Holding the Umbrella: Thoughts on Writing Community
I’ve been thinking a lot about umbrellas lately.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to study wildlife in Malaysian Borneo while on assignment for Nat Geo Wild. On one leg of the trip, our ecotour group stayed deep in the rainforest along the Lower Kinabatangan River, a body of water that stretches about 350 miles. While there, we studied diverse animal species – such as orangutans, kingfishers, and proboscis monkeys – but we all deeply hoped to spot a Borneo pygmy elephant.
Days of unsuccessful tracking went by, an experience that I recounted in this blog post, only stumbling upon signs of the passing elephant herd, like prints in mud, dung, and crushed vegetation. On the final day of navigating the river, we got caught in a sudden, windy storm. We were unprepared and our spirits quickly faded. We were all ready to retreat to the lodge. Just as our boat turned around, our guide got wind of an elephant sighting thirty minutes upriver. We ventured north, fighting bone-chilling wind, pouring rain, and choppy waters in hopes that we’d see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat.
When our boat finally slowed, my seatmate Bob – a lawyer from Baltimore, who sat next to me by chance – opened up a small, flimsy umbrella. Together beneath its protective canopy we watched a herd of elephants snorkel across Menangul Creek...
The whole time, Bob held the umbrella above my head, positioning it to protect my equipment so I could snap photographs and capture video. He knew the moment was sacred – fleeting, and magical, and important for us to witness and me to document. When we went out on the boat that day, I didn't know that I'd need Bob there for this assignment – a guy who I'd never met before the expedition, and who I've never seen again since. But there, deep in the rainforest, surrounded by these majestic, beautiful creatures, Bob and I were a team.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because, in the journey towards publication in the children’s book industry, we’re all passing that umbrella. Sometimes we’re the ones holding it for our friends, shielding them from the storm of self-doubt when they’re in a dark place. Other times we desperately need the shelter of encouragement. An umbrella can take different forms. Maybe it's an uplifting text message, a homemade cup of coffee, email to a favorite author, or simple mention on Twitter (thanks for the word sprint session, Aaron!). When an umbrella comes from a place of truth, a little encouragement can go a long way. It’s armor to our angst.
One of the things I’m most grateful for is the writing community I’ve discovered in New York City (and I met almost all of them through SCBWI!). Our little band of buddies meets up every Wednesday from about 6-10pm for what we call Write Nite. While locales, times, and attendees have changed since its 2011 inception, our Write Nite has always been about building community and growing productivity – facing your creative peers, channeling that inner muse, and getting to work. I could go on and on about how awesome these ladies are and how great Write Nite is. We're at all stages of the process – published, agented, unagented, on submission, first-drafting, revising. These ladies totally inspire me.
Life is crazy – I have a toddler son. I'm balancing a few jobs. Sometimes my calendar is so penmarked with obligations that our lovely, optional Write Nite gets pushed to the side. So I can't always make it. But last night I was there, focused on finishing this massive rewrite of my YA manuscript (as in, I completely dumped the first draft, saved the log line, and started over from scratch. Talk about killing your darlings!). At one point I turned to my friend Kathryn and said, “I can do this, right?” and she looked me in the eyes and said firmly, without hesitation, “You can do this.”
She held an umbrella over my head with those four words. We closed out the café and I knocked out 1,600 words, and that’s after deleting nearly 1,000 in this manuscript. And when Kathryn and I strolled past Bryant Park to our respective subway stations, I felt awesome. So thanks for cheering me on, friend.
Sure – there are times when fighting through the process all by your lonesome has its merits. We face fears. Learn about ourselves and what not. That's a whole other blog post. But there are a lot of times when we need that umbrella to get the job done. I needed it that day on the river in Malaysia, and I needed it last night in midtown Manhattan. I hope that I can hold the umbrella for others as they follow their dreams, the way they've done for me.
In what ways have you felt supported on your writing journey? What type of encouragement to you find especially helpful when you're stuck in a slump, or discouraged about the process, industry, rejection, project, etc? Would love to hear!
And.... cue Rihanna!
*UPDATE* Bob and I have reconnected! Look, he even commented on this blog post, how cool is that? With his permission, I'm adding this photo of him, below – I snapped this after the rain passed on our elephant trek. Just so you know he wasn't stuck under an umbrella the whole time :)