What does it mean to be a good citizen of a writing community? Angela Savage proposes the following qualities as guidelines – suggestions which come from members of the writing community themselves.
Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but it doesn’t follow that being a writer means resigning yourself to loneliness and isolation. Writing communities, large and small, exist in all kinds of forms, catering to all kinds of writers. Some communities develop organically. Shivaun Plozza and Melanie Cheng speak about connections made with other writers through short courses at Writers Victoria. The First Time podcasters Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette met while studying at RMIT, and Kate often speaks of connections made with other writers through social media. Creative collaborators Jane Rawson and Annabel Smith met on Twitter. There are numerous writers’ groups on Facebook, based on common areas of interest and identity. And writers centres like Writers Victoria play a key role in fostering writing communities, both face-to-face and online – ‘[serving] a similar function to that of literary salons from the previous centuries’, as Lee Kofman puts it.
‘But what does it mean to be a good citizen of a writing community? In the absence of a professional code of conduct, or an industrial award for writers that outlines expected standards of behaviour, I’d like to propose the following qualities as guidelines – suggestions which come from members of the writing community themselves.
‘Most things I’ve learned about writing have been through other writers, directly or indirectly. Taking short courses, checking out events, sneaking into book launches and rocking out at festivals have all helped me to be a better writer.’ – Anna Spargo-Ryan
There’s no denying the self-interest that motivates our involvement in writing communities. We need opportunities to enhance our craft through feedback, to build our professional networks, to promote our skills and our work. And there are potential career benefits to being part of a writing community: invitations to festivals, events and other collaborative projects. We need support in tough times, and we also need our peers to celebrate our successes: to come to our launches and talk up our stories/essays/books, in real life and online.
But you can’t expect others to make these efforts for you if they are not reciprocated. All take and no give makes for an unhealthy relationship in any context, including writing communities. In The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall suggests a 20–80 split on social media content: ideally, devote 20 per cent to your own work and 80 per cent to talking about other stuff, including other writers. This is a good rule of thumb for real-life conversations, too. That said, you get a pass for the major milestones like signing with an agent, getting published, launching books and winning prizes. Just remember to dial the self focus back down again afterwards.
If you are fortunate enough to be invited onto panels at festivals and events, by all means talk about your own work – that’s what you’re there for. But be aware that you’ll win over more fans by engaging with the other panellists than you will by dominating or talking over them. And for heaven’s sake, think ahead about local writers who could use your support if you’re asked for recommendations. It drives me up the wall when I ask panellists at writers’ events to recommend another author and they come up with Stephen King. Impressive though he may be, Mr King does not need your help to attract an audience for his work.
Share the love (and power)
‘Helping emerging writers is the most important thing that any established writer can do … If you’re already in the room, then it’s your job to open the doors and let other people in.’ – Toni Jordan
Early in my career, I learned from my friend and mentor Christos Tsiolkas that whatever modest success you enjoy as a writer, you pay it forward. Christos is a great role model in this regard, never too busy to mentor emerging writers, launch a debut novel, provide a puff quote for a book cover. Puffing, launching, talking up and/or reviewing books are among the ways that established authors help emerging writers to build readership.
This work is generally not paid – part of what Jennifer Mills calls, ‘the cultures of reciprocity underpinning creative labour’. As she points out, this reciprocity is ‘a counterpoint to #paythewriters but not a contradiction.’ It is part of what makes a community. You don’t have to be an established author to help another writer out. You can go to the launch and buy the book (or journal, zine, etc) and take along a friend who’ll also buy a copy. If you can’t afford to buy the book, ask your local library to purchase a copy; authors get paid Public Lending Rights based on the number of libraries that stock their books.
Get on social media and amplify positive reviews; use appropriate hashtags – #CrimeFiction, #SciFi, #fantasy, #LoveOzYA, #WeNeedDiverseBooks – to draw the work to the attention of like-minded readers, and/or tag friends who’d like it. Post a brief review to goodreads and Instagram or, if you have a blog, post a more substantial review or do an author Q&A.
When it’s your turn to shine, those writers whom you’ve helped out along the way will be predisposed to repay the favour.
‘Foster collaboration, not competition. Practice compersion, not jealousy when others succeed especially when that person’s contribution can lead to a more robust community.’ – Cher Tan
‘Compersion’ is a word Cher Tan introduced to me via Twitter. I almost corrected it to ‘compassion’ but it’s not the same thing. Compersion comes to us from the polyamory community: Wikipedia defines it as ‘an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy’. The concept is found in the Sanskrit word ‘mudita’, meaning ‘the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being’ and in the Norwegian ‘unne’, meaning ‘to be happy on someone else’s behalf’.
It is easy to be jealous when other writers succeed. But as Stephanie Convery notes in her ‘Overland’ article, ‘The book of my enemy’, we can reshape our responses to others’ success by changing the way we measure our worth – and, I would add, the worth of our writing community. Says Convery, ‘I keep writing now because I believe that writing matters beyond its capacity to sell – that it reflects the world back to us anew and allows us to explore the possibilities for a different world, a better world. I believe that there is value in beauty for its own sake, and that it can be found in the most unexpected places. And I believe that I am not alone in my faith in these things.’ Practising compersion – finding joy in other writers’ success – becomes a way of keeping the faith in the intrinsic value of writing, recognising that a robust writing community is in all our interests. Or as Emily Brewin puts it, ‘a resilient writing community is good for everyone.’
When I put a call out on Twitter asking about the most important qualities when it comes to being a good citizen of a writers’ community, I was surprised by how often the word kindness came up in response. ‘Honestly sounds lame, but kindness,’ tweeted James Burgmann- Milner. ‘Be kind with your feedback,’ added Laura Besley, ‘[because] harsh words can crush. ‘Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.’ I admit to being perplexed at first by the emphasis on kindness: is it really kindness, for example, to withhold criticism of writing when you believe it needs work? But reading more Twitter comments, it becomes clear that criticism is easier to take when delivered kindly. Dr Esther Chin suggests, for example, ‘Listening to the heart of the writing and asking meaningful questions to help the author effectively convey their message.’ Write Through the Roof podcaster Madeleine D’Este, says what matters most in writing communities is, ‘Listening and encouragement. And cake.’ For Jennifer Barry, qualities that matter are, ‘Curiosity. Compassion. Contribution. Consideration. (And a love of alliteration).’
It was also clear that some writers had experienced bullying, favouritism and/or being treated as ‘a means to an end’. The emphasis on kindness, then, is about being treated with decency. ‘Respect one another,’ says Sharlene Kuruppuarac. ‘[Writers communities should be] inclusive and accessible to all writers’. Adds Ben Hobson, ‘have a genuine interest in the journey of others.’
A writing life is a hard slog and often a lonely one at that. The support, advice and encouragement that comes from engaging with other writers, whether online, at events, in workshops or groups, is invaluable. In return, a writing community asks for reciprocity, compersion and kindness – with these simple qualities, your contribution as a citizen will be welcomed, our citizenry will be healthy and our local writing community is strong.
In a recent article for Writers Victoria, Andrew Nette notes that when writers are portrayed in film, they usually appear as tortured artists, ‘dealing with rejection, struggling with envy in relation to more successful colleagues [and] the constant effort of staying relevant.’ Is it reasonable to expect such volatile and vulnerable individuals to channel our nobler selves when it comes to being part of a writing community?
I will give Jennifer Mills the last word. When asked for her conclusions regarding those cultures of reciprocity underpinning creative labour, she tweeted, ‘I don’t know that there are any except the obvious – that being generous is better than being a jerk.’
About Angela Savage
Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and the 2011 Scarlett Stiletto Award for short crime fiction. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. Her latest novel, ‘Mother of Pearl’, is published by Transit Lounge. Follow her on Twitter at @angsavage.