As writers we don’t really talk much about the way we work with other people or don’t or can’t or won’t or how sometimes we try to but fail. The first piece of writing about writing I ever read was back when I was an epic Zadie Smith fangirl/wannabe writer and I’ll never forget it because her advice went against every fibre of my being. I can still recite it word for word though: ‘Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.’ I don’t think I understood what she meant when I first read it. Twenty years ago, I thought her advice was to stay away from any kind of a writing community. Now I understand that her advice is a more complicated, layered thing— that she’s trying to articulate the difference between a crowd, a gang or a clique rather than a community: the latter is something nourishing and personal, something that feels like a home.
Kurt Vonnegut essentially had the opposite idea. His advice to writers was ‘that everybody join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.’ I think what he’s trying to say here with his darkly comedic version of deep thinking is that we can’t really feel connected to or responsive to the world around us unless we are in it. Writing emerges from the difficult and surprising encounters that throwing people together should make possible. The word community is often used these days to indicate people who think and act alike, but Vonnegut is issuing a call here to be in lots of communities and let them bring out the many versions of our selves because that’s the best thing for our writing.
- The word community kind of sucks
In a lot of ways, I don’t actually like the word community at all. It’s too broad and generic and I’m not convinced it even means anything anymore, in the writing field or elsewhere. Every organisation I work for has the word community peppered through its mission and value statements. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter sell community as a service. I even bought a pair of jeans a little while ago that came with a label about their community values. It’s a word thrown around so much it risks becoming hollow: a performance and a tick-box rather than something we give any deep thought to.
Part of the problem is perhaps that we treat it like a noun rather than a verb – community should be a ‘doing’ word. It exists in the small ways we act towards and recognise each other. Being a part of this community means that when you go to a literary event you talk to the person in the corner who looks like they are going to shit their pants or you smile and shrug your shoulders with the writing student in your course who also doesn’t know what everyone else is talking about. It means you show up – to the book launch or the storytelling night or the bathroom where someone has locked themselves in the toilet stall. It means when you enjoy an author’s book you let them know. It means if you’ve had any measure of success you pass it on. It means you bear witness to the small quiet, wonderful things that others do and you tell them they are seen. It means you stand behind people and help them through the gate. It means when you organise a literary event you make sure there is plenty to eat and drink because these events are just as much about giving people a chance to be with each other and form their own communities as they are about listening to the speakers themselves. It means you recognise that the literary community has disproportionately higher rates of mental illness than most other fields so you know you have to be kind because kindness is not for pussies, it’s the hardest, most critical stance, it’s a social and political act. It’s fierce as fuck.
You know what Henry James’ advice to aspiring writers was? Here it is: ‘Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.’ That’s it. Nothing about craft. Just advice on how to be a part of a community (and how to be human).
- More is always better
As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘out of the word emergency comes the word emerge.’ I think most communities within the writing ecosystem are here out of some sense of emergency. Maybe your community is a group of people you met in a course at Writing NSW and you all know you need each other to have the drive to keep going, maybe your community is you and the other two writers in the one horse town you live in, maybe it’s at the performance poetry night where you finally meet people who understand what it means to be you. Places like Writing NSW exist, after all, because a group of writers saw an urgent need for a place dedicated to their community. Being in and forging communities is also about keeping faith in ourselves and the people we’ve loved and the things we believe in – it’s a way of giving them an afterlife.
The more communities we forge and are a part of the more we create a healthier, bigger ecosystem with more opportunity for more writers. The best communities are the ones that recognise they are a small part of a really large ecosystem that they can never control. They are communities people can move in and out of and not be defined by. They are something that sets you free.
- Challenge Yourself
I’m always trying to create and be a part of safe communities within the literary ecosystem but that doesn’t always mean that they are comfortable. Over the past few years some of the most uncomfortable, confronting and exhilarating communities I’ve been a part of are collaborative ones – the kinds of communities where we don’t just come together to share but to make. I’ve worked on epic collaborative works with dancers and musicians for outdoor festivals, I’ve worked with visual artists to cover walls with parts of my essays in pink velvet and I’ve worked with other writers to co-author books.
Collaboration feels like the most epic act of community I’ve been involved in because you can’t be an individual working with a group, you have to be a community of different practioners working together. This has to involve a curiosity about what others do and an acceptance that working together happens in unpredictable ways. It challenges my experience of writing because it shifts the focus away from my individual skills, to my capacity to listen and learn and to create in ways I may be uncomfortable with, but which inevitably result in creating art that is vibrant and alive. It requires me to ask a lot of questions so I can focus on learning by sharing experiences and performing experiments. Everyone involved needs to create a community of learners. Spaces that allow for collaboration are, I think, models for what a literary community can be when it’s at its best. I notice this happens all the time within those small communities people have lovingly created within Writing NSW – when writing groups get together to produce an anthology, or writers gather around a similar theme to create an event, or even when groups used to meet at the centre to mail out the newsletter.
Increasingly, I find in my teaching at Writing NSW and elsewhere that teaching students to create and be a part of literary communities has to be a part of teaching them the skills of being a writer: Here’s another tip – find and create communities where you both share and make together.
- Borrow Lots of Sugar
In the short stories of Anton Chekhov and Jhumpa Lahiri, characters are always borrowing sugar. In Chekhov, most of the time, the characters are in no need of sugar at all. They simply borrow it so that they have an excuse to talk to their neighbour and then an excuse to talk to them again when they return the cup. In Lahiri, the characters never seem to get the kind of sugar they want – it’s usually brown sugar when they wanted white, or caster sugar they don’t know how to use, but they keep asking for sugar anyway and it becomes a way for the characters to force themselves to get to know and understand new people in new neighborhoods. I see the various literary communities we walk in and out of functioning in the same way. They are places where we can work out how to be together and support each other, they’re spaces where we show up with the excuse of needing to borrow a cup of sugar but we stay for the challenge of listening and questioning and creating together. They are well thought out crowds which manage to turn themselves into communities.
I hope everyone uses the spaces of Writing NSW to borrow their own cup of sugar.
Felicity Castagna has published four novels for adults and young adults including her most recent book, Girls In Boys’ Cars (2021, Pan Macmillan) which received The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA and is now being adapted for stage and screen. Her previous novel, No More Boats (2017, Giramondo) was a finalist in the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Awards and is published internationally by Europa. Her young adult novel The Incredible Here and Now (2014, Giramondo) received The Prime Minister’s Award for Young Adult Literature as well as the IBBY Award and was a finalist in several other awards including the CBCA Book of the Year Award. She has worked with artists in many different fields to produce cross-artform collaborations for The Sydney Festival, The National Theatre of Parramatta, The Sydney Opera House and many other places as well as with The Finishing School Collective. Her creative non-fiction and critical responses to literature and art are published both here and internationally on platforms such as The Sydney Review of Books, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Griffith Review and ABC radio and television.
Castagna is a highly experienced teacher, speaker, writing mentor and teacher educator who has facilitated workshops everywhere from schools to community arts centres to correctional centres and has helped to establish, promote and run many writing and storytelling programs. She is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University.