Community Over Competition

This piece is featured in the collaborative project between WhyNot and Project See and B for Propel Youth Arts WA 2024 KickstART Festival in Western Australia.

Words by Em (they/them) 24 WA

Communities of practice are an essential element of a writer’s career. It’s a vulnerable yet rewarding experience, finding someone to read your writing, and someone whose writing you can read, it pulls you out of the silo and places you in front of the mirror. When community is centred, writing stops looking like a chore, becoming an action that ties you into the collective. Together you practice over and over. Sometimes it expands into regular critique groups, the sharing of opportunities, and a familiar face to share cask wine with at a book launch.

When I’ve found community, the hard work and the good work merge together. I have realised that the benefits of trusting people with my work and asking for feedback are less about my writing and more about the act of trust.

Before, I always felt privileged when receiving someone’s draft, but ashamed when giving mine to others. The shame subsides when the trust grows. I handle their writing with care, and they do the same with mine. Feedback builds instead of breaks. I celebrate their publications, and they celebrate mine. I laugh at the in-jokes scribbled in the margins, delight when I see a submission window I know someone has a perfectly themed piece for. The candor and rapport we develop blooms into solidarity, acting with a shared vision of preserving the spaces we’ve created, and keeping them safe. We become friends, and that bond deserves protection, too.

Writers start to get in trouble when they start to see other people’s wins as their losses. Some let competition cloud their commitment to the community, instead adopting a last-one-standing strategy. I’ve seen how writers who are desperate to have their work accepted and recognised start to isolate themselves, growing bitter over rejections and refusing feedback on their work. Expressing disdain towards writers who have made career progress or not sharing opportunities, thinking it betters one’s own chances. It gets nasty, and quickly, too.

Emerging writers have a task; to buck the need to compete in favour of finding community. Rebuking the community leaves people in an echo chamber, back in the silo, instead of engaging in the reciprocal tasks of reading, editing, consoling, and celebrating. Taking turns means it always comes back around.

Almost paradoxically, I hope emerging writers can recognise that communities are not unconditional. The reciprocity is a requirement, the engagement is essential. When you back out of engaging with your fellow writers, they do not forget that sting. When you gossip about someone’s deservingness for an award or a grant, they remember. We are writers, but we are also each other’s readers.

In times when I feel the need to compete, I remind myself that, if you cannot bring yourself to champion others, who will be there to champion you? Of course, no one owes another anything, but that is the beauty of a creative writing community; we do not owe each other anything, but we do it anyway.

The love of the craft is a pillar of the work that we do, and when the community thrives, so does the industry. Our successes are collective, taking turns to be the individual, but most often taking the role of the audience. I hope that those who feel prickled by other’s successes come to find out how nice it feels to applaud a friend.

 

Illustration by Jodi. You can find more of her work on Instagram @jodi_ellin

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