I've been thinking a lot about community lately—and here I'm going to be talking about the writing community in particular and the poetry community in particular-particular, but I think the non-writers in my vast audience can probably generalize this to their own pursuits. I know that it's because I've only been back from my Connecticut poetry conference for a week and I'm still living with one foot in each world, as it were. I have not yet come fully home. I am simultaneously, as I said to a friend, home (and blessedly so) and homesick. Because the importance of being with people who understand what you do cannot be overstated.
I first felt this when I went to Stonecoast, the low-residency program where I got my M.F.A. in creative writing. I started the program in July of 2005, and I will never forget the feeling of home that I felt there almost immediately. The women who were on the same floor of the dorm with me that week have become some of my closest friends, so there's that, but it wasn't just that I found a group of funny, talented women to hang out with. It was that for the first time in my life (I turned 36 that week), I felt like I was with "My People." Before Stonecoast, if someone asked me what I did, I didn't tell them I was a poet—I told them I was a writer. They all, almost without exception, asked me if I was writing the next Harry Potter. If I chose to further explain that I was a poet, there was often a long pause, as if I had told them I was a funeral director or sold human body parts on the black market. Then, if I was lucky, they would change the subject. More often than not, though, they would say, "Oh…I hate poetry."
Great. Thanks for that insight.
I'm not sure why I felt responsible for whether people liked the art I'd chosen to become involved with—or the art that had chosen me, I suppose. If I'd become a sculptor, I doubt I would have felt the need to be cagey about it. Or if I'd been a stonemason or a painter or a lounge singer (I would have made a fantastic lounge singer, but that's another post for another day, and I like my weekends free at any rate). Going to Stonecoast changed all that, because the questions there came from other writers. And while most people know how to write, we don't all know how to write. Non-writers sometimes have trouble grasping that, but I'm not sure why—everyone has, at some point, recognized bad writing, haven't they? Or recognized writing so good it blows your mind? Stonecoast was the first time I was asked about my writing by people who understood the answers as writers. And while there were some people there who hated poetry, they were largely respectful enough to keep their mouth shut about it, because they understood that even if they didn't care for the genre, they cared for the work.
I've felt similar things at similar places since—I made a couple more really good friends at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH, and then solidified those friendships and expanded them to include others at the Connecticut conference, which now includes a bunch of poets I call my friends. Two of these friends, I should mention, were at Stonecoast with me. One of them was in my dorm suite that very first summer, and the other is the reason I went to the Frost Place to begin with, which means that she's also the reason I ended up in Connecticut. In short, I owe an awful lot to Stonecoast, and not just in terms of the student loans.
So this is all a long prelude to the important shit, which is here: you need to find Your People. I don't care who those People are. I often wonder if accountants have as much fun at their conferences as writers do at theirs. I seriously, seriously doubt it, but how do I know? And yes, there are writers who are jerks—egocentric, obnoxious, overly-serious, power hungry (which cracks me up, especially in the poetry community, because really…there's so little power there to struggle for. Poetry is essential to the human spirit, but that's not the kind of power I'm talking about. We struggle with ourselves for that kind of power—nobody else can take it from or yield it to us). And I'm going to share with you the secret for dealing with those sorts of writers. Are you ready? You might want to sit down, if you're not doing so already. Okay, here goes:
Don't hang out with the jerks. The jerks are not Your People.
Your People want to support you, not use you. Your People want to support you because they love the accounting and they respect the accounting and they want you to be as good at it as you possibly can be. They want you to grow and learn, yes, and that makes for some difficult conversations, yes, but they also want to revel in your successes. Your People want to be so blown away by what you do that all they can manage afterwards is a string of obscenities (okay, so maybe that's just writers). They will, in all likelihood, eventually love you, and you will love them. You have been warned.
This does not come without some sacrifices on your part. You need to be willing, first of all, to be known. It doesn't mean that you need to air all your dirty laundry in public, or clip your toenails in front of the other accountants, or tell them when you have your period or if you've got a weird lump on the back of your knee that's worrying you. It's best if you remember to chew with your mouth closed (because being known requires sharing food with people—you understand that, right? Eating is one of the most basic human rituals, and I don't mean knowing which fork to use). But you do need to be open to being understood. You need to be willing to risk being unaccepted for any number of reasons (you won't be—if you've chosen Your People correctly, you won't be, and if you've chosen them incorrectly, then what does it matter if they accept you or not?). You need to know that things can get ugly, and you need to know that the worst thing that happens when they see you ugly is that they will have seen you ugly.
My poet friends have, between them, seen my ugly crying face (because, dear readers, I do not cry pretty). They have seen how easily I sprout horrific bruises. They have watched me struggle with non-poetry work, with poetry, with grief, with marital spats (not that we ever have those, because our marriage is perfect, right?), with jealousy and rage and shame. Some of them have seen me run (also not pretty) or, worse, AFTER a run (seriously not pretty). They have been present when an errant seatbelt unbuttoned my blouse, when I had something hanging from my nose, when I have opened my mouth when it should have been shut (that happens a lot, though, so it's not really all that surprising).
So fine, Ruth, I can hear you saying. This is friendship. What does this have to do with whether I hang out with other accountants or not?
I'm not sure. One of the reasons why I'm writing this is an attempt to clarify it for myself. I can tell you that something is essentially different when you are with people who do what you do. Part of it is that you don't have to explain that part of yourself, I suppose. Part of it is that the people involved with any endeavor have a shorthand that can make communication faster—which makes more time for opening yourself up to meaningful conversations. The important part, for me, is that other writers—and other poets even more so—understand something that is a huge part of me, but that the non-writers in my life cannot completely understand. And I'm lucky, in terms of being a poet—my non-writing friends and family appreciate what I do, respect what I do, and take it seriously. A lot of writers, and perhaps the vast majority of writers, especially those who have no real hope of commercial success (which is the default measure of success in this society), don't have that level of support. Jed has twice—TWICE—supported us financially so that I could concentrate on my work. His idea, both times. I never would have asked it of him. Despite the fact that it often poses challenges to him, he cheerfully sends me off to retreats and conferences so that I can be with other writers. There have been years, like after the deaths of my father-in-law and Turquoise, where I did not want to leave, and he talked me into it. And he was completely right to do so.
In other words, I have the most supportive non-writer community that I can imagine, and it is still a necessary luxury for me to be with other poets. Intensively, exclusively, extensively with other poets (and that's more adverbs than you can probably find in all of my poems combined, so you know I mean it). It recharges me creatively. It teaches me and allows me to teach. It saves my poetic life, again and again. It gives me material and focus that lasts me well into the intervening year. And it strengthens us as a community—my writing community lives all over this giant country of ours, and in other countries as well, although the Connecticut group I just left is mostly based on the East Coast—so that our lesser interactions, via email and Facebook and Skype and phone calls, are more likely to happen, and have more meaning when they do.
So find Your People, people. Find them, and allow yourself to be found. Talk accounting with them all night long, over a really good bottle of wine (or the best bottle of wine you can find for under 15 bucks. Whatever). Talk about the things you're passionate about beyond accounting. Ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers instead of waiting for your chance to speak. Open a second bottle if that's what it takes. And when you find them, recognize them. Tell them you've recognized them. Make the effort to stay connected with them. The worst that will happen is that they'll turn out not to be Your People, and you'll need to find new People. The best that can happen is a miracle.