Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What Is a Literary Community?

Yesterday I received a note from a friend:
Do you ever . . . find the idea that writers have to try to be part of the local "literary community" if they want to be successful just tiring and one more kind of daunting thing to do?
I answered her this way:
Yes, I do. Networking has nothing to do with writing. "Literary community" is either (1) a social scene, (2) free mentoring for apprentice writers, or (3) a way to get people in power (employers, publishers) to notice you. All can be rewarding, but they also take you away from actually doing the solitary work of being a writer.
Since writing that response, I've been thinking more about the concept of literary community. I mean, what is it, really? I've talked before about my distaste for the way in which pundits tend to toss around the word community--telling us about the evangelical community, the addiction community, the advertising executive community--as if the term is simply a cozy synonym for group. But the issue goes beyond the connotations of usage. What value does a trade-association approach have to those of us who are trying to make art? Who benefits from it, and who does not?

My recent stint at the AWP conference in Los Angeles certainly made me remember how alien such an approach is to me personally. Instead of going to panels and readings, I spent my free time by myself--riding a bus to Santa Monica, idling beside the players' entrance behind the Staples Center so I could watch the security guards pass around a box of cookies. Ostensibly, the writers were "my own kind." So why was I more excited about catching a glimpse of a few damp Dallas Stars players boarding their airport bus? (Do I pay attention to hockey? No, I do not.)

The fact is that most of the people at AWP were not my own kind. They rushed hither and thither--posing for selfies with friends and idols, promoting programs, laughing together over dinner. Amid these networking frenzies, I feel like a freak. I have never craved to be a player in any sort of literary social scene; I've never even been tempted to join a writing group. A woman once told me to my face that she reads this detachment as a holier-than-thou attitude to the larger fellowship of writers. Maybe that's true. My only defense is that I need to be lonely.

And yet I do long for a community in the more fundamental sense of the word--as a way of communing. That version of community exists for me at the Frost Place and in singular relationships with a handful of individual artists and readers, some of whom I've never met. Our correspondence may be spotty and sporadic; but when we speak, we hear each other. It exists for me among my boys, among my animals, among a few souls both alive and gone--people who may have never picked up a book, let alone read one of my poems, but who offer and receive a necessary love.

I want to comfort my worried friend; I want to tell her that her power to grow as an artist lies in her fidelity to her own fire. What fuel sparks that flame? What crushes it? The answers are both simple and infinitely complex. Anyone who claims that Emily Dickinson was a hermit doesn't comprehend the tangled, sloppy social web known as family life. She was no Ralph Waldo Emerson or Walt Whitman, with their expansive national friendships, but she ran back and forth to Evergreens and up and down the kitchen stairs. She talked when she needed to, and people answered her. And her poems thrived.


Carlene said...

I am captivated by "fidelity to [one's] own fire." My ear is engaged by the alliteration, but, moreso, I find the phrase comforting, ennobling, and challenging.

Thank for for that little gift. It is, indeed, tricky --and critical--

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post Dawn. The whole literary networking, get out there and get your name out there approach must work for some people -- extroverts who thrive on social interaction and who love groups. Like you, I love people, but as an introvert I find them tiring, especially large groups. I greatly prefer socializing with small groups or individuals. So in answer to your question of who wins and who loses, extroverts win and introverts lose. Writers who feel comfortable promoting themselves win, writers who don't lose. People keep talking about the importance of the literary community (i.e. networking), so it becomes more important. I'll do what I can and what I enjoy -- but proudly let my freak flag fly.