creative writing community, craft and inspiration
Writing is often considered a lonely profession. But it doesn’t have to be. That’s the lesson I learned last weekend.
On June 4 and 5, I attended the annual conference of the New Jersey chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or NJSCBWI. No, that name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but the event turned out to be eye-opening: for two days, over 300 writers—both published and unpublished—illustrators, teachers, editors, agents, and lovers of children’s books gathered in Princeton to learn, share, and connect.
For me, as a writer, it was the most unlonely weekend I’ve ever had.
The conference was essentially one long, animated conversation about the same shared passion: how to tell good stories and maybe even make a living at it. And the experience drove home the idea that, as one agent suggested, a central task for writers is to “gather your tribe.”
This is the goal when we write: we communicate what we see, our unique experiences, our dreams, in order to move and inform others. We seek connection, recognition, revelation. That insightful, “a-ha” moment. At the conference, so many workshops and conversations were about readers: how to wow them with craft, how to surprise them with storytelling, how to find the overlooked, unseen perspective. Whatever our background, we were all, as it turned out, part of the vast tribe of readers. We were all experts in the stories we liked.
Of course, “readers” is a very unusual tribe. In the intimacy of reading, it’s a tribe of two, but the best stories get broadcast till they reach almost everyone. As writers, we shouldn’t forget our inclusion in this tribe. We are who we are writing for, part of the universal human story.
When we pursue publication, we also must gather our tribe, though it’s a much more select one: we seek those industry professionals who value our message and our art, and who agree that what we’ve created deserves to be produced and shared with the world. This was the big message from publishing folks: if you’re selling a book proposal, do your homework. Know something about the editor or agent you are pitching to. In order to get published, you have to first find your tribe within the industry, getting the attention of those who share your quirks and have the expertise you need. And you have to entertain them with the story of yourself. You have to make them want to read more of you.
Then, when we promote ourselves and our work, we are certainly seeking our tribe: we wave our arms like semaphors to get anyone’s attention, hoping to draw closer perfect strangers. This, specifically, is what the one agent was referring to: any writer today can build an audience by embracing social media. And today, this is pretty much required. Through Twitter, Facebook, websites, and more, we can each find and gather our tribe—almost as if we were so many lost souls wandering the dark woods searching for a digital campfire.
As I reflected on it, I realized that “gathering your tribe” means many things and describes many groups. Some tribes overlap, and some are bigger than others. But all are intrinsic to why we write, and to being successful as writers, and every one counts.
Which, finally, made me realize something else: at The Writers Circle, we’re already gathering our tribe, and we continue to do so every day. With every class we take or teach, we are learning our craft, sharing our experiences, creating friendships, and growing a community of storytellers.
Right here in Jersey.
So, if you write children’s books, or aspire to, I highly recommend joining the NJSCBWI. They are a great, supportive organization. But also know that, as part of The Writers Circle, you’re already part of a great, supportive tribe.
And the next time you take out your notebook or sit down at your computer and struggle with your latest effort, remember that you aren’t really alone.
Stay tuned for the second installment in this two-part series: “Part 2: The Space Between the Panels: David Wiesner on Storytelling.”
Jeff Campbell is the author of two nonfiction book for young adults, Daisy to the Rescue and Last of the Giants. He’s also a freelance book editor and has been teaching with The Writers Circle since 2014.