It’s stating the obvious to observe that writing is a solitary pursuit, but there, I’ve gone and said it anyway. No one will write my poems for me, my stories for me, my essays for me, or even that book-length memoir for me. No one. I am the one who chooses (or not) to work on these pieces, even this piece.
I’m by myself at this moment (5:45 a.m.), the rest of my family still sleeping. A glass of cold water and a cup of coffee both within reach, a candle burning, a solitary lamp lighting me as I work. No one ordered me to set my alarm for 5:30.
To be clear, I am mostly comfortable with this arrangement of my writing life. It’s no real bother to be “by myself” trying to put down the right word, then the next right word, etc. (I’m not sure how strong extroverts manage to become writers, but they do.)
But the other day I was thinking about my “condition,” 12 years removed from finishing my MFA, 5 years removed from finishing my PhD. I realized an essential component of the writing life I was missing: accountability with another writer.
To me, one of the best benefits of the graduate Creative Writing courses I took was the accountability built into the system. I had to turn in a story every few weeks. I had to turn in a poem each week. Beyond those structural “checks,” fellow writers and I talked in and out of class about our writing. There was genuine community, and I made friends with many of these folks, people I still keep in touch with to this day.
My writer-friends are scattered around the country: Oklahoma, Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, among other states. I see these folks at conferences, at retreats. I see them online.
What did I do about this lack of accountability?
I reached out to one of my writer friends, to someone I thought who knows my “work,” what I’m “trying to do.” Would he like to start swapping work? He said yes, and we’re in the very first stage of this process, more accurately, on the first piece we sent each other.
As I write this, I am rereading the poem he sent, pining over what comments I might make. And in this set of actions, I’m moving beyond that inward focus towards the self. I am instead considering how I might encourage the writer, what words I might offer that can be of help.
It is a tiny step, yes, towards focusing outward, toward others. Of course, I am curious about what comments he’ll make on my poem. Right now, however, I am not considering that. I am (re)learning this truth: we were made for community.