From Poets & Writers, Inc.

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On Community

Susan Isaacs is the chair of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors. She is the author of thirteen novels, including Compromising Positions, Lily White, and As Husbands Go. All of her novels have been New York Times best-sellers. This essay is adapted from remarks she presented at Poets & Writers’ annual dinner on March 11, 2014.

In that serene period after Gutenberg and before e-readers, I was on yet another book tour—this time in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Since I had the weekend off, I accepted an invitation from a colleague of my brother-in-law’s to visit him and his wife in the Midlands: He was a solicitor. She kept horses. (Where I grew up, that was considered more a perversion than a pursuit.)

Anyway, they used the word jolly about what fun it would be. As I later learned, they were hosting a hunt, so not only could I experience the jollity of riding around in someone’s Land Rover following humans, horses, and beagles chasing down the doomed fox, but I would be one of the guests at the hunt dinner the night before.

Dinner was okay. The food was a bit on the chewy side, including the custard, and while no one committed the sin of extroversion, they were pleasant enough. Certainly they seemed relieved that the book I was promoting was a murder mystery, not one of those bleak Thomas Hardy things written to get people upset. Afterward, we withdrew for more alcohol and conversation. I was seated beside a woman who seemed more shy than most, but sweet tempered. She spoke in a breathy style, which allowed her time to access her vocabulary. I asked her about the custom of braiding horses’ manes. She asked me where I got my ideas.

And then…. It seemed both of us were at a loss about where to take the conversation, so without thinking, I asked the New York question: “What do you do?”

“Do? Umm…sometimes…sometimes I paint birds.”

It’s moments like that when I realize how much we are products not only of our culture and economic situation, but also of the communities we choose. In hers, jumping a fence was important; in mine, the choice of first or third person was crucial.

In her world, she might ride alone, maybe do her horse’s hairstyling by herself, but she was part of a community whose purpose—the hunt—was a group affair. And even though her choice of community seemed kind of dopey to me (as no doubt mine did to her), most people do function as she does—as part of a group. Corporate executives, airplane mechanics, teachers, editors: Much of what they do involves collaboration.

How jolly, you might say, but a writer doesn’t collaborate; all he or she needs is software and a room of one’s own.

Well, we certainly work in solitude, but we, too, are part of a community that shares one another’s triumphs, challenges, and defeats. We need one another’s help, and we need Poets & Writers.

Because unlike the horse lady, the would-be poet or the hopeful writer is rarely independently wealthy; for every Beatrix Potter, I bet there are five or ten or twenty J. K. Rowlings. It’s not only money. The same isolation that fosters creation has some downsides. The poet does not necessarily live among others who urge him on: “Good! Write some more!” Rather, directly or in-, they want to know: “When are you going to get a real job?” In the aspiring writer’s world, where are the wise practitioners to pass along to her the tricks of the trade? Also, neither knows how to find an audience. After spending two months or ten years on a work, how do you get it out there? When you’re out of the loop, there are questions that seem so arcane that you sense there are only two writers in Brooklyn and maybe a poet on Islamorada who know the answer.

That’s where Poets & Writers comes in. With this stellar magazine, its gem of a website, its new live programs, and its support for readings and workshops that help writers connect with audiences, Poets & Writers offers a community—a place to find like-minded souls who talk the talk we long to hear. Poets & Writers is your resource, and also your community. It’s mine, too. I treasure its practical wisdom, its skill in helping outsiders become insiders, its furtherance of fellowship.

And all for art’s sake: not a single stressed beagle or discommoded fox.

Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold