The Importance of Meaningful Writing Communities by Khaliah Williams

Posted by February 21st, 2014

Khaliah Williams author photoSometime in the autumn of 2006, I decided that I wanted to be a writer.  I took several writing workshops at The New School in New York City, where I worked. I often found myself scribbling down ideas that would be the foundation of my novel (still in progress) in notebooks during my hour long commute between the village and The Bronx.  Getting in the way of my writing ambitions was the problem of my full time job. My writing life, I wrote in my graduate school applications, exists in stolen moments at the office and crowded subway cars. I wanted more.

In February 2007, Lan Samantha Chang gave me a way out when she offered me a spot in the fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I quit my job, bought a car, gave up my large and cheap apartment in Kingsbridge, and made the seventeen-hour trek from New York City to Iowa City. I didn’t write much my first year. I was a mixture of insecure, lonely, and worst of all: heartbroken. Those feelings paralyzed me. In that first year I produced one short story, added a scene to the first chapter of the novel, and gave the novel a title. I wrote more my second year. I moved into a one bedroom apartment and started working at the large wooden desk I inherited from a graduating workshopper. The insecurity remained, but the loneliness and heartbreak (mostly) dissipated. I had the good fortune to study with Scott Spencer, who only wanted to see new work from his students. At the end of the year I had  produced several new stories. I changed the structure of my novel and in doing so I made discoveries about my characters that helped move the story forward. I made the kind of progress that I could measure in a page count that went into the triple digits. I was nowhere near a completed draft but I had something of substance, something I could build on. Life was so good in Iowa that I stayed a third year living off a grant, adjunct work, and a part time job in a yarn shop. After a year the grant money disappeared and I learned rather quickly that one cannot live on yarn alone. I had to return to the real world.

I moved to Baltimore, Maryland to teach high school English and work as a college counselor. I found myself writing less and less.  When my alarm went off at 5 o’clock in the morning, if I felt up to it, if life permitted it, I would get up immediately, make a cup of tea and sit in front of my computer and write. Most days this didn’t happen. Most days, if I managed to get up that early it was because I had essays to grade, emails to write to the frantic parents of college bound seniors, or letters of recommendations to pen on behalf of their children.  My writing life, the one I had left a job and a city for, had once again begun to disappear.

Last January an acquaintance on Facebook posted the deadline for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction’s inaugural residency in Taos, New Mexico. Though I didn’t think I stood a chance (I felt like an out of practice runner at the starting line of a marathon), I put together an excerpt of what I thought was my best work and sent in an application.  I waited for the notice of rejection. I reasoned that this would be good for me—writers and rejection go hand in hand after all. Applying had made me feel like I could call myself a writer again. But In late April I learned that I had been accepted. In July, I boarded a plane for Albuquerque. The insecurity tied to worm its way back into my thoughts but the excitement I felt about what was waiting for me outweighed any apprehension. I happily climbed into a rental car with three other writers I’d never met before and made the two hour trek to Taos.

Being selected as a Kimbilio Fellow is perhaps the best gift I’ve received as a writer since leaving Iowa. Founder David Haynes (author of A STAR IN THE FACE OF THE SKY) and faculty members Z.Z. Packer and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, along with the 17 other Fellows in Residence, helped reaffirm what I had forgotten in the frenzy of college recommendations and weak thesis sentences.  I remembered what a writer whom I very much respect told me before I even applied to MFA programs: I had to make writing my job even when it didn’t pay the bills.  At Kimbilio, I was reminded of how beneficial the workshop setting could be. The morning craft classes helped me get back into the habit of thinking about every sentence I wrote and what they meant to the larger work. I came back home to Baltimore reinvigorated. I wrote until the school year started. I reshaped my novel, edited dozens of pages; I put myself on the path to a completed draft.

Everyone says that being a writer is by its nature a solitary job. You’re alone more often than not. Most of us don’t have an office to show up to, a place outside of our homes where we must clock in Monday through Friday, for the sole purpose of writing. If you do, you are one of the lucky few. What I realized after my Kimbilio experience is that time was not my enemy. Lack of it, though frustrating, was not what I missed most about having a “writing life”.  I missed being around a community of writers, of like-minded people whose work I believed to be as important as my own. So now I am tending to my writing communities as a part of my writing life. My writing community in Baltimore is small, but it is growing. The internet makes it possible for me to be part of  several writing groups that meet online  Some of the best criticism my work has received has come from strangers on the internet. Sites like Book Country are a reminder that there are people out there who care about fiction.  Poets & Writers magazine is one of my constant companions in my never-ending search for community-building opportunities. And my membership in the Kimbilio family is more meaningful to my work than I could every express.

September rolled around and the frenzy of work returned. There were more letters to write than ever before. More stressed out parents and even more stressed out students.  While the environment I work and write in has largely stayed the same, I have changed. Most days, when my alarm sounds at 5 o’clock in the morning, I get up, make a cup of tea and write.

Originally from Philadelphia, Khaliah Williams resides in Baltimore where she works as a college counselor and English teacher. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has been published in the Hawaii Women’s Journal and Frontier Psychiatrist. Currently working on a novel and collection of short stories, she occasionally blogs about her travels, writing, knitting, and her obsession with subscription boxes at www.writesreadsknits.blogspot.com.

Want to apply to be a Kimbilio Fellow for 2014? Applications are being accepted now. Go here for more information.

Looking for a 24/7 writing community? Book Country is here for you. Already a Book Country member, and looking for a writing conference? Check out this discussion board. Be sure and let the community know if you are planning to attend a conference this year!

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