By Caroline Leavitt
When you are writing well, you have a multitude of characters around you, but then you come up for air—too often with a pesky plot problem at hand—and sometimes you realize it’s you and your empty apartment. You might be lucky to have a spouse or friend who understands and is a writer, too, but one person is not enough. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it also takes a village to comfort and support a writer.
You need people who understand what you’re going through—the hunger to create, the absolute need. People who you can run pages by, who you can ask for advice about agents or publishing or how they tackled a plot problem that is driving you nuts. People who will cheer you on, who will hand you tissues when you get a bad review and then speak to a reviewer friend elsewhere who ends up loving your book. Here’s how to find your tribe.
Reach out—online and in person.
I was really shy for a great many years. I didn’t go to writing conferences or parties because my tongue was so tied, I’d never be able to unknot it. So I didn’t meet any writers. Plus, when I first started out, I was living in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t exactly a mecca for creativity at the time (though I’m happy to say it is now).
Enter social media. When I joined Facebook and Twitter, I was overwhelmed to find almost all of the writers I revere were on there too. Not wanting to come across as a gushing sycophant, instead I commented on one writer’s vegetarian lasagna recipe. I asked questions about another writer’s son. After a while, some of these people posted on my page in turn, and like any friendship, slowly, magically, relationships developed, and once they did we began to talk about everything—not just kids and dinner, but writing, too.
As time passed, it seemed crazy not to ping those who lived near me and say, “Hey, we both live in the area, let’s have lunch.” And guess what? The lunch was as talkative and fun as our online contact.
Blog with a purpose.
I started a blog for myself, thinking that I would just muse about writing. That got old fast. Did readers really want to hear about how I had to have coconut fudge every time I started a new chapter? So I gave my blog over to other writers, writers I admired and wanted to interview, writers I didn’t know. They were easy enough to find online, and to my surprise, they wanted to be interviewed. That’s how you get followers. Follow them back.
My blog continued to grow and grow, and with it came friendships with more and more writers—but your blog, of course, does not have to be about interviews. Write about your cooking, your dog, your love of arcades. Let people know you—the real you that encompasses so much more than your being a writer. Invite people who share your love to contribute, and you’ll get to know the real them, too.
My life is what I call “wonderful chaos.” I rarely have a free second—but I always make time to support other writers. I know we are all busy and exhausted, and the thought of braving a blizzard to hear a writer read may not sound as appealing as savoring a hot chocolate in front of the TV. But it’s more important. Go to readings! Go to signings! (If your town isn’t flush with them, volunteer at your local bookstore or library to help start a program.) You never know whom you will meet. At a Jewish Book Council gathering, I wandered off to a back room, only to find award-winning author Joan Silber hiding out from the party. Before long we were in deep conversation. Many writers are shy, and just as grateful for a friendly face in a crowd as you are.
Read a book you love? Write the author. It doesn’t matter how famous. (I once tracked down John Irving and got a lovely handwritten reply.) The more you pay it forward, the more people will know you.
Join or start a writing group.
When I start a novel, I have four trusted writer friends who vet my pages. None of them (except my husband) lives anywhere near me, but it doesn’t matter. We swap pages, ask questions, Skype, email, talk on the phone and meet in person. This has the benefit of keeping you writing, as well as keeping you flush in kindred souls. Host a writing group. If you’re not sure who to invite, put out notices on local kiosks. Most local libraries have these groups, too. You can also look for regional branches of national writing organizations. (And when in doubt, join a book club. There’s sure to be at least one other writer in the group.) When you see the same group of people every month, relationships naturally begin to develop.
Take a class—or teach one.
I teach novel writing online at both Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and work with writers privately. Many of my students, all adult professionals, have become fast friends with one another—and with me. My screenwriting partner started as one of my students.
Twice a month, I have lunch with various writer friends or publishing people. Sure, we talk about the craft and the business, but we also share contacts as well as pasta and wine, and we talk about our lives as well as our work. Breaking bread together is a great way to deepen existing friendships and open new doors.
And if you see someone—maybe that woman at Starbucks writing what looks like a novel on her laptop? Or what about the guy scribbling something in a notebook? Go over. Introduce yourself. Offer to buy him a second cup of coffee. You never know.
The writing life doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Fill it with as many key characters as the pages of your novels.
Caroline Leavitt (carolineleavitt.com) is a book critic for People and the San Francisco Chronicle, and author of Is This Tomorrow and nine other novels. Her latest, Cruel Beautiful World, was published in 2016.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 Writer's Digest.