Two myths persist about writers: that our work is a painful, solitary act, and that we oscillate between coffee and whiskey to fend off the self-loathing that gets in the way of creativity. In my experience writing is agonizing, but solitude is a lie. Each book an author pens is the sum of those who nourished the author throughout the publication process. Criticism, gossip, laughter, the feedback of early readers, and the support of neglected lovers—all of it feeds the development of a book.
Each time I pick up a new book I begin at its end, in the acknowledgments section. I judge its content in part by those who assisted the author in creating the body of work. Usually residencies, mentors, grants, professors, and lone individuals come together to assist in the birth of a new book. They are creative doulas. These individuals are not necessarily a part of an institution or organization, but serve the author just the same. They are invaluable—and not easily discoverable. It takes a divine mix of cosmic energy, circumstance, and pure luck to gather a group that can serve as early readers and believers in a book, especially a first book, when you yourself feel the weight of the impossibility of its creation.
For me, finding such a group started with an e-mail. Its first line preview read: “I’m exhausted by this emerging writing ladder!” This captivated me right away. There is a protocol that many writers follow when seeking the professional development and networking necessary to publish a first book. Writers often go to residencies that cost more than they make in a month, while still paying on their loans for overpriced MFA programs, to meet with notable writers who may or may not have the skill sets to comprehend their work. Being a successful writer does not necessarily equate to being a good reader or editor or workshop leader. Many times I’m disappointed by the ease with which racial ignorance seeps from the lips of my favorite authors when I encounter them. (For example, I received feedback from a respected writer suggesting that I will do well because Black books are hot right now; no additional feedback was offered.) It’s a gamble to invest in these writing residencies given the boarding fees, application fees, and time it takes preparing statements to fit application questions. Most days I feel like I spend more time writing proposals and pitching than actually writing my book. The process is a creative drain in a competitive, white-washed industry. My work in progress is mostly about the ways that slavery, intergenerational traumas, and poverty affects the Black family dynamic, and before receiving the e-mail about this idea for a first book writer’s club, I had mostly given up on the idea of soliciting notable strangers for feedback.
The last line of the message read: “Want to do our own residency this summer?”
Everyone on the e-mail thread was a queer person of color working toward their debut. None of us knew each other, but we all trusted the integrity and spirit of the person sending us the message, Brian Lin, with whom we each had relationships individually. Brian is a PhD student composing his first novel. He took the lead and arranged a Google Hangout for us, complete with introduction questions to break the ice. There was Loryn Lopes, the poet and screenplay writer in New York City who was the master of memes in our group chat. Claire Calderón, from Oakland, would work on a genre-fluid manuscript on family ghosts and buried secrets in Chile. Chanté Reid rang in from Providence, Rhode Island, where one can imagine what it’s like to be a queer Black woman writing a novel about a South Bronx community disrupted by violent government design of the Bronx expressway. She kept us motivated with daily texts referencing the wise pop poets of the nineties: “As the great Martin Mystical King Jr. once said, ‘shake it fast, but watch yourself.’” Rose Gorman was working on a nonfiction book rooted in Black family dynamics in Detroit. She always had connection difficulties so we were never sure if she was a bot or not, and assumed that maybe Brian had created an alter ego. (We never actually saw her face when she connected online, just a granulated profile image indicating that Rose was on the call.) I called in from Harlem to speak about my collection of essays on Black motherhood.
Before our first call, we started a Google document to begin a conversation about everyone’s expectations:
- What do you love about your work?
- What keeps you coming back to it?
- What was a recent revelation about the work to you?
- What tools have you gained in the process of writing it?
- What do you want it to do in the world?
- How have people mis-recognized your work? (What is it not?)
In the first call we established immediately that there was an undeniable cohesiveness not only with our intentions but also the fluidity in which our work all spoke to one another. All empaths who love literature and are serious about writing, despite the fact that there is little money in the industry. The formation was seamless because we found one another through a process that helped minimize the initial anxiety and discomfort usually associated with attending a writing residency. “The residency’s collaborative, DIY nature made room for us to imagine alternative pathways to creating our first books,” Rose explains. “A community-based writing practice can exist and be valued alongside one rooted in theory and academia.”
Our ultimate goal was to meet for a weeklong residency experience we would collectively craft. We narrowed our location options down to three cities: Detroit, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Each person was to take the lead on different tasks such as budget, searching for a residency location, planning activities in the cities, programming and scheduling, and arranging food. We planned for each day of the residency to be led by a different group member. Members of the residency who were awarded summer grants would share these funds with the group, because money and capitalism will always find a way to disrupt progress. These communal funds would help subsidize costs for members who needed assistance paying for flights, accommodations or food and, of course, wine and whiskey.
In following in the rich history of collective empowerment, we traced the steps of leaders like Audre Lorde, who wrote of the power of interdependency in her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”: “It is a way to freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is the difference between the passive be and the active being.” We were challenged to imagine what a space would look where we didn’t have to explain, prove, or make white readers believe in the range and depth of our characters; we were challenged to de-canon, a concept about which the writer Matthew Salesses created an entire essay series. We referenced collectives, not just literary, including the Spiral art collective, the Combahee River Collective, the Dark Room Collective, and others to focus our intentions for the space.
Since we had spent more than three months convening online and making arrangements, when we finally all met in person in Minneapolis, the bond was already established. As an icebreaker we took the Buzzfeed quiz “Which Character From the “The L Word” Are You?” and reported our results. We each brought literature with us to create our own diverse house library for reference and leisure reading. The library was varied, and just one book was brought by many of us: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, our genesis text. Each evening we convened around the table for symposium style craft discussion that we all took turns leading. Our conversations began more broadly and naturally narrowed into our individual project’s needs.
It is often the case that even when given the option for free thought, social norms can cloud one’s imagination. So we kept coming back to Toni Morrison, who had passed away shortly before we gathered, who said, “I’m gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.” We would say to one another daily, “Who are you speaking to? Because I can hear you clearly.” We recognized that when we begin to over-explain, the text becomes flattened. Loses its rhythm, its bounce, its buoyancy. While sitting around the dining table in Minneapolis we realized that some readers cannot follow the work when they can’t catch the beat. What happens when your reader has no rhythm? They cannot comprehend the content if they cannot locate the baseline. (That discovery coupled with our residency address, 808 West 28th Street, is how we arrived at our name, 808.) When the work feels fluid and true, that’s when the center will come. Trust the process, ignore the white gaze that seeps into your writing room, and the rest will be glorious.
The community we’ve built, as our retreat and as our connection extends beyond it, feels safe and nurturing in ways that normative spaces fail to be. “By eliminating the application process and coming together around shared goals and values rather than through external evaluation,” Rose explains, “we came to the space ready to work without feeling the need to perform ourselves or rank our literary achievements against those of our peers.” Through collective consciousness-raising we were able to direct the energy we typically spend on explaining ourselves toward reaching greater depths in our work. Because our projects share risks in form and content, the space encouraged us to write even more boldly, rather than shrinking. We will continue to meet annually (as life and COVID-19 permit), and when each of our books are published, 808 will be found in the acknowledgements as reminder of those early days of doubt and insecurity, and our collective determination to shine brilliantly from the margins.
Sasha Bonét is a storyteller based in New York City. She is currently at work on a narrative collection of essays positioned as an intergenerational conversation on Black motherhood and memory. Her website is sashabonet.com.Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Claire Calderón is from the Bay Area. It has been changed to more accurately state that Claire is from Oakland.