On Writing Communities, Competition And Finding Your Tribe

WNDB_ButtonI’ve always heard of this legend, the solitary writer, head down at her desk, never looking for the light or sharing her words. And I have to say, that was never me.

From the start, to me, writing was a collaborative craft. I remember sharing stories with my kid sister across our bunk beds — about frogs and princesses, our favorite Bollywood stars, and eventually even New Kids On the Block fan fiction. (Yes, really.)

And when I first started writing, right after college, it was screenplays. And even back then, I had a collaborator — my brilliant sister Meena. We had a little writing community of two, and it worked for us, because we also had heady, time-consuming dayjobs that drained us of all our energy. So we goaded each other on. At 10 p.m., we’d sit (we were roomies, too), just having gotten home from work and eaten dinner, the TV on. And neither of us would feel like writing. But one of us would inevitably turn to the other and say, “We should start.” Sometimes it was her. Sometimes it was me. If we’d been flying solo, neither of us would have gotten anything done. Together, we had the motivation (and the dayjobs we’d hoped to quit were definitely writer fuel). Together, we managed several solid scripts, meetings in L.A., eventually a development deal. I also had a class at my NYU program that met weekly, read scripts aloud, traded feedback. It was an awesome, uplifting experience, and through it I found a great mentor. But Hollywood, of course, is a fickle creature. And that’s a story for another day.

Eventually, I started writing fiction, too. I shared it with my writer husband and a few friends, but I flailed without a solid partner, without a community. So my husband suggested I find one — and focus on craft for a while — via an MFA program. At New School, I did find community. A small class of 12, some newbies, some seasoned writers. And with the faculty drawn from New York publishing ranks, it was a hard and fast education. One I’m grateful for, but one that also bred competition. It was race to finish a draft, and then a race to the book deal. I knew I couldn’t be part of it. My daughter was eight-months-old when I started school, and I was also working full-time hours. I wanted to get pages down, I wanted to learn this new-to-me form of storytelling, and yes, I wanted to learn about publishing. I wanted to be immersed in the world. What I learned from my time in the New School MFA is that community is important — it embraces you and guides you, and it also fuels you to do more, do better. It is at the New School that I first learned the concept of having a crit group, of regularly trading pages, of even just meeting up to write together (but apart!) at a coffee shop. But you have to find the right people for you. Some people seem like a good fit, but they’re not offering anything constructive, whether it be motivation, actual critique, or even just cheering you on. You have to know when to build ties, and when to cut them. I came away from that program with my partner-in-crime and in CAKE, Dhonielle. We collaborate on projects, but she also very much pushes me on my solo work (and I hope I do the same for her). In fact, I have three NaNo chapters to turn into her by tomorrow. (Sigh. I mean, YAY!)

Between Dhonielle and my husband, I feel like I have a solid foundation of writerly peeps. And taking what I learned at the New School, I’ve learned to cultivate writerly relationships that work for me — people whom I click with, on the page and in person. People who offer constructive, smart criticism, motivation and inspiration, and just want to cheer you on. Not tear you down. As I venture in to my new WIP, which is women’s fiction, I’ve already been reaching out to potential BETAs who might just be those people.

Most recently, Dhonielle and I have been working with the folks on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team. These are diverse writers on a mission to make a difference — and those words, really, could describe what we’re trying to do with CAKE, too. We’re so proud to be a part of that team, and can’t wait to get to know the individual writers better.  With them, we feel we’ve found our tribe.

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An entertainment and lifestyle journalist published by The New York Times, People, ABC News, MSN, Cosmopolitan and other major national media, SONA CHARAIPOTRA currently curates a kickass column on YA books and teen culture for Parade.com. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she's not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like Twisted and Vampire Diaries. But call it research: Sona is the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Her debut, the YA dance drama Tiny Pretty Things (co-written with Dhonielle Clayton), is due May 26 from HarperTeen. Find her on the web at SonaCharaipotra.com or CAKELiterary.com.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. You’re right, Sona, connecting with copacetic writers makes a huge difference. For over a year now I’ve been meeting virtually with the writer David Hicks. He’s in Colorado, I’m in Connecticut, but we meet via Google Hangout 2-3 times per week and write for hours at a time, each of us working on our own pieces. I tell ‘ya, my butt stays in that chair a lot longer when I see he’s still working and I believe he has the same notion about me. We cheer each other on and it’s been great, especially when the writing gets tough.

    And yes, you have to find the right people. It only takes one or two. I loved my MFA classmates, but I knew only a few of us would truly connect. It’s important to know that’s okay.

  2. First of all, I am entirely in favor of finding a tribe. One of my favorite moments in any book I’ve ever read was in The Diamond Age, when Nell, the protagonist, finds her tribe. She had no idea she had (or needed) a tribe, but then they show up and suddenly everything in her life makes sense.

    That being said, I came (back) to writing after years of being in bands, and it was a very pleasant change to be able to have the stories go where they needed to go without having to explain and justify every change in direction.

    I don’t find it lonely at all though. I do my work surrounded by characters I’ve been writing about for years (and in some cases for decades).

    That’s my tribe.

  3. It’s fun to see how our tribes evolve as time goes on, picking up new members along the way. I know my tribe is constantly shifting to allow for more writers – we’re such an awesome community!

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