Writers can write from anywhere. It’s probably the most portable profession there is (“Sure, honey, I’ll follow you to Saskatchewan so you can study snowy owls…lemme just grab my notebooks!”). But just because we can do this inherently isolating thing from anywhere doesn’t mean we should do it in a vacuum. Writing alone in a room not only dulls the senses, it dulls our writing, and frankly, it’s kind of a bummer.
Still, whether it’s because of job constraints or for family reasons, tons of writers live—like me—way out in the suburbs, the exurbs, or the sticks, far from fabled literary cities like New York, Boston, or San Francisco. I’ve been raising my young family in Silicon Valley for a few years now for my spouse’s career, and while I’ve met some creative types, they’re mostly web designers, and hack-a-thons are much more prevalent than poetry readings. I envy my writer friends from graduate school who still live in Washington, D.C. steps away from Politics & Prose Bookstore and The Writer’s Center, but despite the limitations to living in a less-than literary locale, I’ve found some practical ways to cobble together a writing community on my own.
1) Volunteer For A Local Organization That Support Writing For Youth
Do you know who runs writing workshops and creative writing summer camps for kids and teens? Writers. An easy and low-key way to meet them is to volunteer. Even if you’re not established enough to lead a workshop and all you do is help mail flyers or organize events, you’re still meeting other local writers and can turn those acquaintances into coffee outings and writing-based friendships later on.
2) Take A Class From A Local Writing Organization For Adults
People who already label themselves as writers, either because of a few publication credits or an MFA or years of experience, often overlook writing classes as being strictly for the uninitiated. But most organizations offer advanced classes as well that focus on the more nuanced aspects of publishing and craft, like finding a literary agent or revising a novel. Some of these only require an evening out and are reasonably priced, so it’s not like committing to graduate school. Presumably, the people taking the class are in similar places in their careers, and it’s easy to exchange emails and Twitter handles during the bathroom break.
Earlier this year, I searched for writers’ groups near me and found the SF Writer’s Grotto, which unfortunately was more than an hour’s drive away. Still, I decided to take a one-night class on query letters, and it was incredibly valuable. Some of us keep in touch via social media, and while I didn’t make any close friendships out of it, that’s not always the point. It was a social outlet and a chance for me to hang out and chat with people who knew what I was about, and it was totally worth the couple of hours on the road (which doubled as free brainstorming time while my spouse put the kids to bed).
3) Attend A Small Regional Workshop or Retreat
It’s tempting to go to conferences with a critical mass of writers to get the most bang for your buck (AWP, anyone?), but it’s difficult to develop a lifelong group of writer friends at a national conference with tens of thousands of attendees. On the other hand, there are humble local writing conferences and residencies all over the place, even (often) in the middle of nowhere (we writers love our open spaces). Sure, you might not meet Michael Chabon, but you’ll be able to network with writers from your neck of the woods and get better access to and attention from the workshop leaders at these smaller events. I attended both the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference and the much smaller Grub Street Muse & The Marketplace Conference in Boston this spring, and I got so much more out of the latter (more mingling, smaller workshops).
And if you can’t commit to a full-on residency because of family or work obligations, a short-term retreat is an accessible alternative. Poets & Writers has a great list of these (and conferences) on their website. If cost is an issue, ask your folks to stop buying you blank journals and fancy pens as gifts and consider pitching in to admission fees (they’ll be relieved to get you something you actually want).
4) Go To Author Events At Your Local Bookstores or Universities
This is so simple it’s ridiculous, but it’s probably the single best thing you can do to meet writers near you. So maybe there isn’t a regular reading series where you live, but almost everywhere has a bookstore still, even in suburbia, and this is where lesser-known regional authors tour and talk about their books. Who cares if it’s a cookbook? It’s a writer who appreciates having an audience, and someday hopefully you’ll be in that position. Do your part by being an enthusiastic body in a chair for a local author, and if they’re nice, they’ll return the favor by geeking out about writing with you for a few minutes after the reading (and possibly share tips and connections! (but don’t be pushy)). Bonus: there’s often free refreshments! Even better, if you attend these events regularly, you’ll get to know the bookstore owners, and they’re the best keepers of knowledge on the local writing scene. If approaching strangers at a reading feels awkward to you, remember that most writers are awkward. It’s why we work alone, but we still get lonely and love to chat.
5) I Repeat: Go To Author Events At Your Local Bookstores or Universities
This one’s really more of an imperative than a suggestion, so it bears repeating. It’s so effortless. It’s fun. And yet there are almost always empty seats at these things. If all the people who carpet-bomb submissions to literary journals regularly went to book talks, there’d be standing-room only.
6) When That’s Not Enough, Move Somewhere Else
It’s tough (and sometimes demoralizing) living in a place that doesn’t overtly value what you do, so if you’ve done all of these things and still haven’t found enough of a literary community for your sanity, maybe it’s time to consider moving to an area that already has one. It’s not as drastic as it sounds, and in fact, it’s exactly what my spouse and I are doing in a few weeks (cue future post on The Importance of Having a Partner Who’s Really Into What You Do). We’re taking the collective hit on a much longer commute for him so that we can get out of the suburbs and move to book-centric Berkeley across the bay. We considered San Jose, which is much closer to his job, but then we discovered there wasn’t a single general bookstore in the entire downtown area, and that was an actual deal-breaker. Berkeley, on the other hand, has literally dozens of bookstores of every kind. There’s a library on one end of our new block and a theater company on the other (one that sometimes commissions their own plays!), and Berkeley hosts its very own book festival, so it’s basically a slice of literary heaven. And who knows…maybe we’ll even run into Michael Chabon. I think I’ll be fulfilled either way.