10 min read

‘What Is a Writing Community, Anyway?’

It's a simple matter of kindness, generosity, and surprise.

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Hi there,

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Now for some housekeeping. Starting with this letter, The Reading’s audio podcast will be available for free to all on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. If you like this version, please help out by rating and subscribing wherever you receive your podcasts.

This month’s letter about community obviously had me thinking about the community that has coalesced here at The Reading. I started writing this column because I noticed how often writing intersects with life and how little help there was in navigating those moments. I remembered how much I wanted a mentor who looked like me and who could speak to the dilemmas that I faced in my life.

I like to think that the community at The Reading is a decentralized and spiritual one; that it’s not really about giving writing tips or demystifying the industry, though these exchanges do happen, but that you’re here because you know that writing is revealing who you are to yourself and you want to know if anyone else feels this way too. With every letter you relate to, there’s at least one other person who does as well.

My version of community is writing to you. It is showing you you’re not a burden and your thoughts are real. It is accompanying you for your morning coffee, your evening walks. It is answering loudly enough for everyone in the back. Because for every letter I receive and every letter I write, there you are, listening on the other end, knowing you could have written it too.

If I can do it, so can you. And I hope you will, when the time comes.

Now, on with the work.


Photo from Getty Images: You face a cream dutch door set in a stone wall looking to a view outside. The door’s top half is a window that is now swiveled open toward you. Outside, a dirt road continues into a grassy green with verdant shrubs and trees. The side of another building is visible to the left, a wisp of a roof to the right.
Dear Yanyi,

Your letters have really been helping me come to healthy terms with my relationship with reading and writing, particularly your letter on “How Do I Overcome My Inner Critic?”. I’m struggling right now, though, with the writing community and my relationship with that.

I came to writing comparatively late, and joined some workshops and writing groups because that seemed to be the thing to do. They helped me in the practical sense of forcing me to write frequently and read more, but there was this term that kept coming up: “the writing community”. But the thing is, I don’t know if I’ve ever belonged to one, or if I ever will, and it makes me lonely and scared. Lonely, because I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that I can’t seem to understand what exactly a “writing community” is, except that it connotes an in-group that I’m not a part of. Scared, because I have been told again and again that your success as a writer often depends on who you know in the “writing community”, and I don’t seem to have tapped into that.

John Taylor Gatto makes the distinction between communities and networks by acknowledging networks as a “splintering of identity”. That is, when one is working within a network, one suppresses all parts of themselves that do not have to do with the network’s interest for the sake of efficiency. Often, I feel that’s what the writing “community” is—a writing network. A place where “writers” come together, not people. I’m fine with that. It’s just another workspace. But then—why the talk about solidarity, or warmth, or care? Why call it a community? If I’m coming off as sour and resentful—that’s what I’m scared of, too. Maybe everyone is “in” on the community aspect, and there’s something wrong with me that I don’t see it as such, that I’m not welcomed to be a part of it.

If the “writing community” is really just a network, I’m fine being the way that I am: clocking in and out of classes, treating each one as a transactional space, taking breaks from it just like one takes time off work. But if it’s a community, then what am I doing wrong that I can’t see it as such? What is a writing community, anyway?

Thank you for your always thoughtful replies!

Sincerely,
The Outsider

Columbus, Ohio

Dear TO,

I wrote a whole letter written to you about the “writing community” and nepotism and just deleted it because, well, I could spend your Sunday morning reminding you of how influential prestige, capital, and inherited networks are in the writing industry and how well they disguise themselves as “community,” or I can tell you about the moments in my career when community has truly materialized for me and how to build one for yourself.

But let’s talk about you first. You mentioned in your letter that you came to writing on the later side and that you joined some workshops and writing groups because they seemed “the thing to do.” Then you got spooked by this repeated invocation of the “writing community,” a nebulous term that seemed to be networking in disguise at best, a real in-group that you didn’t belong to at worst.

When you wrote how you did the “thing to do,” I started wondering about the second half of that statement. What were you hoping to get out of doing “the thing to do?” Why was that valuable to you?

Perhaps you’re feeling tentative because this new foray into writing is a new identity you’re trying on, and you wanted to do it correctly. Perhaps writing feels good and authentic to you, and so your search for the thing to do was in hope of becoming more of a writer. Following what everyone else was doing perhaps got you more information about how to be a writer, but now you’ve hit a wall with this idea of community, and you feel unsure of how to proceed.

In the case of writing community, your loneliness seems to come from the fear that you’re not enough to become part of a community. You’re hyper-aware because you believe that being included necessitates imitating the right set of behaviors. That is, you don’t believe acting as yourself is enough for a community to materialize. And from there, you catastrophize—not only does no one want to be your friend, but you also won’t have a career, in the end.

Of course, you seem to know that your question is not actually about writing community. It’s about intimacy: both your fear and need for it. It’s about your fear that you won’t know anyone because no one wants to know you. It’s about your fear that you’re fundamentally out-of-sync, meant to orbit forever a little too far from where the action is happening. It’s about how you know in your head that you deserve to be known, but there’s a voice inside you that’s sure you’re not, always looking for examples to prove its point.

Depending on your appearance in the world, that voice might be your actual experience of living in society. Perhaps it’s not just a voice in your head. Perhaps it’s racism, it’s sexism, it’s transphobia—all these ugly patterns of neglect and outright violence that bigotry repeats and affirms. It’s others’ thoughtless and intentional actions that have told you that you’re not worth as much as other people; it’s others’ actions that tell you who you are to history.

Some of us have to optimize for maximum acceptance not because we value normality but because we’ve learned how to assimilate to survive. Definitions—and living by them—protect us from harm. But in order for the walls to be thick enough, this means you can only tolerate (and give) complete acceptance or complete abandonment.

When people get to know you, are they getting to know a character you constructed for them to enjoy rather than the person you actually are? Sometimes the real fear of loneliness is not the absence of others but the absence of your self, your ability to take on life as fully as others seem to be able to. Sometimes living by definitions forecloses the real intimacy you also want and deserve.

So what do you do? I’ve written before about loneliness, friendship, reading with love, and even a smidge on like-minded communities, but today I want to focus on what I believe are the most important aspects of building a community of any kind around you.

Let me be clear about this first: a writing community is just a community. And my community supports my career in ways that I never would have imagined possible, but they also support me in my life because writing is my life. The visible help I receive in the world is often only a fraction of the support I receive in the friendships they come from. It is an honor to know my friends enough to care for them. It is an honor to be listened to and to receive their care.

Community is actually quite simple. It is a matter of kindness, generosity, and surprise.

Kindness is about opening the door. Generosity is passing help through it. And surprise is the delight that builds only through others’ continued presence in your life and vice-versa.

Kindness, generosity—anyone can master these. Neither require a special knowledge or nature. Neither require a certain location or degree. And once you learn that your community exists in your own generosity of spirit, you will be surprised by how easy it is to move along and keep.

Kindness can be thoughtfulness in an email exchange. Kindness can be an invitation to tea. Kindness can be reaching out with a special tip about discount stores. Kindness can be leaving someone alone, even if you think you’d be great friends, until happenstance brings you together on equal terms.

Building community in this way is not fast and doesn’t produce direct results. Point A doesn’t always get to point B. Instead, I’m choosing people, not job titles or mastheads, which change often enough anyway. In friendship, the doors must open both ways. You and someone else at two sides of opposite walls can only be bound by a decision to open your doors to each other.

If kindness means opening the door, generosity means getting to know each other not to know what you can extract from each other but what you can do, particularly, to take care of each other.

I choose my literary community—my friends—based on who I like, not because I want something from them. Our mutual generosity is possible because our relationships are not based on the favors we can do for each other.

While there is no “thing to do” with kindness, there is the practice of taking stock of what you can give—not what you can sacrifice—and offer that to everyone you meet, no matter how insignificant their stature or unlike you they seem. Allow people to surprise you. Don’t offer what you don’t have to give, but give more than is expected when you can.

It may be that you are not used to practicing kindness, especially toward yourself. For kindness is also the practice of looking at yourself not with an extractive eye but one that asks: “Who is there? How can this person feel loved? And can I do anything to help them?”

It is easier to start with asking this question about others. See who responds to your kindness. So many of us move through the world with caution because we fear revealing our dysfunction—dysfunction that will ultimately lead a new friend, a new lover, to abandon us (or so we believe). Kindness is disarming. Kindness is suspicious because it’s so often appropriated for profit.

See who responds to kindness because so many of us are waiting for the opportunity to offer it in-kind but don’t know “the thing to do” for you just yet. So many of us are just as lonely as you are, waiting for someone else to reach out. Give someone else the opportunity to connect in the way you wish someone had given you.

If you’re just at the beginning of building friendships, you must prioritize friendships that respond to you with generosity. Prioritize the friendships that surprise you with their kindness, that fill your bowl rather than deplete it. Only with the love of other people can you build the space you need to love others who, for one reason or another, can’t yet respond generously to you.

Those who can’t give back in one moment may come back to you when they can, but never depend on it. Give what you have to give and don’t look back. Allow yourself to be surprised and delighted when it does return to you.

The right community will not only support you but will teach you reasons to love yourself beyond what you ever could have imagined. These friends will teach you, again and again, why they support and love you. If you choose the right ones, you’ll learn from them the notions you need to love yourself. Love as in asking people to stick around. Love as in realizing they already are.


Postscript: On asking for letters of reference.


Opportunities

Apply for a grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle (3/12; commitment to NYC-based communities; Asian women-led or centered projects).

Apply for a PEN Emerging Writers’ Fellowship (3/17; underrepresented writers; no advanced degrees; no current students; no books published/in contract though chapbooks are fine).

Apply for A4’s Van Lier Fellowship (3/21; NYC-based, Asian American, music performance and composition).

Apply for A4’s Jadin Wong Fellowship (3/21; NYC-based, Asian American, dance).

Become a work-in-progress fellow or publishing fellow through Latinx in Publishing (sometime this spring; US-based, Latinx).

This section exists because I left social media. If you’d like to post a low-fee opportunity, you can reply to this newsletter email directly.


Elsewhere

  • At the end of this month, I start teaching Contemporary Queer and Trans Asian American Poetry at Dartmouth College. Unfortunately it’s not public, but if you go there or know someone there, I’m looking forward to teaching it. If you’d be interested in taking this class in a public workshop in the future, let me know!

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About

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.