By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

We’re all concerned about staying in touch these days, both literally and figuratively. However, even before the pandemic, human connection could be frustratingly difficult to establish, maybe for everyone, but certainly for aspiring writers. This challenge is the reason that writing conferences exist. Writers pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a few days of instruction, feedback, and camaraderie.

When I have taught at these conferences, I’ve been struck by the hunger of the writers to make the most of every moment. They scribble furiously as I speak. Their hands shoot up the moment I open for questions. The brief engagement the conference offers will have to last them a long time, a situation that is palpable, almost electric. The steady, intense eye contact of a whole room full of people is the image I take home, the image I will ponder when I lie in bed at night.

Kathy Flann

Upon return to my college creative writing courses the following day, students are
eating snacks and staring at phones and wandering in late. A few of them look up when I speak, but the eyes are a little flat. It’s as if I am offering them a nice turkey sandwich a few minutes after Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t get me wrong. These are good students. They enjoy these workshops. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sign up for them. The issue is simply that they don’t yet know what it’s like to write without a supportive community. One is unlikely to be hungry if food has never been scarce.

Even though I do understand that future experience will probably be more instructive to the college students than anything I say now, I try to explain that they won’t always have people available to read their work and provide constructive feedback. I urge my workshop students to keep in touch with each other after graduation. “You’re going to miss this,” I tell them. “Believe it or not, you’re even going to miss the deadlines.”

Some writers “in the real world” take extreme measures to create deadlines for themselves. I’ve known people who write checks to organizations they hate, such as the NRA. They give these checks to trusted friends and say, “If I don’t write X number of words by X date, you must mail this envelope.” I have actually met more than one person who does this.

Former students sometimes get in touch a year or two after they’re out of school, and they do miss it. That’s why they’re writing to me. They’re feeling somewhat lost and more than a bit lonely. There’s a sense of I get it now. I get what you were saying.

We think of writing as a solitary pursuit, but it simply isn’t. Hardly anyone can complete a novel or other writing project without help and support. That’s why books have acknowledgements pages as a matter of course. We never do it alone. People read early, crappy drafts and give us feedback on our concepts. People read later drafts to help us edit and fine tune, clearing up confusion and making sure we don’t have boring, draggy sections in the manuscripts. These are issues that we cannot resolve for ourselves. We’re too close to the work to understand how it comes across to someone else.

Assuming that NRA roulette isn’t anyone’s ideal way to engage with the writing process and assuming that no one can afford to go to tons of writing conferences, what are the options for aspiring writers? Few of us are lucky enough to have friends or family members who can give the kind of feedback we really need. Our moms and boyfriends are simply going to say, Cool. Nice job. It’s kind, but not terribly helpful.

The first step to creating a writing community could be as simple as sifting through social media connections. Are there writers amongst our friends? Perhaps there are former classmates or acquaintances from writing conferences/events. There’s nothing to lose by reaching out to these “friends,” even if we barely know them. An assumption a lot of writers make is along the lines of: They won’t want to hear from me or No one else is struggling the way I am. But what if it’s not true? What if a cheerful note, seeking to exchange work, is exactly what the person needs from the universe?

One way we can embolden ourselves is to remember that giving feedback has value. First, it has value in the literal sense. A fellow writer can expect to pay hundreds or thousands to receive feedback from a freelance editor, depending on the scope of the project and the amount of feedback desired. Thus, a trade has value for both parties. Second, it has value in the figurative sense. Reading other people’s work is one of the fastest ways to grow as a writer. As we notice where someone else’s story gets bogged down in backstory or world-building, we can’t help but reflect on our own projects. Both parties in a trade benefit in this way, as well, observing what works and doesn’t work in a writing partner’s story. And hey, even if the timing isn’t quite right for the person you decide to approach, maybe that person will connect you to someone else who would love to trade novel chapters.

What if a writer has no writerly acquaintances at all? What then? A great place to start is one’s state writing association. Every state has one, and the Writer’s Relief website has a list of links to each state. A state writing association is likely to have local chapters and regular meetings. There may be some costs involved, such as a membership fee or monthly dues, but these costs tend to be minimal compared to most writing conferences. The Writer’s Relief site also provides links to ongoing, established writing groups in each state.

Another great resource is the Poets & Writers website, which has a database of “Literary Places,” searchable by location and type. It’s a case of entering one’s city or zip code and selecting Writing Center. A local writing center will charge for enrollment in workshops, but the costs will likely be more modest than tuition for a creative writing course at a local college. The center closest to where I live charges $360 for eight sessions. Not only would one receive feedback from a published mentor, but one could meet other aspiring writers in these workshops with whom to maintain relationships after the course is finished.

Under different circumstances, I’d suggest attending readings at one’s local bookstore in order to meet people in the literary community, as well as to learn about writing and publishing from exposure to newly released books. It’s hard to say when such gatherings will resume.

Meanwhile, many literary activities adapt perfectly well to virtual platforms. Authors are conducting workshops, book launches, readings, talks, and so forth. I’m in a couple writing groups myself, and these groups have continued to meet by spending an hour or two on Zoom once a month. Even though I have always enjoyed meeting with my writer friends in person, the virtual format is certainly convenient, requiring no “getting ready,” no food prep, no time in the car. I find myself wondering if the literary world will ever exactly “go back.”

We are all home, possibly writing more or at least thinking about our writing more. I’ll bet a lot of people are using this pause in normal life to reexamine their priorities, wondering why they their own writing has been so low on the list. This situation likely means there’s more craving than ever for writing community, as well. It can be scary to reach out, but we can rest assured that other aspiring writers are scared, too.

There’s something so right about the reassuring faces of writer friends appearing in our messy living rooms on the very laptops on which we struggle to compose. It’s almost as if those friends are still there the following day as we write, shadows on the screen, cheering us forward. So, while we might be experiencing a lousy moment in history to get in touch with people generally, this might actually be the perfect time to get in touch with writers.



Kathy Flann is an award-winning author whose latest book, Write On – Critical Tips for Aspiring Authors, will be released in the summer of 2020.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.