Are Writing Communities “A Game for the Healthy”?
The Blunt Instrument on Writing with Chronic Illness and Disability
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Dear Blunt Instrument,
You’ve written before about the importance of community building in the writing world, so I thought you might be able to help me with my dilemma. Like more than a few of your readers, I am chronically ill. My level of energy, and ability, waxes and wanes. When I’m having a good day, I try to earn some money; when I can, I write. But I don’t find myself with a great deal of energy for praising the work of others, or engaging too profoundly with social media (don’t have the strength or spirit to tweet all day long, for example).
Since my handicap prevents me from socializing in person, except on rare occasions, I find myself feeling resentful. I’ve had some ability to publish but not very much. I send out a good deal of work, but I’m certain that if I was healthier I’d be able to shake more hands, feel the energy to devote to professional friendships, and learn more about the larger writing world.
I grow discouraged. No doubt readers with significant disabilities (blindness, deafness, clinical depression, anxiety) will see themselves in my story. Working professionally at any level is difficult. Writing is difficult. Add community building on top of that and … well, it all seems like a game for the healthy and energetic.
How do you think I should look at my situation differently? Or shouldn’t I? Ought I to just accept that, absent the strong community ties that put publishing within the reach of so many, I’m simply bound to obscurity? Or is there a secret door somewhere I’m missing?
A Devoted Reader
I sympathize with your situation. I believe community has numerous benefits for writers, but finding one isn’t necessarily easy. Like other parts of the writing life (actually writing, editing and revising, sending out your work, and so on) community building takes a lot of time and effort and can take a long time to pay off. It’s the long con that’s not a con.
If you live in a small, non-literary town or for any reason can’t leave your house much, social media is a great alternative to IRL local communities. But as you say, it still takes time and energy.
Social media is a double-edged sword — yes, it offers community and provides access to writers (and editors, and agents) you admire. But it also fosters competition.
Further, social media is a double-edged sword — yes, it offers community and provides access to writers (and editors, and agents) you admire. But it also fosters competition. The more writers you follow, the more you’re confronted with other people’s success; it’s hard not to compare yourself and feel rejected and discouraged at least some of the time.
Because you have a chronic illness, my advice to you is different than it would be for just any writer. I’ll suggest two different paths you could take that I think could improve your situation.
The first path would be to specifically seek out communities built by, for, and of other writers dealing with similar challenges. To name a few examples:
Deaf Poets Society is a literary magazine devoted to work by people with disabilities (not just the deaf). (From the first issue’s editors’ note: “As founding editors — and as sick and disabled poets ourselves — we’ve set our sights on building a platform to amplify the voices of our fellow crips. This issue is our first go at achieving this goal, and we hope that it cracks that proverbial ceiling of beliefs about the disabled body. To say the least, we found reading work from every poet who submitted a challenging, critical process — and, above all, as a gift to ourselves and our community.”)
We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots org that promotes diversity in children’s books, defining diversity as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” They recently published a roundtable discussion on perspectives of authors with disabilities.
This is just scratching the surface. You can also search social media sites and blogging platforms (especially social platforms like Medium) for likeminded writers and readers that share a similar illness or disability. By changing the makeup of your community, you may feel less that community is “a game for the healthy and energetic” and more that it’s a way to make friends you can actually relate to and who might offer encouragement.
The second path would be to distance yourself from social media. Yes, community has value, but it’s not actually a requirement; there are successful authors who avoid social media (and the social world) entirely. And connections are hardly a guaranteed route to publishing. You may find that you’re less distracted and more focused — especially important when your free time and energy are limited — when you get away from social media.
If you go down this path — really, either path — it’s important that you give yourself a break and come to terms with the likelihood that success will take longer for you than for someone in perfect health, all other things being equal. And that’s okay. I mean, it sucks, and it’s not fair, but it is actually okay*. As writers we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to publish faster and more frequently. But most of the time, the buzz of getting something published is short-lived, and people move on to the next thing quickly. (Often, we’re not comparing ourselves to a single other writer but all writers everywhere at once, which is why it feels like we can’t possibly keep up.)
Think about the last great book you read — do you care how old the author was when they wrote it or how frequently they publish new stuff? I don’t. If anything I’m more inspired by authors that take decades to finish a book, or that don’t find success until later in life. My hope for you as a writer is that your ultimate goal is to connect with readers. If it takes longer to make your work as good as it can be and then to find the right publisher, then let it take longer. There’s no deadline for writing a great book.
*I should clarify that it’s not okay if you’re actively being discriminated against by editors, but I don’t get the sense that’s the problem you’re having. As a side note, if you’re submitting work to a publication whose editors specifically say they’re looking for work from disabled (or “diverse” in general) authors, consider mentioning your illness/disability in your cover letter. On the other hand, there is of course no need to disclose this information if that makes you uncomfortable.
The Blunt Instrument