In case you missed it, I gave a webinar about the DIY Writing Retreat in a Box last week. (You can still get it!) Despite my overwhelming fears of appearing on live video (and my apparent addiction to doing things that scare me), it was great fun to connect with people and talk about how to carve out some time and space to get some serious writing done. We talked a lot about creating community and making writing social, which for most people seemed to be the most challenging part of creating productive writing retreats of their own.
Writing with other people remains the gold standard for social writing, because you share the writing experience with other people. Sharing experiences together fosters connection and strengthens relationships. Relationships continue to be the secret sauce to successful writing. Creating communities of practice requires that people meet regularly, develop relationships, and practice their thing. (And just because I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about knitting, I’m going to go ahead and say that knitting circles are literally the most amazing examples of effective communities of practice ever. Knitting, particularly, for beginners, isn’t super easy or natural. But experienced knitters help the newbies and pretty soon everyone’s learning together and getting much better.) It’s in that shared practice that people start developing connections, competence, and confidence in the thing they’re learning to do.
However, it can be hard to find some like-minded tribe to support your writing. Writing, in particular, doesn’t seem to lend itself to community because writing is most often something we do alone in the privacy of our own homes.
Nevertheless, I still think community is key to productive writing because writing alone and in self-imposed isolation is tough, if not outright impossible. I’m in Mexico right now, far away from my usual writing communities. A lot of my writing takes place exactly the ways I always tell people to avoid writing. I write alone at my kitchen table, which often feel as lonely and isolating as it sounds. Alone with the noise in my head and a blinking cursor, I can think of a million things I’d rather do than try to get some writing done. When the pressure feels intense, I have an entire arsenal of excuses that I deploy to avoid writing while still telling myself that I’m being productive.
But the problem remains: how do we create a community when we don’t have one?
With a little imagination and ingenuity, I’m convinced that you can still make writing social and get the kind of empathy, connection, and accountability that you need to get writing done even if you can’t do it in person.
Here, in no particular order, are some ideas about creating a community as a solo writer.
Get a writing buddy.
I’m convinced that your community doesn’t have to be huge to be effective. Sometimes just a person to write along can be massively helpful. Plus, its easier to get just one other person on board with your writing than a whole group. Even better is if you and your writing buddy can give each other some good feedback and support when the emotional going gets tough. Your writing buddy could be a colleague you know or even just someone you know online. Some of my best writing buddies are personal friends, while others are people who I only know only through the magic of the internet. (If you need someone to write with you, I write almost every morning and would be happy to write with you!)
Create a virtual group retreat.
The possibilities here are nearly endless. You could conceivably organize a writing retreat with people anywhere in the world. No, you won’t get the shared experience of writing with other people, which I do think is important. On the other hand, you’ll still get the benefits of a writing community. There’s a lot of emotional support just in knowing that other people in the world are writing with you. (As an example, look at the success of NaNoWriMo. People are literally getting tons of writing done all over the globe because they know that other people are writing along with them.) Figure out some time, find some other people, get out of town (or not), and get some writing done. You’ll want to check in with your group members regularly—the idea is to write with them and share experiences.
Start a virtual writing group.
One writing group I had was conducted through a combination of WhatsApp and Google Hangouts. We’d chat about writing problems on WhatsApp and then meet weekly on Hangouts. One member of that group recorded video updates and reports about their writing when they couldn’t make weekly meetings. If you’re trying to get a whole lot of writing done, you’ll want to set goals with your group members, check in for accountability and emotional support.
Get a writing coach.
Essentially, a writing coach plays the role of the paid version of a writing buddy. Your coach can help you look at your writing project in a new way, create a writing schedule that you can actually stick to, help you set goals, and provide accountability so you don't get punched in the nose. It’s easy to let self-imposed writing goals and deadlines slip by when you (I) don’t have anyone to report back to. Goals and deadlines often feel very different when you’ve got to explain to another person why you just couldn’t find time to reach your goal from last week.
Blog about your writing experience.
A few years ago, I decided to write a journal article using the Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks method. [You can find that series starting here.] I didn’t have much of a writing community at the time and felt more than a little isolated and intimidated by the process. I decided to blog my experiences each week as I worked through the book. Blogging about writing my journal article made my writing a lot more social and also gave me some space to reflect on my writing practices. People read those posts, shared them on social media, and commented on my posts. Sure, I was still writing alone, but also made some great connections with people and felt like I had people to talk to about my writing.
Networking can be a key part of your efforts to make writing more social. Contact some new potential colleagues and see if they’re willing to read your work. Literally every time I’ve done this, people have been completely willing to help and have given me really helpful feedback. [Remember, assume rapport, not rejection.] Sending our your writing to other people while it’s still in it’s ugly stages not only gives feedback, but also helps us work past those perfectionist urges to not share our writing with anyone until it’s perfect (read: never). This month, I’ve been revising a book chapter. I gave myself a firm month to revise the truly shitty first draft into a slightly more coherent draft. Two weeks after I started revising, I had the opportunity to swap some editing work with a colleague. I sent off the draft (which was definitely still in the shitty first draft stage) with a note that felt really vulnerable: “Hey, this draft is still really ugly, but I’d really appreciate any thoughts you have about it.” Et voila! I got some really useful feedback that I’ve been working with. I’m preparing to send off my slightly less ugly draft for more feedback. Let me reiterate: it’s okay to send ugly writing to other people. They want to help you.
Pulling together a writing community can sometimes take a surprising amount of effort. When you just want to get some writing done, you don’t need to totally reinvent the wheel. You can join other people’s communities!
Shut up and write
I started hosting Shut Up and Write (#shutupandwrite and #suaw) on Tuesday mornings and it’s become one of my favorite things ever. I confess that Shut Up and Write started out as a completely self-serving initiative so that I could get some writing done. What has been absolutely delightful has been to watch it start blossoming into a community of practice. We check in, we write, and then celebrate the hell out of other people’s successes. I’m often amazed at how much writing people can get done in 50 minutes of writing. People often tweet me to let me know that they felt so awesome getting writing done that they keep writing and finish their projects. Hooray! Go team!
online writing retreat
If you can’t get to an actual writing retreat, don’t fret! You can get the benefits of a retreat through an online retreat! It might seem a little bit weird, but there really is something about knowing that other people are writing along with you and then reporting your progress and goals to other people. You can schedule some video chat in between blocks of writing. Remember, create some structured “containers” for your online writing retreat and schedule some coaching/discussion/reflection sessions (and lunch!) between writing blocks. You’ll want to create a long day of writing that leaves you tired, but also feeling like you kicked some ass on your writing project.
[Shameless self-promotion!] I’m figuring out some details so that I can launch my first online writing retreat. I’m planning some structured writing blocks and then some time for discussion and feedback about writing. And, of course, some time for lunch and short breaks to jump up and down, get coffee, or do some yoga. I’m planning April 21 from 10am EDT-5pm. Mark your calendars!
So, there you go. Go forth, create some community, and get more writing done!