you automatically have something in common as soon as you find out someone is a writer and no matter what else you disagree on, there's ALWAYS common ground.

    I love all my writer friends! *hugs world of writers*

  33. I believe truer words were never written. It is beyond "misery loves company". We gather in small clusters in coffee shops and libraries to share our successes, our failures, our frustrations and our gleaned bits of wisdom and how to do whatever and know we are safe from the world's harshness. We actively seek out writers from our own genre and instead of meeting them and saying Oh, well, I'm sure your story isn't as good as mine, we ask to read what they have written,(most writers) gently offer comment and take some small piece or technique from that story, plow it into our own field of experience and use it to enrich our own garden of stories. I'm proud to call myself a writer.

  34. Wonderful post, Authoress and some spot on comments. I've found in my experience that writers are more interested (on the whole) with sharing a journey. I've met a lot of people over the years who want to practice their pitch on you without invitation, to be certain, but the vast majority genuinely want to help or when they find you write in similar genres, ask for feedback. It's always a two-way street. Some of the greatest people I've ever met are writers.

  35. Great post! It's certainly my experience, too. I've come a long way from the newbie I was when I circulated my first MS for critique with "copyright of...." stamped all over it. I now realize that nobody wants to steal my idea. In fact, if my peers love my idea they are truly excited by seeing it make it's way inthe world. I guess it boils down to a few factors: firstly, as writers, we're readers too and love to share something that we're excited by. Secondly, I find that critiquing others' work is a valuable process that keeps me on my toes when I self edit -so there is a selfish component to it.
    Finally, as mentioned earlier, writers need to be able to put themselves into others' shoes. we would hate it if somebody made nasty remarks upon publication of our works. But I also feel that if we cheer somebody else along,and their work makes it, we can feel that a little piece of ourselves has been successful, too.
    If my work ever gets published, the acknowledgements section might end up longer than the actual text!