* Photo taken from The IT Crowd
Writing is a solitary pursuit. Writers come up with ideas and then force themselves to sit and think intensely about them while intermittently plucking away at a keyboard. We listen to our friends and family just outside our doors cooking dinner, watching TV, and gossiping about the day, and we make the choice to divorce ourselves from that – at least for a little while. Then, and this is perhaps the harder of the two tasks, when we’re done, we have to go out into the waking world and forget what we just did.
You see, when you’re not writing, it doesn’t exist. No one else knows what you’re doing. No one, to some extent, really cares. Even when you try to explain it, you’re not going to be able to do the work justice – that would require them to read it. And, unlike most work, it’s not always possible to see what the writing will become in its incipient stages. Too often, when we start something, we have to tear it down completely – the equivalent of building a house and demolishing everything but the fireplace.
Thus, writers – solitary, dreamy, startlingly naive creatures – crave fellowship. We want someone who can share in our work, understand what we mean when something “doesn’t feel right” or when characters won’t behave. We need someone to bitch with about the 14 pitches we did that no one picked up or the editor that stripped our work to something gaudy and clickbait-y. We need someone who understands that, yes, we may be sitting on our asses for 8 hours a day, but it is still grueling, exhausting work.
Yet, we are painfully awkward creatures. Even the most gregarious of us will have a hard time interacting with other writers. We’re all so eager to tell our own stories that we have a hard time connecting. We’re all so convinced that what we’re doing is “right” that we can be condescending. And we all labor under the impression that speaking about our writing is somehow embarrassing – like we’re talking about an illicit affair.
This past week I attended a Writers Meet-up hosted by local nonprofit the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning. The Carnegie Center is one of those delightful places every city should have, a beautiful old building with staff entirely dedicated to improving literacy and advancing opportunities for writers. They host writing workshops and a books-in-progress conference along with weekly writing events. They offer tutoring for kids and classes for all ages in topics as diverse as Arabic, calligraphy, comic book creating, and non-fiction writing. Most of the staff are actively working on publishing something, and they’re genuinely sympathetic and encouraging to fellow writers.
None of that stopped the meet-up from being awkward. We were all adults, none of us below 25 (and most in their 40s or 50s), but none of us seemed to have mastered the basic etiquette of a meet-and-greet. Instead, we dutifully trotted over to the spread, piling on soggy canapés and fragrant cheeses and choosing between white or red for courage. Then, we would steel ourselves, pushing back our shoulders, and whirl to face a stranger. “So what are you writing?” we’d ask brightly, our teeth still clamped together.
As at all parties, it helped if you knew someone. “Oh, Bill!” the lucky soul would call, raising a hand on a limp wrist. “Bill! How are you?” Soon one or two others would congregate to the meet-up, having recognized a familiar face (even if they couldn’t place the name). The rest of us lingered near the food or windows, keeping our ears twitching for interesting conversation. “Did I just hear you talk about werewolves?” I asked a woman. Yes, I had (What I missed was the fact that they were bisexual, Civil War-era werewolves. It was a great conversation.).
Even when the conversation goes well, there’s an atmosphere of expectation – or dread. When will I get to talk about my work? Will I have to talk about my work? Please, God, don’t ask me about my work. Oh, my God, stop talking about your work. This reminds me of a piece I read. Oh, have you met such-and-so? Because I did, and it was delightful.
None of this is to say that the meet-up wasn’t helpful or necessary. On the contrary, it was affirming to meet people with the same goals of publishing. It was helpful to make contacts with people who had better freelance or blogging connections. And it was motivating to meet people that you were totally convinced were not as talented as you. ‘Seriously? She thinks she can get published? Dude, then why can’t I?’ (Like I said, writers are kind of assholes.)
However, writing meet-ups will always be awkward. We just don’t have the type of social skills or models related to our craft to prevent it. We’re too used to living in our heads and hiding our work like it’s something precious and profane. We don’t know the proper way to slide in that we’re working on a new book of poems or how to talk about our article in the New York Times without sounding like a complete dickhead. We want so badly to be loved and read, it makes us desperate. And thus the awkwardness.
Still, if you have the opportunity to go to a writers meet-up, do so. It will remind you that you’re not alone and not nearly as talentless as you fear. My only real suggestion is that you practice your elevator pitch. Believe me, you’ll feel a lot better if you can answer the question, “So what are you writing?” with more than a hysterical laugh and half-spat expulsion of air. No one’s really impressed by that.