It’s September in NYC.
I’ve traveled from LA for a big book release, and I’m meeting colleagues I’ve only known online.
I’m eating lunch with friends at a Chinese restaurant in Midtown, savoring every delectable bite. (Oh, east coast food, how I’ve missed you!).
Starting tomorrow, our schedules are packed with event activities. I’ve planned to spend the rest of the day alone wandering through lower Manhattan.
Megan, who’s brain holds more book and publishing knowledge than anyone I’ve met, asks, “What are you up to this afternoon, Renee?”
Suddenly, gamboling by myself through Manhattan sounds excruciatingly lonely, and I respond, “Walking to Chelsea Market and Washington Square Park. Wanna come?”
I hear the eagerness in my voice, but I’m keen for the company of another book nerd.
“Yes!” her face brightens. “I didn’t want to invite myself but that sounds amazing!”
Although I’ve had a virtual friendship with Megan until this point, we slip into in-person banter easily while meandering through Chelsea and Greenwich Village. I fumble with my phone and try to navigate with Google Maps. We both admit to being directionally challenged. Is it a writer thing? we laugh.
We wander into bookstores. We point out our favorite titles and both leave one book richer. We make our way through the hustle of Chelsea Market and talk about writing.
Megan is a nonfiction writer, editor, and blogger toying with the idea of applying for an MFA program. I’m working through sticky sections of my next essay for Ruminate’s The Waking, which touches a semi-controversial topic, and I want to treat it with care and mindfulness.
As Megan and I chat about the writing process, I relax about my essay. Walking and talking with a fellow creative spirit soothes my anxiety. Courage blooms in my chest: I can do this. I can write this essay!
Megan is helpful because she gets it.
Only another writer understands:
The emotional chutes-and-ladders of the revision process.
The frustration of “it’s not quite there yet.”
The strength and faith needed to dig for the heart of an essay.
The glorious, singing feeling of an essay taking its final shape—like a tuning fork ringing out in Carnegie Hall.
Megan reminded me of a crucial truth about the writing life:
Connection with other writers is critical for creative health.
Our habits, good and bad, are influenced by the people around us.
We’re herd animals. Evolution has hardcoded connection into our DNA, and new research tells us community is far more influential on behavior and success than we assume.
You’re the average of everyone in your network.
Yes, I know the quote is, “You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with,” but according to research, it’s far greater than that. (Thanks to David Burkus for his lovely overview of the research.)
In one study, researchers found that if one spouse quits smoking, the other spouse’s chances of smoking decrease by 67%. The study also showed that if a friend stops smoking, your chances of becoming a smoker decrease by 36%.
Let’s be real… we know this is true. My brief romance with cigarettes was during my MFA days when most of my friends were smokers. Who wants to miss late-night patio chats or smoke breaks between classes? Researchers call this “clustering.”
The clustering phenomenon also applies to happiness. One study found that if a friend lives within a mile of you, and their happiness increases (they get a raise, get healthier, find a passion, etc.), your probability of becoming happier goes up by 25%! Read that again… 25%!
In other words, If Jan down the block goes on a diving excursion in Belize, you get 25% of that vacation after-glow!
The researchers concluded that happiness or unhappiness is highly dependent on your community.
Clustering can be applied to anything, even writing practice and publishing success. We are synergistic creatures, meaning our powers combined are greater than the sum of our individual strengths. When 5 writers come together in community, it’s not 1x5 = 5, it’s 1x5 = 100 or 10,000 or 1 million!
In my writing workshop, I devote an entire session to weaving a writing community—AKA a “Writerly Web”—because:
Your Writerly Web can help you go faster, further, and higher.
Many lit-nerds know the famous writers’ communities of old:
The Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, & Co.)
The Lost Gens (Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds)
The Beat Generation (Alan Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac)
When you study these clusters closely, despite rivalries and infighting, they were instrumental in one another’s success.
The Lord of the Rings might’ve been vastly different if Tolkien didn’t read early drafts to fellow Inklings.
Hemingway wrote the greatest tough love letter of all time to F. Scott when he was crippled by self-doubt after Gatsby.
One of my favorite writerly webs is a group of inky powerhouses in Portland, Oregon, whom I’ve dubbed the “The Portland Breakfast Club.”
This mighty group consists of literary superstars such as Cheryl Strayed, Chuck Palahniuk, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chelsea Cain.
Cheryl Strayed brought early drafts of Wild to the group for workshop, which in itself speaks volumes to the power of a healthy writerly web. Here’s a fun inside peek from 2010.
I also speak from experience. My own writer’s group in Portland was the most nourishing, supportive, and safe place to share my work. When I moved to California, I continued to meet with them via Facetime.
Although I’ve since left the group to weave a web in my local community, these incredible women writers are still my dearest friends and pen-pals.
Poet Melissa Reeser Poulin is the facilitator of the group, and she speaks beautifully about the value of community in our interview here.
The #1 Ingredient for a Healthy Writing Community
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a scathing workshop critique, you know not all writing groups are created equal. Many can be toxic––promoting rivalries, ugly competition, and general nastiness. Many writers reject the idea of critique groups after too many traumatic workshop experiences.
Your inner artist is a delicate dandelion balanced on a China plate perched on a poorly stacked Jenga tower. One passive-aggressive remark can topple it all.
I sat in on three writers groups before I found my Goldilocks home with my girls in Portland, and I’ll probably do the same in California. You won’t gel with every writing community, and that’s okay.
But if you want to weave a writerly web where you’ll grow, learn, and develop friendships to last a lifetime, look for one critical element:
In 2012, Google launched a study called Project Aristotle to learn what makes some teams more effective than others. The name itself has roots in the idea of synergy. Aristotle was the first to say, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
What Google found was fascinating. Group effectiveness has nothing to do with talent, similar interests, or individual strengths. The most critical element for group effectiveness was psychological safety.
Psychological safety refers to the idea that individuals in a group feel safe to take risks and share opinions without fear of judgment.
It’s that relaxed feeling you get when you can be fully yourself, and no one’s going to mock, ridicule, or judge you. You can breathe.
Here’s what psychological safety looks like in a healthy writerly web:
All voices and writing are given equal weight and attention. Both introverts and extroverts are invited to speak up often.
Group members practice radical, empathic listening. Ie. listening to understand and not only to craft a response.
An attitude of abundance. Group members understand that a “rising tide lifts all ships.” There are enough readers, publications, and book advances for everyone. Individual wins are celebrated wholeheartedly.
Vulnerability and questions are welcomed and encouraged.
Critique is compassionate and thoughtful.
How to Weave Your Writerly Web [Worksheet]
Here’s what you learned today:
A writerly web can enhance your writing practice exponentially. It’s critical for creative health. Just ask Cheryl Strayed.
Psychological safety is the #1 ingredient for a supportive writerly web.
Of course, building a solid writing community is easier said than done. Grab the free Writerly Web Action Guide below and start weaving!
Practical strategies to connect with other writers
How to cultivate and find a psychologically safe community
How to give and receive helpful feedback in a writer’s group
Download the Writerly Web Action Guide below. 👇
This worksheet is exclusive to LitHabits VIPs! Jump on the list to get the worksheet. Plus, you’ll get these other goodies:
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Sources & Resources
Baker, Jeff. (2010). “Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain and the hottest writing group in Portland.” https://www.oregonlive.com/books/2010/06/chuck_palahniuk_chelsea_cain_a.html
Burkus, David. (2018). “You’re NOT The Average Of The Five People You Surround Yourself With.” Medium. https://medium.com/the-mission/youre-not-the-average-of-the-five-people-you-surround-yourself-with-f21b817f6e69
Christakis, Nicholas A. & Fowler, James H. (2008). “The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network.” The New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa0706154
Duhigg, Charles. (2016). Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. Random House. https://www.amazon.com/Smarter-Faster-Better-Transformative-Productivity-ebook/dp/B00Z3FRYB0
Fowler, James H. & Christakis, Nicholas A. (2008). “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.” The BMJ. https://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2338
Google. (n,d.) “Guide: Understand team effectiveness.” https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/
Long, Renee. (2019). “Poet Melissa Reeser Poulin on Stewarding Community, Deleting Social Media, and Letting Go of ‘Should’.” [Interview]. The LitHabits for Writers Blog. https://reneelongwrites.com/blog/author-interview-melissa-reeser-poulin
Popova, Maria. (2016). “Hemingway’s Tough-Love Letter of Advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing and Turning Suffering into Creative Fuel.” Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/07/21/hemingway-f-scott-fitzgerald-letter-advice/
“Group working at table with laptop.” Photo by G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock.com.
“A corner of The Eagle and Child pub, formerly the landlord's sitting-room where the Inklings met.”
Image copyright (c) 2005 Tom Murphy VII and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license:
“Coffee, glass, food, and drink.” Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Author’s note: This is a public blog, so I’m always wary of writing about my friends. “Megan” is a pseudonym to protect her privacy.