Solitude, Community, and the Seaworthy Writing Life

I've been thinking a lot lately—and always, I suppose—about balancing the community and solitude of writing, reading, the creative life in general. I know I've talked about this before—it comes up in a big way anytime I head to AWP—but this summer I've had a lot of both, the social and the sequestered sides of the literary life.

So much of the process of writing is solitary; it has to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact I think many of us love or grow to love it, to the point that it’s difficult to shift gears engage with the work we’re writing or reading in a communal way. But since moving to New York I’ve been fascinated to watch friends in theater and improve comedy and other more necessarily collaborative creative fields—the way their creativity is tied to a group dynamic from the very beginning. Is there something for writers to learn from that?

This summer I’ve (mostly accidentally) tested the theory, juxtaposing time at a remote, immersive, and highly social writer’s residency with my normal day job-focused life in the city. If this sounds like an MFA-vs-NYC conversation, I don’t mean it as one—I’ve done both now and find the debate over which is “better” much less interesting than the process of finding each new environment’s most seaworthy and productive version of the writing life.

The lovely thing about a writing community—whether it’s as intense as an academic program or a popup booster shot like a literary reading—is the amplification that comes from externalizing focus. I heard CJ Hauser read this week at Pen and Brush Presents…and left more fired up to write than I’d felt in months, just from experiencing the concentrated energy of that many literary artists in a room. It’s a grounding reminder of why you do what you do. The lovely thing about solitary writing is that you have the chance to clarify your vision without distraction, without the noisemaking pull of secondary motivations like publication and prestige—and most of all, if you’re spending much of your day working a day job or exploring your city or finding your own way(s) to art you enjoy or otherwise not consciously immersed in a literary community, you have the chance to diversify your mental space and avoid burnout or becoming part of an echo chamber.

Okay, perhaps this is a bit of an MFA-vs-NYC-esque conversation. But my point is that all ways are good ways, and moderation between them best of all. Even when I was in my MFA program, I loved the “day job” portion of it that was teaching Rhetoric and Composition—not because it was always the best part of my day, but because it gave my writing time structure and limits, which kept me from forgetting that it was valuable. And because teaching meant that every day I’d accomplished something concrete, even when the words weren’t coming or revision wasn’t going well. In that way, I think high-octane creative community and monastic creative solitude share the same potential pitfall—the burnout that comes from even a positively focused single-mindedness. That’s why I think it’s so valuable to alternate between them—to give yourself space to work alone and space to commune with others. I’m going to try to be more purposeful about negotiating this balance, going into the fall—scheduling readings, workshops, and other group activities, but also pre-scheduling blocks of writing and reading time. At this point I’ve sampled enough different ways of being a “working writer” to realize my writing life always feels most seaworthy when it has as many different dimensions as possible.