Over the next couple of weeks, Other Voices/OV Books will be running a series of essays about the concept of "community" within the often-isolating literary world. Here to kick off the series is Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network--an organization that is all about relationship building, no matter where you live!
The Importance of Community
Community is an aspect of literature that I think is often forgotten, or at least not developed enough. Perhaps this stems back to the idea that writing is a lonely, or solitary, adventure. Whatever the reason, to me, the lack of attempting to develop communities within the larger, possibly more vague, community of literature, is a serious mistake. Just think back to how often you’ve read that authors have a small group of people they bounce their ideas and early manuscripts off of. The thing is, I think there are many more options these days in the type of community you can develop.
Approximately six years ago, I began what can now be looked at as the foundation of the Emerging Writers Network. I started emailing book reviews to an email list. This list was small, 21 people, and not very focused, all family members, many of whom are not big readers. As this list began to grow, strictly through word of mouth, ideas began to form about what was happening. By the time, two years later, that I decided I needed a website to store these reviews, as well as allow newer additions to the list access to the older work (www.emergingwriters.net) it had become apparent to me that there was a great deal of give and take going between members of that email list and myself, and that an actual community of individuals was forming and developing. This is what led to the mission statement of the EWN:
“To develop a network consisting of emerging writers, established writers deserving of wider recognition and readers of literary books in order to increase the exposure of such writers to as many potential readers as possible.”
Over the past half-decade, this network has grown to nearly 1200 members, most of whom have actually requested to be included (as opposed to those poor initial family members). This community is made up of both authors and people who strictly consider themselves readers (such as myself). The bulk of the individuals within the community have not met each other. What happens though is I get their comments back to me. Members pass along my scribblings to others. I get suggestions of books to read, authors to interview, journals to subscribe to, and publishers to support. Through these actions, and regular email activity, a community has developed – while I still steer the direction of the ship, many other voices have helped me refine the path that we take. I’ve heard numerous stories of members meeting each other at readings or Book Festivals, of authors and journals getting in contact with each other, and in one case, an author and a publisher getting together and putting out a fantastic book.
While the email aspect is a bit more behind the scenes related, it is probably the easiest type of community to develop. Another type is the more visible online scenario of litblogs. While this was a fairly loose-knit community, frequently linking to each other, and commenting on each other’s posts, for a few years, it has recently seen some developments creating more formal communities. Take the Litblog Co-op for instance (www.lbc.typepad.com). A year ago, a group of 21 litbloggers united to give attention to a single title. The group (which, I’m a member of now) does this on a quarterly basis. While within this particular community, there is also a great deal of behind the scenes activity, there is also the very public attention and discussion taking place on the website as well.
This past year has also seen Bud Parr setting up, developing, and running the MetaxuCafe (www.metaxucafe.com), a much larger organization of litblogs. This community allows a reader quick access to highlights from a great number (in the hundreds) of litblogs all at once. I know every single time that I’ve visited the site, I’ve found another new blog or two to spend some time at. Such communities need an individual or two that are pretty devoted to setting them up, and making sure things keep rolling in the right direction.
Lastly, there is the physical community – people you actually find yourself getting together with on some sort of at least a fairly regular basis. While not everybody lives in such literary hotbeds as New York, or even Los Angeles or Chicago, I believe communities can be developed. Most areas have at least one or two colleges in the area, most of which have Creative Writing or English departments with posting boards to look for other writers or readers to meet up with. Same thing goes with the local Borders or Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore, where you often stumble into book club meetings.
Beyond that, I think if you just keep your eyes and ears open, things can develop and once the ball starts rolling, it truly does gather speed and size. I can only speak to what I’ve witnessed here in the Southeast Michigan area in the past year or so.
While it seems that there are so many different literary journals being published that you can’t help but live within an hour or so of one, I happen to live within ½ an hour of at least three independently published journals and three more university affiliated journals. One of the things that I’d done throughout 2005 was put together E-Panels of Literary Journal Editors, and so had come in contact with the editors of all six of these journals. Between those contacts, meeting Aaron Burch of Hobart and Keith Hood of Orchid at last year’s Ann Arbor Book Festival, and then having Dwayne Hayes of Absinthe: New European Writing invite me out to an issue release party, the beginnings of a local community began to expand a bit. These gentlemen were all already aware of each other from AWP and other events. Somewhere through that time span, Steven Gillis, author and founder of 826 Michigan, contacted me about my efforts with EWN and we met and had dinner together. About a month later, Kyle Minor of Frostproof Review, which had recently relocated from Florida up to Columbus, OH, made the trip up to Ann Arbor for a dinner as well. Add in Eastern Michigan University instructors (and wonderful authors) Jeff Parker and Stefan Kiesbye, and authors Elizabeth Ellen and Jessica Bomarito and you’ve got a group of people that have gotten together in various forms: for journal release parties, poker parties, get-togethers, book festivals, panels, book readings and just to go hang out at the bar.
Through these outings, I have been fortunate enough to learn about other journals, other presses, authors like Jason Ockert, Roy Kesey, Amy Sumerton, Jeff Parker and Stefan Kiesbye, and many others. I’ve learned more about translations and the wonderful world of non-North American writing. I’ve learned about literary journals. I’ve also witnessed journals helping each other out, and supporting each other. And as these are journals being paid for mostly out of pocket, I assume and believe that this camaraderie and support helps each of them continue with their efforts. Nearly every person listed above has also done something to support 826 Michigan – be it financial, teaching classes, getting the word out, having their own kids partake, etc. And the other thing is, this community keeps growing and developing slowly but surely.
In each of the above types, I’ve seen great benefits of being involved with the communities, and especially those that I was a part of helping develop. So, I’d heavily suggest those interested in literature look around and see what you can join up with or maybe even develop on your own.