Hot on the heels of last week, I get to introduce another of my favourite people, Laura Goodin! I had met Laura online just before Swancon 2011, when we both came up with the same answer in a competition to win one of Richard Harland’s books. Laura graciously allowed me to have the book, giving me an early introduction to her generous spirit. This was only reinforced when she made a point of welcoming me to my first con and showing me around, and introducing me to a number of people, a kindness I have never forgotten.
I soon discovered that Laura’s spiritual gifts were matched by her artistic ones. Not only has she written a number of wonderful stories, but she has also written poetry and plays and libretti and the list goes on…makes you sick, doesn’t it? Well it would, but for one thing – Laura is as humble as she is talented. Not humble in the sense that it so often used these days to mean someone of little importance, but humble in feeling no need to exalt herself or her achievements (as numerous as they are!), rather desiring to celebrate the achievements and milestones of those around her.
That’s why I was so happy to hear that she had won this year’s Kris Hembury Encouragement Award at the Aurealis Awards. Reading the description:
“The award was created in 2009 by Fantastic Queensland to honour one of their founders, Kris Hembury, who sadly died that year. Kris was an unceasingly positive and encouraging influence on emerging writers and artists of speculative fiction. Each year since, as part of Aurealis, an emerging writer and/or artist is chosen. The person chosen is seen to embody the spirit of creativity, leadership, self-motivation and fellowship that Kris had in spades.”
I can’t think of a more deserving winner, or anyone more qualified to write a guest post about community and building others up. Enjoy!
Community (Not the Epic TV Series, Although You Should Totally Check That Out*)
Writers work alone. In garrets. With caffeine as their only companion, and maybe a cat. We all know this.
Thing is, it’s completely untrue, and not just because we all waste time on Facebook (admit it). In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been true, even before the Internet. Fundamentally, writers need readers. Until very recently, writers have also needed publishers, and by extension, editors, printers, truck drivers, booksellers, advertising and marketing people, paper millers, lumberjacks, oil refiners — and on and on. But even as we reduce our dependence on paper books and traditional publishing, it becomes more crucial, not less, that we pay attention to the people around us. And the good news is that the more we focus on building communities that are joyful, courteous, cooperative, and dedicated to a common purpose, the more fun writing gets.
The most common form of writing community is the writer’s group, either in person or online. Many writers find these communities highly useful in helping them hone their own writing, but the benefits really come when writers learn to critique. (One of the basic principles of Clarion-style workshops is that you learn at least as much about how to write well by relentlessly critiquing story after story as by getting your own story relentlessly critiqued — and most find they learn much more.) When you focus on helping the other people in the community be the best they can be, that’s when you really start to grow.
Conventions and festivals are another type of community in and of themselves. They are a wonderful bubble of time and space when you’re at Hogwarts, you’re in Starfleet, you’re at Harper Hall, you’re focused solely and intensely on writing. Everyone there is a comrade, an actual or potential friend, an ally in the fight. Cons become a thousand times more fun when you move up from just going to panels and wishing you were famous to actually talking to the writers whose work you love, and then to volunteering. Even if you’re not yet ready to participate on a panel, there is always something that needs doing, some newbie who needs welcoming, some awesome genre-fiction icon who could really use a cup of coffee and a place to sit quietly. If you’re committed to making the con the best it can be for your writing buddies and heroes, it will alchemically become the best it can be for you.
Artistic collaboration is yet another type of community. It can be as small as you and one other person writing a piece of flash fiction together, or it can be you and a dozen other people producing a play, concert, podcast, anthology, art exhibition, graphic novel, or film. One of the very best things about being an artist (which writers are, of course) is that you get to hang out with people who have superpowers. Revel in that! Take time and take the opportunity to stare, open-mouthed and grinning, as your friends do amazing things. Help them to do them better. And above all, make sure the work, not your little piece of the work, is the most important thing, and that alchemy will happen here, too.
You see the trend, of course. The secret to good communities that feed your soul and improve your art is focusing on the other people. I’ve read a lot of blog posts that urge you to advocate for your own work, promote yourself, develop a platform, yadda yadda. I guess that’s important to a point, but frankly, the people who are the most focused on that are usually the least fun to work with. And this is kind of self-defeating if you’re looking for readers, publishers, collaborators — all those communities that are always so crucial to what we do. Instead, I’m urging you to consider a different model: trust.
Stop worrying about whether your contribution will get lost. Stop evaluating every acquaintance for how much they might be able to help your career. Stop whining about other people winning too many awards. Stop choosing which panels you’ll attend or participate on based on whose attention you want to catch. Just…stop.
Instead, start looking for ways to give, and accept that you may never see any payback, or even any thanks. Accept that when the work, when other people’s success, is more important than their gratitude to you, your career will move ahead as if by magic, because the work will simply be better that way. Trust that people will see and value your work without your having to smack them about the face with it. If you put your work out there with a clear intent to make something or someone who isn’t you the best they can be, trust that you will progress, you will improve, and you will accomplish.
Remember what it was like to admire and enjoy people’s talents for their own sake, not for what those people might do for you. Remember it and reclaim it. Just about everyone — and the stars of the con scene are definitely in this group — can spot a crawler or a climber a mile away. Ever wonder why they’d rather talk to some gobsmacked newbie who’s working on their first piece of fanfic than you? Might it be because the newbie wanted to tell them how much joy she got out of their last novel, whereas you were waiting, tense and eager, to say something clever that would reveal how special you were, in the hopes that they would rest their gaze upon you and say solemnly, “Yer a wizard, Harry — send my agent your latest manuscript and tell them I sent you”?
Take on new projects because you want them to happen, not because they’ll advance your career. Be content to let go of some of your pet ideas about how a project should be, especially if someone you respect artistically thinks another way will be great. Trust that there are many, many ways a given project can be good, and let some of these other ways happen, with cheerfulness and good grace and genuine faith in your collaborators.
Have adventures doing something you’ve never done before. Write a play. Perform your writing as performance (not just as a reading) in front of an audience who paid to be there. Take a dance class, and then write a story that can form the basis for some wicked-cool choreography. Illustrate your next piece with photos of the character figurines that you’ve crocheted out of old shopping bags. Trust that these adventures can lead to glorious things, new skills, new collaborators, new people who love your work and who love working with you.
That’s what communities are for: not to give you a platform, but to give you the honor and joy of boosting other people up. And that will have magical results for you. I promise.
* Here’s their official web site
Laura E. Goodin’s stories have appeared in numerous publications (both print and on-line), including Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Adbusters, Wet Ink, and Daily Science Fiction, and in several anthologies. Her plays and libretti have been performed in Australia and the UK, and her poetry has been performed on three continents. She attended the 2007 Clarion South workshop, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Western Australia. She lives on the South Coast of New South Wales with her composer husband and actor daughter, and she spends what little spare time she has trying to be as much like Xena, Warrior Princess, as possible.