A tale of two Emilys: a four-step program for introverts, Emily Dickinson wannabes and others who just really, really like being alone.
When I started writing a novel in my early twenties I had never met a novelist. I don’t think I’d met anyone who expressed even the slightest interest in writing. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that people in my world did and I had no intention of telling anyone I was doing it either.
This seemed fine. After all, weren’t all great writers solitary and secretive, if not downright reclusive? Proust! Salinger! Pynchon! Faulkner! Not to mention my personal touchstone writer, Emily Dickinson, who for decades barely spoke to anyone outside of her family and even then only through a closed door.
Clueless, romantic, painfully earnest young writer that I was, I imagined I was channelling her as I hunched secretively over my pages, in a locked room, in the middle of the night: ’The Soul Selects her own Society — / Then — shuts the Door,’ I murmured to nobody.
I spent a few years in this mode and then, having no idea what to do with my giant stack of pages that might or might not add up to a novel, I applied for a mentorship with the great Australian novelist and writing teacher, Liam Davison. The second after I mailed the application I was flooded with mortification. Who was I — unpublished, unknown, poorly educated — to request attention from a successful, accomplished, proper writer?
My mortification only worsened when I was awarded the mentorship. I fully expected our meeting to start (and possibly end) with Liam putting me firmly back in my (unpublished, unknown, uneducated) place.
In reality, while he pulled no punches in critiquing my novel, Liam didn’t show a hint of scorn at my gobsmacking audacity in thinking I was worthy of this opportunity. In fact, when the first sting of his feedback faded, I was able to notice that, cringiness of looking at my novel through his eyes aside, I was feeling pretty good. Elated, even.
Part of it was that Liam’s insights into how and why my manuscript wasn’t working were spot on and I could instantly see the clear, bright way ahead. But the larger part of this glorious feeling came, simply, from having someone treat me as a writer. Liam didn’t dismiss or belittle or humour me. He didn’t take the role of a master condescending to share his wisdom with a lowly apprentice. He didn’t even speak to me as a teacher to a student. He spoke to me as though I was the same as him: a working writer trying to make something good.
Being seen as a peer (albeit one a long way further back on the path) — as someone who not only could handle hard feedback but who would welcome it — was life changing. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t published anything or studied creative writing or been invited into some (imagined) literary salon populated by all the promising young writers of Sydney. If I took my writing seriously and continued to work hard at making it closer to what I wished it to be, then I was a writer. That was it. That was the only qualification that mattered.
Joining Writing NSW (then the NSW Writers’ Centre) was my first attempt to act on this new understanding. Walking to the mailbox to send the membership form, I silently repeated the mantra: Yes, you are a writer. Yes, you do belong.
To my great relief this turned out to be true. Writing NSW clearly used the same definition of writer as Liam. It took a single look through the course catalogue to see that writers of all kinds and at every stage of development were welcome. The message was clear: if you write and think that writing is worth working at, you are a writer and you belong to this community.
Wait. Ugh. The C-word! It was one thing to be comfortable calling myself a writer, but that didn’t mean I was comfortable with being part of a community. I mean, did Emily Dickinson spend precious writing time making small talk with strangers around a tea urn before joining them in a workshop?
Ridiculous desire to emulate a nineteenth-century American recluse aside, I have always been introverted and happiest in my own company. I’ve never walked into a room and felt like I truly belonged there. Never been a joiner, nor an organiser. I was the one outside, eavesdropping. In the corner with my head in a book. Up the back fiddling with my phone. Present but hoping nobody noticed.
That is how I proceeded then as a member of Writing NSW. I read the newsletter cover to cover and attended as many events as I could, but I kept absolutely to myself. My goal was to soak up all the wisdom while not engaging personally with anyone providing or seeking it.
Years passed. I went from wannabe novelist to debut author to an emerging writer with a second book on the way. I began to find that just being (physically or virtually) in a room with other writers wasn’t as helpful as it used to be. I hated admitting it but what I craved was the opportunity to actually talk to other writers about my work and career.
Who else would understand the particular misery of a scathing review, an overwhelming editorial report or a plain old bad writing day? Even the kindest partner, friend or mum doesn’t really get it if they’ve not been through it themselves. Daring to speak up in these writerly spaces brought a flood of advice, support and commiseration that came from experience and was grounded in solidarity. As a bonus, I learned that I had unknowingly accumulated some decent insight and experience that could be helpful to others too.
It wasn’t only published authors who provided this great support. Being with people who, whatever their roles and labels elsewhere in their lives, were coming together as writers meant not having to explain why you skipped family outings, lunch breaks and sleep in order to sit alone and make up stories that might never be read. That this was worth doing was a given; we could all get straight to talking about the how — and the how’s it going.
The brilliant Toni Morrison once said that “solitude, competitiveness and grief are the unavoidable lot of a writer” without an “organisation or network” to which they can turn. Of course, she was right. After too long struggling stubbornly along on my own, I finally accepted that I, too, needed a community if I wanted to sustain a writing life.
I was still me, though. I still needed long periods of solitary work. Still needed a lot of quiet and a lot of time alone. How could I reconcile the desire to be part of a community with my solitary nature and work habits?
The answer turned out to be very easily. I don’t know where I got the idea being part of a community meant pretending to be an extrovert or giving up precious writing time to show my face in crowded rooms. Wherever it came from, it dissolved instantly on examination. After all, hadn’t I already begun to be part of a community and have strong, reciprocal relationships with other writers, while continuing to write over the last few years? Hadn’t I met and bonded with wonderful people even though I didn’t come close to attending every event on the calendar, participating in every workshop or reading to which I was invited or being available for critiques or craft discussions with every writer who asked?
Here’s the thing: while it is impossible to imagine Emily Dickinson attending a Shut Up & Write session or signing up for literary speed dating, that doesn’t mean she was alone in her vocation. Dickinson wrote around 2000 poems in her relatively short life and she was just as prolific at letter writing. Not all of her correspondence was about writing, but enough of it was that scholars have always considered the letters essential sources for understanding her work and her writing life. She may have barely left her room but her discussions were rich, varied, ongoing and essential.
In reality, pretty much all of those writers famous for being reclusive or solitary geniuses were, like Dickinson, members of communities that supported them in their work. Writers who never took a class or joined a critique group, and who wouldn’t be caught dead at a networking event, still had friends, colleagues, mentors, role models, correspondents – let’s just say people – with whom they at the very least discussed their writing and, often, whose advice and guidance they actively worked on to develop their craft. Truly, almost every writer you can think of and whom you might wish to emulate, did not sustain that incredible creative energy alone. What the specifics of their writing community looked like in each case, depends on the writer. So it must be for all of us.
A funny thing happened when I progressed enough in my craft to teach others. I entered the classroom feeling, as I always do in new situations, like an awkward outsider who probably shouldn’t be there at all. This time, though, instead of slinking to the back of the room, I had to stand up front. Up front, while a room full of people looked at me as the arbiter of belonging, the person who could decide who deserved to be there and how they should act to confirm they belonged.
I was, by now, confident and happy within my personal writing world, but it had taken me many years to get to that point. As much as I wished I could instantly transfer that sense of community to the people in the room, I knew it didn’t work that way. It would take time for each of them to figure out the level and type of interaction they needed and wanted and to find others who wanted that, too.
What I could do for them was what Liam Davison and Writing NSW had done for me way back at the start: I could mark out a space where qualifications, publishing credits and industry contacts are irrelevant.
I could tell them that all that is required to belong is that you take your writing seriously and continue to work at making it closer to what you wish it to be.
I could model one way of being in community as writers by creating an inclusive, generous and respectful place for them to learn and support each others’ learning.
And when it was time for them to move on from my class, I could encourage each of them to find or make the kind of writing community they wanted to be part of.
I could say, simply: We are all writers here. Let’s talk.
Emily Maguire is the author of six novels and three non-fiction books, and an experienced teacher and mentor to young and emerging writers. Her novels have been translated into 12 languages and her articles, essays and reviews have been published widely. She is a 2010 and 2013 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. Her latest book is the novel Love Objects.
Find her website at emilymaguire.com.au.