what's on our minds
the importance of writing tribes
by lit camp founder, janis cooke newman
Every spring I organize a writers conference in the Northern California wine country. The attendees are graduates of MFA programs, and people with corporate jobs who have published one or two pieces in literary magazines, and moms working on memoirs—writers who work on their projects in the margins of their day.
In the hours between our workshops and panels, mealtime and bed, I come upon these writers sitting in bunches at the picnic tables in the organic garden. I find them with all the lounge chairs pushed together at the pool, their pale writer’s skin covered in whitish blotches of sun screen. I discover them late at night, overflowing the hot tub, brewing up a kind of writer’s stew under the star-filled sky.
When the conference is over—even before it’s over—they begin coming to me with the same request, stopping me in the dining hall, or on the dirt path to my cabin. It’s not the contact information for the big-shot New York agent I’ve flown in they want, or the email for the Pulitzer Prize winning author I’ve put on staff. What they want to know is whether I will give them a way to keep in touch with each other.
And perhaps this is not surprising. It’s easy for published writers to form community—we meet each other at festivals and readings. But emerging writers—like the ones at my conference—are often isolated.
When I got the contract to write my first book—a memoir—I was practically unpublished and knew almost no writers, which is a feat in itself, since the Bay Area probably has as many writers per square inch as Brooklyn.
I had a year to write my book and a husband who was mostly on the road. The second my young son went down for his nap, I was on my laptop, and I didn’t leave it until I heard him rattling the bars of his crib. And while the other moms at the coop preschool were full of wisdom about fruit roll-ups and tooth decay, they had nothing for me on the breathless fear that woke me each night. The fear that even if I did manage to finish my book, once it was published the entire world would learn the truth about me being a talentless fraud.
When I sold my second book—a historical novel—on contract, I still only knew a couple of writers in San Francisco. My agent got me a year to write a book I knew would take longer, and two months shy of the date I was supposed to turn in the finished manuscript, I was only halfway through a first draft that was already a hundred pages longer than the 350 pages I’d promised my publisher. Also, my marriage was coming apart.
Those couple of writers I knew, I didn’t really know. Not well enough to call and say, Come over and tell me how to keep writing when everything in my life is collapsing. Come over and tell me what to say to my agent when I don’t even come close to making this deadline. Come over and pour me a really big drink.
When I began my third book—a novel that’s recently been published—I decided I needed to know more writers. I didn’t have a contract for this book—I’d had enough of trying to do good work under deadline—but without a writing tribe, without a group of people who were my people, I was afraid I might not have the will to finish.
I joined a writers’ coop. Rented a small office with a window that was mostly blocked by trees in a space filled with other writers. All of us tucked away in our own small offices. All of us writing.
At lunchtime that first day, we gathered around a big conference table—the dozen or so of us who had come in—with our sandwiches from the deli up the block, or our Tupperware containers filled with last night’s meat loaf, or our bowls of noodles from the Thai place around the corner. We talked about our kids, and what we watched on cable TV, and because I was new, a couple of people asked me what I was working on. And because they were writers, I told them. I talked about my book in the weirdly disjointed way you talk about a new fiction project you can barely explain to yourself.
The first week I was at the coop, one of the other writers sold her book. And everybody seemed genuinely happy about it. We toasted her with sparkling wine around the big conference table, and then we all went back to our small offices with the reminder that people really do sell their books.
It took me seven years to write the novel I came to that space to write. And during that time, a dozen or so of the writers in that coop sold their books. Every time one of them did, it reminded me—it reminded all of us—of the possibility inherent in what we do all day.
More than that, working in that space—being under one roof with other writers—produced a kind of creative synergy. It might be only that I was around people who understood that writing is work. A job that, if we’re lucky, we get to toil at every day. But I think there’s an energy that happens when people write together. Perhaps that’s what draws so many of us to cafés, to sit for hours with the same latte turning cold next to our humming laptops. The sense that we’re in this together, this work of telling stories.
These days, I know a lot of writers. Once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, ten or so of them come to my house and we write together for a couple of hours while I roast chickens. We don’t write to prompts, and we don’t share our work. We just write under one roof.
When the two hours are up, we open the wine, and eat the chickens. And we talk. Sometimes we talk about our work. Sometimes we talk about the business of publishing. Sometimes we talk about nothing of any importance at all. But we know—because we are all members of the writing tribe—that if one of us is waking up breathless with the fear the world will learn the truth about her being a talentless fraud, or if another of us needs someone to come over and tell him how to write when his world is falling apart, or if any of us needs reminding of the possibility inherent in what we do all day, we will be there.
What to submit to Lit camp 2019 (at Esalen)
By Lit Camp alumni & board member Emily Cooke
“It’s important to get out of your own way. Clean the kindling away, the rubbish. Make it clear.”- Ray Bradbury
What should you submit to Lit Camp that will get you in? Hell if I know. But you have the conscientiousness to ask. Or maybe you’re avoiding writing by reading every word on the Lit Camp website. It happens.
I’ve done it.
So let me tell you what worked for me. Narrative nonfiction with a strong first-person POV worked for me. But that doesn’t mean it will work for you! It only means that is what I spent a long time forging and honing. It’s what kept me up at night. It’s what I obsessed over and enjoyed re-reading and changing a word here, a semicolon there, taking out whole paragraphs, putting them back in. I workedit. It felt right, seemed like me, was my story. The first time I applied to Lit Camp I submitted a piece of around 2,400 words—well under the max 4K word count—that had not been published but that I had massaged, wined and dined, fought and screwed with until it was mine. It couldn’t be anybody else’s, damn it!
And I got in.
And even though I knew I didn’t have to workshop that piece—that in fact I’d been advised against it by the wisdom of the website—I workshopped that piece. It was what I was about. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to know how it struck people and if what I was doing—what I was all about—was working. I would do it again.
The following year I was like, “Yeah, I did nonfiction last year. It was cool. But the fiction writers seemed to be having a lot of fun talking plot and POV and setting with the Pulitzer Prize winners. I want to do that.” I had a short story I had just written that I was in love with because I didn’t know it very well yet. I loved it; so would the Lit Camp readers!
I think that story got a couple of 4’s out of 5 from the jury—it warranted a second look, but it didn’t get me in. It was written in close-third from the POV of an aging Italian endocrinologist/wine collector. So. I still think I love that story, but I set it aside and I haven’t looked at it again since its betrayal. I didn’t get to Lit Camp that year.
The nextyear I took a shotgun approach. I submitted a longer piece of memoir—a chapter from a book-length manuscript—that, again, I had worked over and loved andhated. That’s just the way it was with my nonfiction at the time—we’d had a lot more time together and writing, unlike people, is something you can and should fix over time. The piece had a strong narrative voice—mine!—and its treatment of setting was personal and surprising. If that didn’t get across, I was lost.
But then, I also submitted the opening chapter of the novel I’d been working on for over a year. I’d gotten feedback on it and given it a good going-over—more than once—and felt my relation to it deepening and growing more complex. I would have to pay to submit twice but I was going to get in again. If the memoir didn’t do it, this would. Once I got in, one way or another, I could workshop anything I damn well pleased.
And that’s what happened.