Outside the Comfort Zone: On Creative Community
This feature is part of the Platform Series, which was made possible with generous support from the City of Waterloo and the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation. Read more about the Platform Series here.
When I was writing my memoir-in-essays, Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City, I searched for ways to describe creative community: its joys and pitfalls, its strengths and scarcities, and maybe most importantly, how to recognize it. I took time with these descriptions because many beginner writers have asked me about how to find creative colleagues, because just as many seasoned writers have written about how finding such a community changed their lives, and because the idea of creative community seems to be an open secret until you are in the middle of it. So I salted Out of Line liberally with anecdotes and analogies, weird stories and plain-spoken admissions, some from my own writing practice and others supplied by members of my own far-flung creative community. Many of those people recalled their craving for artistic community acutely, so sharp had been their need for it. After hearing these stories, I was primed to find out more of what beginner artists thought about creative community and how they viewed their writing practice.
I didn’t have long to wait. I designed my EN272: Introduction to Creative Writing course at Wilfrid Laurier University to address students’ interest in writing two traditional genres (short fiction and poetry), and also to introduce them to the possibilities of writing creative nonfiction. Lively discussions ensued in that fifty-person class about how writing “outside their comfort zone” could change what people thought writing could do. Getting the fiction writers to write poetry, getting the poets to try fiction, and getting everyone’s feet wet in the pool of CNF yielded some terrific work. And I confess: I had a trick up my sleeve.
The trick up my sleeve was a mysteriously-named assignment: a “creative community essay” in which students would write about locating their own writing practice. But I had their backs; they didn’t have to do this without models. I assigned four short readings from Out of Line: a manifesto, a piece that discusses analogies for the writing process, a series about making art when you come from a non-artistic family, and a section about identifying community. I worked with the examples I had written and reminded the students that these anecdotal approaches were driven by requests for real-life examples of how the writing life works. Then I told the students that it was their turn, that they were each going to write a short essay about their writing lives as though they were introducing the subject to writers with less experience. People laughed when I said “writers with less experience,” but by that time everybody in the class had written in genres well outside of their comfort zone, worked in peer feedback sessions, and were planning a long final project. Like confidence, experience is relative.
When the students submitted their essays, there were so many good ones that I knew that I couldn’t keep them to myself. If you are an editor of a magazine, you get to choose those fresh new voices for publication in your magazine. But instructors don’t have that prerogative; we do a lot of sitting in our offices, reading student work and thinking “This is so good,” sometimes jumping up and running around the desk in a paroxysm of hope for the future of writing. But sometimes the editors of magazines want to read what your students have written when you rave to them about how awesome the writing is. What follows are four of the best of those essays, pieces by writers who are forging their literary communities. Milas Hewson uses the metaphor of water resistance to create a parallel between writing and diving. Emma Davis writes about grief as an artistic incubator. Tyra Forde brings live performance together with writing to discuss the politics of voice. And Maria Antonella Menta Fernández recalls how the influence of a writing group changed the way she thought of herself as a writer. They were all at one time my students and I can’t pretend objectivity, nor do I want to. But if you’ve been thinking about creative community and writing practice, check out these essays that puzzle their way through expectation and process. I recommend them.