Building a Community of Writers
Undergraduate students and young people often hear of the importance of building a community, finding their people, creating a niche. There’s a good reason for that! Building a community outside of the classroom is a very important part of learning and growing as a person. It builds confidence, increases perspective and inspires new ideas. And despite romantic notions about solitary poets cranking out beautiful works in quiet coffee shops or isolated log cabins, writers need community, too.
Donald Quist is author of the linked story collection For Other Ghosts and the essay collection Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist. He earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and his Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri. Sophfronia Scott, the program director of the Alma College Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, recently spoke with Donald about building and maintaining community as a writer.
Sophfronia Scott: You’ve been teaching for a long time. I’m wondering, is there something like a writing tip maybe a teaching idea that you find that you share often with your students?
Donald Quist: On day one of any workshop or any writing class that I have, I like to tell my students writing is not a solitary activity. I try to assuage that whole idea that you’re just writing alone in this little vacuum by yourself and you’re living this hermetic life. That, to me, is a fallacy.
Every time you write with the intention of sharing it with someone else, you are joining a conversation. You are speaking to voices that influenced you. You are speaking to future voices who you will influence. You are not writing in a vacuum, you are a part of a community. It’s engaging with others. Whether fiction, poetry, nonfiction, whether it’s cross-genre, you are doing something that will help establish and broaden a community.
That is one of my biggest pieces of advice, because oftentimes I see people new to writing and they kind of feel like they need to struggle through it alone. They’re reluctant to share. And I can get that. It can be scary to produce something that’s so much a part of yourself and give it to world, like, “Here!”
That takes a level of vulnerability and a level of courage. That’s what it takes to build community— it takes vulnerability, it takes courage. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re not alone when you’re write. You’re with others.
SS: I like that you brought it back to the conversation about what will happen and what can happen in the MFA program. I think we get so caught up in that idea of not wanting to share, like, “Oh, I can’t talk about it yet,” and I understand that. I know in certain stages, I can be like that too, but you also miss out if you don’t say, “This is what I’m working on.”
Just today, I was on the phone with my dear friend, the novelist Breena Clarke, and we were having a talk about what we’re seeing in fiction right now. I told her that I’m working on another historical novel and we started talking about what it means to write about history and she said, kind of off the cuff, “Who says that it had to happen that way? Who says that it did?”
Suddenly I was like, “Stop! I’m trying to be so accurate in this but what if I’m putting it out there and saying, “What if it happened this way?” That really has opened up my mind to thinking about the narrative of my novel in a different way. That would have never happened if I felt that I couldn’t tell her that I’m working on a new book right now.
DQ: Exactly. If you pick up any book by me and you flip to the acknowledgements in the back, you’ll see it’s pretty long, and that’s because it was a conversation. These stories that I produced were built out of conversations. There are ideas that I just would not have arrived to without talking through them first in my writing process with friends — many of whom came out of my own MFA program.
Without those discussions, without sharing or being open to sharing, you really can miss out on opportunities to make your work even stronger. So, let’s push away the idea that we’re all just huddled over laptops and dark quiet rooms. Let’s talk through the work, let’s share, and I think we’ll be all better for it.
SS: And as you pointed out earlier, and I will highlight this again in case it was missed, that you and I went to the same MFA program. Obviously, we are still in community and you were one of the first people, when we were planning this MFA, that I contacted about it.
I wanted you to teach in this program because I already know your teaching. I’ve seen you lecture and I’ve seen you find your work. It’s been years since we graduated, but we are still involved in each other’s lives and we know our work. We are inviting students into a likewise community where they can get to know each other, grow, and then be a part of what grows from that effort.
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.