That one word sums up our human need for community.
When Tom Hanks lost Wilson in Castaway, his grief was palpable. It wrenched the souls of millions of people. In fact, I just watched the clip again in the middle of McAllister’s Deli and almost started crying at his pain.
And Wilson was a volleyball.
We don’t live a solitary existence even when we live a solitary existence. No matter what anyone wants to tell you, writing is no different. Yes, the actual process happens in a solitary fashion. I sit and type – just me and my MacBook Air. But the rest of it requires a community. At least for me.
My first writer’s community was the Richmond Playwrights Forum. Before I stumbled across this group I had written one play – which I had promptly stuck in a drawer since I had no idea what to do with it. Through this group I learned about formatting and submissions and staged readings and a host of other important things. They told me what I was doing right, what I was doing wrong, how I could do things better. After a few years, I moved on – both literally and figuratively – but I never lost the need for a community.
Recently my current writer’s group switched nights and I can’t make the meetings. It has been devastating. Not Wilson floating away on the waves devastating, but it has really thrown me into a funk. I loved reading and commenting on their work. I found their notes and insights invaluable. I even enjoyed the deadline of having to turn pages in every other week. But what I will miss most is the camaraderie of the group – the crazy stories they have to share, the collective energy, the feeling that I am not alone in the writing process.
If you don’t have a writer’s group, by all means find one. But find a healthy one. Make sure the writers are as serious as you are. Make sure they are as good as you are – better than you is even better. Make sure they are supportive people who can put their egos aside long enough to put your work first.
Make sure they are like my friend and stellar playwright Rob Koon and not another playwright whom we will call Joe. Both Rob and Joe had plays in direct competition with mine with a substantial cash prize at stake. Joe was a playwright I had known for years – someone who I looked up to, whose work I respected. Joe knew his script was much better than mine. I know this because he told me so. Me and the producer of the competition and the directors of both of our shows. After all, this was my first play, it was his umpteenth. I won the contest. Suddenly the rules weren’t fair, there weren’t enough judges, the audience members weren’t saavy enough to understand his play. It was an awful experience.
Rob, on the other hand, was a playwright I met for the first time at FutureFest in Dayton, OH. We have read and commented on each other’s work. We have flown half-way across the country to see each other’s plays. I helped support a Kickstarter campaign to get one of his productions off the ground. He helped me get a reading at Chicago Dramatists. He has opened his home to me on several occasions giving me a place to crash in Chicago. He has been a sounding board, a source of humor in my dark moments and a cheerleader when I needed one. Believe me, I won way more than a cash prize at FutureFest.
Writers grow by helping other writers grow. By championing each other’s work. By fostering a spirit of community. Have I watched Rob’s work on stage or read one of his scripts and thought “Damn, I wish I had written that!”? Oh, absolutely. And the best thing I can do in that situation is make sure that everyone else has to chance to experience his plays and think the same thing. (If you’re in the Chicago area, don’t miss the World Premiere of his brilliant play Homecoming 1972.)
Joe? Frankly, I have no idea what he is up to. I have not followed his work. I have not asked an actor or director or producer to read one of his plays or consider his work for production.
So what’s next for me now that I have been set adrift from my writer’s group? Just like Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway, I will build a raft and set out for places unknown. And because of the world we live in, the remoteness of the island need not be a factor. I will look and watch and wait for the right time – the right place. An island populated with warm, welcoming friendly people not the boys from Lord of the Flies.
Because one thing is certain. I need a community. And when life takes away my volleyball, it’s time to start a new sport. Tennis, anyone?