Saturday, July 13, 2013

Community of Practice

This paper will be about a writer's group a friend of mine belonged to. (I've been involved in fiction-writing groups for decades, so I have kind of a broad experience with the in-person kind, but not a lot with the online variety.) This writer (Jenny) and I have been friends-- actually, we met online! We were both in an online community back in the early 90s-- we were real pioneers. GEnie-- it had "roundtables" for romance writers (us), mystery writers, sf/f writers. I belonged to all of them as I wasn't sure what I'd end up writing (and what do you know, my first mystery novel, after 30 years! comes out next month, so I guess it worked). And as far as communities of practice, two of these roundtables-- Romex and SFFnet-- were by far ever the greatest discussions of popular genre fiction since, who knows, Dickens and Trollope were matching pints at the Old Cheshire on Fleet Street. Wow-- there's no record, of course, of all that incredible discussion, but I was in charge of several "topics" and remember how breathtaking it was-- mostly published authors talking very intensely about HOW they wrote, how they characterized, how they plotted.

Anyway, Jenny and I met there, but long after GEnie went the way of Lycos (so many corpses in this internet history), we stayed friends, visiting each other, emailing through major life traumas, all that. A long, long relationship. We're nothing alike-- she's a NY Jew, I'm a small town Catholic girl-- but we actually -- long before we met-- attended the same university (U of Chicago), years apart. She hated it, I loved it (it changed a lot in between).  Oddly enough. She lived in a commune, which was my dream when I was growing up in the tail end of the fun times, aka the 60s.

So... I got published very early-- my prose style has always been, if I  may say so, very graceful and always got me farther than I really deserved. So I had a Regency romance out in 1984 or so, when I was really young. And her first novel came out recently when she was 60! But she was always one of the most cogent commentators on how fiction worked, and she really just needed to wait until she found an editor that understood her work. Point is-- we were always in contact, always brainstorming plots. We had our own little community of practice. She recently sent me a compilation of all the emails we'd exchanged about the book that she eventually got published, and there, amidst all the book talk, were emails about our marriages and our kids (about the same age), and among other things, I realized that the kid I always thought of as an eternal source of worry was no worry then, and the "good kid" (as he still calls himself :) was angry at me all those years. Weird how the memory works, but can't argue with contemporaneous emails! And we were SO honest with each other, so I guess it was true, that the sweet son was really sour.And I might owe the other one an apology for remembering him as so difficult!

At some point, Jenny joined this group centered in the UK, I think (online, I mean), where she hoped to regain that Genie level of discussion. I think the group wasn't like that, but was much more interactive, focused on critiquing rather than discussion-- that is, participants post their chapters and others give helpful comments. After a couple years on this site, she sold her book, and I've always thought maybe this was a really successful group as she told me about others who sold their books after participating in this group. So I thought recently I'd write about this (as I'd have some distance -- it's not my group), but now she tells me that the group got all commercial and those who really connected and wrote well withdrew and work together but outside the group. (I don't know the details yet.) One of the problems we're seeing a lot with online groups is that they start more or less as voluntary groups with one leader or a few leaders, and then as it becomes successful, everyone thinks, "Facebook!" and there's an attempt to cash in. I don't blame them, but "monetizing" a group so often ruins it (cf. Goodreads) as the purpose of the group stops being whatever and starts being "making a profit" or "selling a service" or "attracting more members".

We'll see. I'll interview her and go there and actually join the group and check it out.

I keep running into the kind of ethical issues I never had when working on my thesis about Edgar Allan Poe (long dead guy, that is). Even blogging here about my sons (who are both grown and wonderful men, btw) feels like it could be a bit unethical. But writing about my friend and her colleagues at Authonomy-- hmm. I'm not used to that. I do write about my students sometimes, but I'm careful to disguise the situation (like changing "her" to "him") enough that I don't know they'd even realize I was writing about them. And I'm not writing about THEM but the writing/teaching/editing situation.

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