Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing as Community

John Brantingham

Depression is a narcissistic and solitary game. All too often, failure is too. One of the most surprising revelations that I had when I was a new community college professor was that when people dropped out it usually wasn’t because they were too poor or busy, and it wasn’t even because they were intellectually inferior.

People drop out of college because they feel that they don’t belong.

It’s the same reason people drop out of sports teams, musical bands, churches, and marriages. Not surprisingly it also the reason that people stop writing.

Now, after having taught at the community college fulltime for fifteen years, I’ve realized that one of the most important parts of my profession is helping to foster that feeling of belonging. I do it with my new students who have just transferred into college, but I also do it with my creative writing students.

We writers often have the romantic notion that we should be solitary artists apart and above the rest of society, peeking in and commenting on it, but that’s an incredibly foolish way to conduct your life for three important reasons.

  • 1. Seclusion leads to narcissism which leads to depression. If the only thing you are focusing on is yourself, you are going to start wondering why you aren’t as successful as you might have been. There is no way to be so successful that you can outrun this kind of self-doubt. Once you enter this kind of depression, you can say goodbye to your writing.
  • 2. Writers need to be a part of society, not apart from it. We need to write about real people doing real things, and there’s no way to do that unless you are actually taking part in life and soaking up other people’s stories.
  • 3. Other people’s excitement about their writing will get you focused on your own writing. Spending a few hours with writers who are dedicated and interested will infuse you with the kind of energy you need to come home after work, cut out the distractions, and just write. These do not have to be Ernest Hemingways and Stephen Kings. They just need to care about art and craft.

I’ve had a number of students go on to MFA programs or go on just to be writers. The most successful of these have created community in a couple of key ways.

The first is that they have been a part of the writing community of Los Angeles, which is where I happen to live. Los Angeles isn’t the important component here, the community is. Just about every part of the country, whether it is urban or rural has a fascinating and vibrant arts community. You just have to look.

The second is they have formed their own critique group of four to seven writers who are interested in coming together once a week or once a month to talk about where they are, what they have written, and where they should be going.

Staying focused is often as simple as staying social. Depression might be narcissistic and solitary, but art should never be.

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