This is part one of a two part writing series. Please click here if you’d like to see the second.
I’ve taken part in two distinct types of literary community. In the first, people come together, usually at an establishment specializing in $8 variations on Folgers pre-mix, and exchange opinions on each others’ masterpieces. In the second, hundreds of people don’t come together in front of their computer screens or mailboxes to soak up the great wisdom sprinkled from brown magazines and the vast expanses of the netdom.
On the surface, these two groups do indeed share commonalities. They both emphasize sharing, criticizing and improving literary works through the honest exchange of opinions. Both seek to support writers in their quests to finish that book/get published/single-handedly kick Stephen King off the best sellers list.
What they do not share is outlook. Look, for example, at this cover of Writer’s Digest.
First, we’ve got a stirring beige theme because beige is the color of passion. Then we see a smiling, elderly woman with no obvious connection to the rest of the cover because that is evidently the sort of person who would be Shakespeare if only they had seven ways to use inspiration. Then, of course, this wildly innovative and avant garde cover design promises to help you, too, get creative.
Look inside and you will find advice on such pressing matters as “gaining the courage to show your work to others.” There will be help for those too afraid to “deal with being in a classroom again” and great tips for overcoming the dread we all feel (we do?) before starting a new literary project.
As with all great pieces of literature, you will find within the hallowed pages of Writer’s Digest no profanity, no mention of unmentionables, no low-brow references to pop culture (especially the horrid vulgarity that is anything newer than 1961), no politics, no revolution, no sex, no philosophy or violence. In short, Writer’s Digest has lots of stuff which could in no way offend the target audience of conservative, house bound women whose senses of humor sit quietly desiccating beneath obsessively cleaned living room rugs.
I’ve found a similar environment with most of the online critique groups I’ve tried – the same fear of going somewhere new (what if I get lost?!?), fear of experience, fear of failure, fear of everything. The biggest difference is that, shielded by anonymity, the beige crowd feels more empowered to bust out its Gestapo-Of-Political-Correctness side. Did you know, for example, that in an online critique group, posting this picture in reference to a short story means that you are a bigoted enemy to all lesbians? Or, in a crowd where everybody wants to be a novelist, you can get lectures on how writing a compelling villain makes you, the author, morally suspect as well. Don’t rock the boat in an online critique forum because, as we all now, the best writers are always the most conventional.
This is not to say that online critique groups or writers’ magazines are bad. They are usually better than nothing and indeed, you can learn from both. But they are very, very limited and prone to what I shall describe as, for lack of a better word, intellectual constipation.
Take a look at the following photograph, by means of contrast, and imagine what it’s like visiting the Unnamed Writer’s Group (now called High Sierra Writers) I was long member of.
This kind of group is fun. We sit in coffee shops or somebody’s front room and talk about the biggest douchebags we’ve ever met. We swap horror stories about dates, we talk shit. Group leaders have hot flashes and narrate menopause for our edification. Old women try their hands at gangster rap. Yours truly comes jacked up on opiates three hours after an appendectomy and nobody blinks.
Our literary focus knows no boundaries. Do you want to write a more compelling examination regarding racially defined loss-of-culture? Here to help. Do you want to find out how a zombie would pull apart its victim? Bring it on. Do you want to write the most hilariously inept sex scene ever in order to satirize a Kardashian? Let’s bust out the thesauri. No judgment, no fear, no pearl clutching.
And this leads me to my second observation about in person and online literary communities. The published authors I’ve come across in literary communities are overwhelmingly, hugely active in the face-to-face sphere.