When I lived in Downtown Phoenix a few years ago, the arts community was organizing in a grass roots way. There was so much need for it that the First Fridays grew into First and Third Fridays. It grew from people setting up folding tables on the sides of the streets to having to rent space and white street fair tents. The single block that had art parties on Saturday night grew
into three blocks--then the vendors were banned altogether and there was a public outcry and the vendors were allowed to be on the streets again, with the stipulation that they rent space and tents. It got irksome.
I'm like that: easily irked by tents. In the 80s, when I lived in Tucson, bands used to set up in the alleys and play. I'd set a blanket out on the sidewalk and sell jewelry that I'd made. Then the city took over and you had to get a permit. After that you had to use a table--no blankets on the ground. Now I never see street vendors unless they are at an organized event.
There is something about losing that spontaneous nature that deadens things for me. When you could just do what you needed, it was exciting. Ideas flourished and new projects always seemed to be waiting.
Anyway, after being out of Phoenix for a few years, I returned and went looking for a literary community. It was rough. All I could find were workshops. And I'm back in Phoenix, where my family lives and where I am continually questioned on my productivity--because in my world, family isn't particularly supportive. My support comes from friends, from former professors, and from the writing community at large. And I didn't have any of that when I came back here.
Phoenix is big and largely disconnected. You have to work to find like-minded people. Community is not natural here. But when it does arise, there are people who will travel 30 miles to get to it.
You might ask what my problem is with workshops if I could meet people at one. I don't really have a problem with workshops. I've spent many hours in them. I've run them. They have their purpose--but that purpose does not suit my current needs. I need a community. I need people to talk to about writing in a non-structured way. I need literary writers, and the local non-university workshops seemed to be full of genre writers. I need plot-based writers, too, but I don't feel that workshops help me get to know people when it's not a regular group, when it's a huge group, when it's a group that expects you to read their writing while you're in the workshop and you don't have time to contemplate it and then you have to come up with something to say right there. I don't know who those people are. How much weight can I put in their opinions?
What I want is a community. People who know each other, support each other, call each other out when they are wasting time. Maybe a little competition. Whatever.
As I write this, I am at a coffee house, drinking a milk stout from a local brewery, and I have a writing "community" that has taken over the whole space. We are all working silently and I can tell you what each person is working on.
I can also tell you the obstacles to writing that most of them struggle with. I know when someone's husband is out of the country awaiting a visa, when too much intellectualizing from a masters program in philosophy strangles creativity. The thing is, when you know these things, you can help each other through the writing and keep each other going. We don't callously say, "Well, writers write, so just do it." We're not Nike ads.
We're people and we know that those obstacles can be converted to fuel, but sometimes they are obstacles and nothing but. We can help get minds off the obstacles, though, and back into the work we committed to.
Tonight, it took us 45 minutes to get silent and start working and we'll be here until the place closes down. Just writing, talking occasionally. Making plans. Going to the lake on the weekend or planning an excursion to a reading. (Margaret Atwood is going to be in town soon!) We're starting to get some other events together aside from our twice weekly sit-down-and-write sessions.
The other day, a half hour discussion that started with ska-punk and moved into underground 80s music eventually turned two of us back to writing. When we reconvened, we discussed the threads that we had talked about in that music conversation and how they came up in our writing. It's funny how a conversation that is seemingly off-topic helps us process our own work. That is the dynamic beauty of a community.
How did this come to be if there is nothing in Phoenix?
It's simple: I stopped looking for a community.
I said, "Screw it. If I can't find what I need, someone else must need it, too." And I set my mind on creating what I needed.
I believe in taking ownership. The people who have come to this group feel like it's theirs. They are not mere participants who showed up once and never came back. We're not nameless faces in workshop with 25 people. We're not simply part of a head count at a reading. We have an identity together and we are bolder in mixing with others in the outside literary events--and we can find those events more effectively because we have so many experiences and resources that we bring to the group.
So if you're trying to find a literary community, don't waste time complaining about it.
Take ownership. Start it yourself.