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January 14, 2020

Writing Community: There’s Safety in Numbers

Birds gathered on a phone line with text: How Can We Strengthen Our Writing Community?

I’ve written before about the importance—and benefits—of being connected with the writing community, even though it’s sometimes hard. But I want to revisit the topic after all the recent news of the implosion of Romance Writers of America.

The writing community—especially those involved with the romance genre—played a huge role in the protests and identifying the core issues within RWA. We still don’t know what the outcome will be for RWA, but let’s see what we can learn about moving forward with a stronger writing community.

The Importance of a Writing Community

In my earlier posts on this topic, I identified nine benefits of the writing community:

  1. We Answer Questions and Help Each Other Learn
    From blog posts and social media to writing forums and groups, any place writers gather can be a chance to learn.
  2. We Support and Recognize Each Other’s Hard Work
    Rather than seeing just competition, we tend to make friends with our fellow writers, cheering and motivating each other.
  3. We Help Each Other Grow and Strengthen Our Skills
    The writing community often helps us find critique partners and/or beta readers, which push us to improve our craft.
  4. We Watch Out for Each Other and Our Careers
    From plagiarism to #cockygate-style issues, writers and readers give each a heads up on issues and help with research.
  5. We Share Our Expertise with Each Other
    Our day jobs, background, or unique experiences can be a resource for other writers looking for some expertise.
  6. We Update Each Other on New Techniques
    In general, writers are a generous group, sharing outcomes of marketing or publishing experiments for what worked or not.
  7. We Share Opportunities and Raise Each Other Up
    Whether guest posts, writing panels, or anthologies, we let each other know about opportunities to improve our brand.
  8. We Let Each Other Know What’s Normal
    As #cockygate revealed, many problems we encounter are common and not something to take personally.
  9. We Prevent Each Other from Making Mistakes
    Our writing friends can give us the “Oh, honey, no” warning before we vent our frustration in public or make mistakes.

Several of those benefits were apparent in the RWA implosion and resulting outcry. But the RWA situation also revealed a few places where our community needs strengthening.

The RWA Implosion Affects Us All

As I talked about last week, what happens with RWA is important for all writers due to the size of the romance genre. That size has given RWA power for advocating and helping writers, no matter the genre.

What can we learn from the RWA implosion about building a stronger writing community? Click To TweetFor example, RWA’s role in #cockygate helped Amazon step back from their aggressive takedowns of books caught in the trademark scam. Without their advocacy, Amazon might not have listened to authors, and the practice of trademarking common words might have continued to affect the whole industry.

But just as the writing community pulled together during #cockygate and the recent plagiarism scandal of #CopyPasteCris, the community has now been pulling together to express their anger and disappointment with RWA.

While organizations like RWA are helpful, we need to remember that RWA is about the members. Similarly, the writing community is about more than the “official” organizations. It’s about people and their connections.

The RWA Implosion Shows the Strengths of the Writing Community

With RWA’s implosion, the writing community has taken center stage. Hashtags on Twitter helped people connect and share the latest news, amplifying important discussions and links to more information.

Several members of the community kept track of the timeline of events to help everyone catch up. Others shared threads with additional context for the issues.

Through Twitter, the CIMRWA chapter of RWA mobilized and gathered enough signatures for a recall petition—twice. The Twitter book club Romance Sparks Joy organized three signed statements to RWA to give readers, reviewers, librarians, and RITA judges and entrants a voice in the controversy as well.

Also, as I said on Twitter:

In other words, going back to that list of 9 benefits of the writing community, this scandal brought several of those strengths to the foreground. We helped each other learn (1), supported each other (2), watched out for each other (4), and shared our expertise (5).

…and Also Reveals the Big Weakness

However, many of RWA’s problems brought to light through the implosion process also revealed a weakness within the community. As I mentioned last week, many groups and individuals shared stories online of how their concerns and requests had been ignored by RWA staff over the years.

The writing community can help us realize: It's not just you... Click To TweetFor example, one person’s LGBTQ+ romance rejected as proof of their “serious” commitment to the genre—with a claim of “not a romance”—might just mean they didn’t understand the rules for applying for RWA’s PRO membership. But with multiple authors experiencing similar issues, we see a picture of RWA’s permanent staff using their “discretion” to be discriminatory.

Multiply that by hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of discrimination against authors of color, authors with disabilities, stories about characters from marginalized groups, etc., and we obviously missed an opportunity to recognize the bigger issues and “fix” RWA earlier.

Similarly, many writers had stories of RWA’s recently resigned President, Damon Suede, and his frequent lying. Several people shared how he’d lied and told them that another author hated them, and he’d even lied to qualify for his position on the RWA Board.

While some bravely shared their stories (and were unfortunately ignored), far too often, those stories hadn’t been shared before. Instead, the people involved thought it had happened only to them, or thought they must have done something wrong to prompt the way they were treated.

Why Does This Weakness Exist?

As I listed in #8, the writing community should be able to help us determine what’s “normal.” But that can’t happen if we’re not sharing those stories and comparing notes to know whether the problems are happening to “just us” or not.

So why aren’t we sharing?

There’s no easy answer to that question. But here are a few guesses for why we might struggle to share:

  • Self-doubt is a huge issue for many writers. If someone from an official writing organization tells us our story isn’t “good enough,” there’s a good chance we’ll blame ourselves rather than questioning their perspective.
  • Questioning a situation is a form of conflict, and conflict is hard. Women especially can have a hard time standing up for themselves (and throw in the pressure to be “nice” or not “make waves” for bonus difficulties).
  • Sharing a story of how things aren’t going right for us makes us feel vulnerable. Others might not believe us or say we deserve what happened to us.
  • The problem is many, many times worse for people from marginalized groups. For their whole lives, they’ve been disbelieved and had their problems dismissed, so why should they trust this time would be any different?
  • Those in power can gaslight us, warping our sense of reality and reinforcing the idea that the problems are our fault, or that we’re all alone in our experience.

Even in my limited exposure to the core issues within RWA, I experienced (minor) problems with both Damon and RWA’s Executive Director that I never shared. Yes, they were extremely minor in the big scheme of things, but perhaps if I’d shared my stories, others would have felt welcome to share theirs too.

As I said above, some bravely did share their stories and yet were ignored, but sometimes it can take several similar stories to paint a picture. The more stories are shared, the more we’ll expose the problems, giving us the chance to fix them.

What Can We Do to Strengthen the Writing Community?

How can we fix this weakness—or at least strengthen the writing community to minimize this weakness? I’m sure there are at least as many ways to strengthen the writing community as there are problems in existence, but I’m going to focus on one method that specifically addresses the problem above.

We can’t (and shouldn’t) make people share their stories, so instead we have to change our community to encourage them. People are more likely to share their stories of self-doubt or share despite their fears or sense of vulnerability if they feel safe.

So as we move through our writing community spaces, we want to do everything we can to help others feel safe:

  • When we design and build new communities, we can think about the rules and policies we can put into place to create that sense of safety.
  • When we interact with other writers, we can ensure that we’re behaving in ways that would make them feel safe enough to share their stories.
  • When we see others creating an unsafe environment, we can point out what they’re doing and send out different messaging to those around them.
  • And obviously, we should believe the stories others tell. That means not questioning whether their stories are really about discrimination. Regardless of the other party’s intent, their experience of discrimination is valid.

With a writing community that centers a feeling of safety along with everything else we do for each other, we might be able to share stories of problems as they happen. The sooner we can all compare notes on problem agents, editors, publishers, organizations, staff members, fellow community members, etc., the faster we can confront and hopefully fix the problem.

How can we strengthen our writing community? Click To TweetIn my last post, I shared the ideas I’ve collected from throughout the writing community for what RWA would need to do to fix itself. Many of those ideas focused on the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) because ensuring everyone has an equal voice to share their stories, expertise, and experiences is an important step toward building safety into the organization.

We’ll never know how many writers didn’t become RWA members due to how they were treated. And that point makes it very clear: Every problem we fix results in countless writers who aren’t hurt or chased from their dreams.

Those countless writers would help the writing community grow if they felt welcomed and safe enough to stay. At the same time, a sense of safety will help everyone feel comfortable enough to create more connections, which will make the writing community even stronger. *smile*

Did you see ways that the RWA implosion showed off the strengths of the writing community? Did you notice the weaknesses it revealed as well? Can you think of other weaknesses of the writing community? Can you think of other reasons people might not share their stories? What other ways can you think of for how to strengthen the community and/or encourage people to share their stories?

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