“Fostering Literary Community in the Digital Age”

A writer is accustomed to solitude. Writing requires a certain amount of isolation in order for words to become stories, poems and essays. But then the writing is done, and the writer is left to figure out what to do with the work. Whether the desire is to publish, share only with close friends, or keep the work tucked away in a drawer until its time comes, the very act of writing implies a literary connection to the world and to other written works. We read to influence our writing and write in hopes of being read, and this feedback loop takes place on our own terms. Direct audience or no, connectivity is unavoidable so long as we actively read and write. But if we are proactive in our online and in-person communities, the literary world swells.

I recently returned to my alma mater, Otterbein University, for a two-day conference on literary citizenship in which I was one of four writers including Ladan Osman, Becca J.R. Lachman, and Jennifer Roberts, who engaged college-level and high school students in conversations on the topic of literary citizenship. What is it? We discussed. Where is this literary community? We scratched our heads and discussed. How do we foster the growth of a literary community in order to ensure that everything we do as writers grows and evolves; how do we learn from others’ works and not limit ourselves to the solitude writing demands; how do we support each other; how do we keep going?

The weekend consisted of a few panels, a few talks, and readings. But the most inspiring aspect was the discussion about what to do next. I want to share some of what we came up with here, as many apply to the landscape both dynamic communities such as the one at Otterbein University and everything that comes outside of such campuses. So to balance isolation and connection, take one or all of the following as suggestions:

  1. Use technology to connect – There are valuable resources online to connect to the larger world. Engage in writing sites, such as Fictionaut, Zoetrope, and private online writing groups. If you can’t find one you like, start one. Meet people, associate.
  2. Read actively and widely – Read widely and do not limit yourself to any particular gender, location, genre, or nationality. Read what you love, but also read what you may come to love. Read with your phone and other potential distractions off, with full attention. Active reading means full attention, which must be done mindfully in the tech age.
  3. Listen to those around you, but remain honest – Imitation is a form of flattery, but it is also a form of annoyance. Listen to those around you, but trust in your own voice. You have a unique tale to tell, and if you take the time to tell it well the world will want to read it.
  4. Support others – Writers too often sell themselves and their work short. Don’t do that, and don’t let your friends do that. Don’t let writers you admire give you their books! Buy them! Share their posts (within reason), support them to the point you feel comfortable doing so.
  5. Do not overextend – Conversely, constantly supporting others without attention to your own work will burn you out. Be supportive, but also know when to say no. It’s okay. Selling yourself short is just as harmful as selling others short.
  6. Be proactive – Be an extension of your writing, and if you are motivated to share it, do what it takes. Make promotional materials, take your books with you to events, and share your writing with those who it may interest.
  7. Work with non-writers – Art is everywhere, and stories are not limited, nor should they be, to writer audiences. Learn about those around you who are not writers. Tell them about your work, write work that is inspired by non-writers, and work on collaborative projects.
  8. Take a moment to evaluate your contribution to the literary landscape – It can be easy to get caught up in one aspect of the literary world (for instance, promoting a book), but don’t live in the extremes. Promote and write and support and read. These things can be balanced, and when they are they become all the more fulfilling
  9. Make a plan – Decide how you can become a reasonably active literary citizen over the next year. List realistic goals, such as going to a writing conference, helping a friend proof her book before she sends it out to agents, asking for help with your own manuscript, submitting more, reading more, etc… List your intentions.

These are just a handful of ideas to begin. If you have more to add, please let me know. Being a good literary citizen does not mean reposting every post or promoting at every turn. It does not even mean buying every book written by someone you know (this gets harder and harder every year you write and network), but it means focusing on what moves you and nurturing those who inspire you. It means reading and writing and inspiring and teaching and communicating. It means engaging with the world that is immediate and the one that often seems too large. It means being honest and proactive and present.


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Jen Knox

About Jen Knox

Jen Knox is the author of After the Gazebo, a collection of short fiction. Her writing can be found in The Adirondack Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, Narrative Magazine, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. Jen directs the Writers-in-Communities Program at Gemini Ink and works as a freelance writing coach. For more about Jen, find her here: www.jenknox.com