Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

The Danger of the Incestuous Writing Community

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I see it happen sometimes, especially on social media. One writer recommends a book or tool or blog, and then that person’s community recommends the same thing, and then they recommend, and so on.  This is beautiful. It’s lovely. It’s powerful. It’s community.

But community can also be incestuous. 

It can close us in. Make us insular. It can mean we develop a kind of group-think, and group-think is BAD for writers, especially, because it means we produce boring, unoriginal, imitative work.

I know this experience first hand. I went to an amazing Christian college, and I loved every minute there. Many of my closest friends are people I met there.  I learned. I grew. I found a way to live my faith that was true for me. But I wasn’t often challenged. I wasn’t pushed to meet people who didn’t hold – at least in the most foundational of ways – the same worldview as I did.  To a great extent, this was my own doing. I didn’t want to leave campus – it was safe and insulated – I called it “bubble world,” and I liked my bubble.

But my bubble sheltered me too much. So when I left the bubble, the full reality of the world smacked me up side the head.  Suddenly, I knew people who were openly gay, people who didn’t believe in God, people who weren’t always that fake nice that so many Christians pretend to be.

So when I went to get my MA and then my MFA, I suddenly had to learn how to be. No longer was it okay for me to just say easy things. I had to push. I had to relearn how to think and explore and challenge ideas because it wasn’t acceptable to just use a Judeo-Christian model of the world. I had to have logic and evidence for my ideas.

On my first day at Antioch University, where I got my MFA, my workshop group consisted of people who were writing about their first lesbian love affair, living in a house haunted by Charles Manson’s victims, having sex that included a variety of vibrating toys (a pig comes to mind now), and the repeated killing of baby mice in a South Dakota farmhouse.  I had written about how I felt I had to sneak away to read Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water at my Christian college because it felt subversive. Whew! I sat stupefied most of the workshop.

But those two years at Antioch, well, they opened my heart in the most profound of ways. I found that I could develop deep, lasting relationships with people whose worldview was quite different than mine, and I found my worldview shifting – not in the basics of my faith – but in the hardline dogma that almost my whole life had taught me. My judgmentalism fell – largely – away. It was beautiful.

So when I see us as writers recommending the same books or the same tools or the same blogs, when I hear us saying we won’t read certain things because they’re hard or non-Christian, when I see us judging other writers because they don’t write the same way we do, I cringe. Because I know what it is to be a part of that bubble. I know what it is to think we’re protecting ourselves by staying in it. And I know what it is to take a giant pin and burst that sucker – there’s beauty, and friendship, and growth, and Christ out there.  We need but see it.

For me, the way out was to push myself. To trust that I could open myself up and not be in danger, that my faith would be intact even as it was stretched. Now,  my writing community and my life in general is full of people who challenge me even as they hold me up. I’m a blessed woman.

When do you find your writing community to be incestuous? What kind of actions do you take to break out of that pattern?

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa

    That anecdote about reading L’Engle is beyond endearing.

    I can’t say I’ve given this too much thought. I tend to read and interact with people who blog about their Christian faith. I’ve often wondered if I revealed myself as “too” Catholic if I wouldn’t fit in. (That’s oddly juvenile language to use about it, but I think it gets the point across).
    Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa recently posted…Maybe I should have messed up my life more.My Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I fear you may be right, Margaret. I get angry when I hear the idea that Catholics aren’t Christians . . . but sadly, I hear it too often. And yes, I was cute and naive with my L’Engle on the toilet. :)

  • http://www.heidikreider.com Heidi Kreider

    Antioch?! You are the first person I’ve ever heard that actually attended Antioch College. ;) I love Yellowsprings, Ohio. It’s beautiful!

    I understand the “Christian bubble.” I went to Cedarville College. I grew up in a Christian bubble and actually had it shattered at Cedarville. Strange but true.
    Heidi Kreider recently posted…because I know…My Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Yep, I went to Messiah, and know Cedarville a bit . . . I do think for many the Christian college is eye-opening. . . which is awesome. For me, it wasn’t because I didn’t let my eyes get pried open.

      And yes, LA for me, but same school. We call Yellow Springs the “mother ship.” No grades in LA either though . . .just lots of written feedback, which was amazing for me as a writer.

  • http://www.heidikreider.com Heidi Kreider

    Guess what I just learned… there are two Antioch’s. One in LA.. yours. One in Ohio.. the one I thought you were mentioning. So sorry!
    Heidi Kreider recently posted…because I know…My Profile

  • http://www.caribousmom.com Wendy

    What you say here is meaningful even beyond the writer or blogging communities – I wish the whole world would learn the harm of staying inside a safe bubble and not opening their hearts to everyone, even if their world view is challenged. I live in a neighborhood where most of the families are Christian and homeschoolers. When I first moved here, I was invited to a women’s Bible study group, and I went several times until I finally was not invited anymore because I expressed my world view which is Christian, yet very open to other faiths and lifestyles. I think that my openness felt threatening and challenging to these women who told me they only had Christian friends and did not allow their kids to go to public school because they did not want them exposed to anything counter to their religious beliefs. The whole thing made me sad. Why can’t we hold our own faith and yet accept that other people may see the world differently? I’ve since established a polite relationship with the women in my neighborhood – they don’t shun me, but they don’t include me either. I would love to send them a link to this blog post!
    Wendy recently posted…2013 European Reading ChallengeMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I’m so with you, Wendy. I believe what I believe, and if I thought I was wrong, I would believe something else, BUT I also believe I could be wrong. And I know that if I had been born in India or Australia or Utah, I might believe very differently. I’m not sure when Christians decided that our beliefs meant everyone else was wrong. Fear drives a lot of stupidity. You can join a Bible Study group with me anytime.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com jennifer

    so much smartness here. I think bubbles are nice, for a time, but bubbles restrict, confine, reduce and shelter like a helicopter parent. They rob us of so much richness and texture, so many very cool people, and relationships. Furthermore, it’s the judging that makes me crazy. For a while, and still sometimes, I struggle because I don’t write a Jesus blog, nor do I make bold proclamations about God regularly. I believe in Jesus, but I don’t WRITE overtly about Jesus. And I feel marginalized, and that’s probably mostly on me, but anyway…

    bubbles=bad, open hearted believers=good.
    jennifer recently posted…Opportunity for EmpathyMy Profile

    • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com Tammy Helfrich

      I am with you, Jen. I don’t always make bold proclamations about God either and I am totally okay with it. I believe more in showing people through your love and actions than constantly talking about it. I just had someone review my ebook and make the comment that he realized his ebook was “worthless” because it had no scripture in it, and that I should consider the same. It made me laugh.

      People get safe in bubbles. I love your equation. bubbles=bad, open hearted believers = good
      Tammy Helfrich recently posted…Your dream is important!My Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I’m with you, Jen. I’m a big fan of Jesus, but I think Jesus knows that – I don’t need to throw it out there all the time like some brand. Just be me – and then I hope that my faith comes through . . if it needs to.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com Katie Axelson

    Yes, it definitely can. I also feel like sometimes online groups get clique-ish. Not intentionally but we’re always talking to the same people (which is what a clique is). Yes, friendships are good but there needs to be branching out, especially when it’s so easy to unfollow someone who you feel is rude.
    Katie Axelson recently posted…Wonder JacketMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Exactly, Katie. In this world where friendship seem to begin and end so quickly, we need broadness so that we aren’t damaged by that quickness and so that we don’t find ourselves so insulated that we can’t see new things. Thanks for that.

  • http://aboutproximity.com Lisa

    Such good thoughts, thank you. I appreciate all the comments too. It’s something we have to be so careful about! Some of my blog’s best encouragement has come from people who do not have the same worldview as I do, but also feel drawn to the content. We would all do better to be open and accepting of others.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I absolutely agree, Lisa. I find great strength in people who see from different perspectives. They help me understand my own more fully. Thanks for reading.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com LarryTheDeuce

    I’m not sure I really have a writing community. What I do have though is a growing community of folks who I love to interact with. I’m not changing what I believe. I’m still the same guy who believes what I have believed for the
    LarryTheDeuce recently posted…How Mary Poppins Helped My Spiritual LifeMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I love that your community is growing, Larry. And while I am comfortable with who I am today, I hope that my interaction with other people changes me, makes me more of who I was created to be. I really hope it does.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com LarryTheDeuce

    Past impteen years. What I have learned/am learning is to be so comfortable with who I am that I interact comfortably with people who I disagree with.

  • http://slateriver.wordpress.com/ Joanne Yeck

    As a lover of images, I love the bubble image. It speaks volumes. Whatever your bubble is, step outside, there’s a great big world out there!
    Joanne Yeck recently posted…Industry in Buckingham CountyMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      OH yes, there is, Joanne. Yes, there is.

  • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com Tammy Helfrich

    Great post, Andi. I believe this spreads to all other areas of our lives too. When we are keeping ourselves in bubbles, it’s so easy to get judgmental and not realize how others live and what they struggle with. I was raised extremely conservative, and I have no intention of ever going back to that! I am so blessed to have community that consists of such a huge variety of people and opinions, and I am thankful for it. I also think it’s how we learn to “agree to disagree.” Great reminders!
    Tammy Helfrich recently posted…Your dream is important!My Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Yes, and yes. All of life needs to be open, Tammy. I couldn’t agree more. Glad both you and I have found our way to that.

  • http://debrasblogpureandsimple.blogspot.com debra

    Tell it girl. This reminds me of the time I was in a Christian blog group and got kicked out because the moderator said my writing wasn’t Christian enough. She said my writing ‘had scatterings of other religions.’ In analyzing her perspective, I realized that unless I quoted only Bible verses and preached to the choir, then I was sometime of a heretic in her eyes. But that’s ok. What others think matters less than what I know to be true of myself.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Oh, that makes my skin crawl, Debra. “Christian enough.” Does writing have to have Jesus and Bible verses in it to, well, have Jesus in it? I just don’t think so. Good for you for being true to yourself.

  • http://8thdayfiction.wordpress.com/ Brian Plank

    Thank you for posting this. So true.

    To this day, I still have very, very mixed feelings about my time at Messiah College. On the one hand, I met some of my best friends there. I met my wife there.

    On the other hand…I saw a lot of the ugliness of bubbles (specifically, the conservative-leaning evangelical Christian one). There’s a long, rambling post there, but I won’t take up the space on your blog.

    And I’ve also seen this ugliness crop up in writers’ communities (the few I’ve dabbled in) and, as an artist, I’ve seen it there, too. Maybe creative people are especially prone to that; I don’t know. “Insular” is the perfect word, though. That’s just exactly what it is sometimes.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed it, and it’s nice to read your post and these other comments and know other people are aware of it and are trying to avoid it. I do my best, with varying degrees of success on any given day.
    Brian Plank recently posted…He Had Hundreds Of ThemMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      It’s so easy to be comfortable with our bubbles – that’s what I learned at Messiah, Brian. But I’m so glad I had the chance to learn, too, that there is amazing stuff out there. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • http://FindStuff2Read.com Shannon M. Howell

    Goodness no! I don’t find my writing community incestuous or insular at all.

    Of course, part of that has to do with the fact that (at least it seems to me) a good number of writers who are online are Christian, and I am not (though I seldom bring it up as I wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable in that particular way… and truth be told, a small part of me believes that I will loose readers who otherwise would have no issue with me).

    Still, there’s such a variety of people that it simply can’t be that insular. Sure there’s a “core” of people I hang out with more than others, and we all tend to like and follow many of the same blogs/FB/Twitter/etc. Still, I know some of these people are raging liberals and others raging conservatives. I know some who speak of spirituality all the time and others who really just want to build better sentences.

    Of course, all this should be taken with a grain of salt, since I’m not challenging and pushing in the same way – not even close. Of course, my main WIP takes place in a fictional land with dragons, centaurs, and the like… so I can avoid things like debating gun control when it comes to talking about my writing.

    Instead, my fear is that my personal life has become too insular. Not that I don’t have friends who disagree with me and each other about various things, but most people have the same basic leanings. I’d really like to vary it, but unfortunately, many people seem to take disagreement with a position as license to be rude (at best).

    I’ve had to “hide” many friends’ posts on facebook because they were downright offensive in their assumption that 1.) everyone agrees with them 2.) their position is obviously right 3.) anyone who disagrees with them is a moron (at best). I’d have less trouble if there was discussion, but there’s not.

    For example, there was a Facebook Obama thing before the election. It listed one of his accomplishments as something about securing nuclear materials. Several people posted it with insults at anyone who would vote for Romney. Unfortunately, there was a case of missing nuclear material in Texas about a year ago that, to my knowledge, has not been found. So, while I don’t have a problem with the position, their vote, etc (and I may or may not have voted similarly), I do have a problem with the knowledge that if I were to question or push on the claim, I’d be insulted.

    Why do I bring this up? I think insularity is less of a problem for writers (particularly online) than it is for the population in general. I think when we see it in our artistic communities, it is a reflection of the more general problem. I also think it would *appear* more often in creative communities because, let’s be honest, it’s much less likely to come up in the course of business in more material-based fields (grocery store, construction, finance, etc). But when we writers discuss the human condition, such things tend to pop up. So, probably a general problem that is apparent more in our artistic communities, but only due to opportunity to express.
    Shannon M. Howell recently posted…Review: Year of the Hyenas by Brad GeagleyMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I”m glad to hear you have an open writing community, Shannon. That’s wonderful. I do disagree, however, that writers are in some way exempt. I think we can become just as insulated as anyone else when we close ourselves off to ideas or writers or perspectives because of anything – faith, culture, gender, etc. You’re right – this is a problem everywhere, but as a writer, I just see it more in that community for me, and I fight hard against it.

      • http://FindStuff2Read.com Shannon M. Howell

        I agree entirely that writers are not exempt. I just think that because writing makes us think about people – how they work, what motivates them, and why they do things – it makes us a LITTLE bit more empathetic.

        Or maybe I’m just optimistic about it :)
        Shannon M. Howell recently posted…Teaser: Ferrasium, Book 1 of The Windflowers Trilogy by Wendy ScottMy Profile

  • http://unchainedfaith.com Amy

    I thought a lot about this, and I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I agree that we can end up inside bubbles if we’re not intentional about staying out of them. I have certainly seen this in churches, and I agree about the Christian college experience (I went to Roberts Wesleyan College).

    On the other hand, I have found a lot of freedom as a writer. I never thought I would find the kind of open-ended community that I’ve experienced. I have a few writer friends offline, and an ever-expanding group of people online. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the verge of having too many people around me, because I can’t read everyone’s blog every day or offer critique or editing on everyone’s stories every day–no matter how much I wish I could! I worry about offending or putting people off because they think I’m ignoring them, when the reality is that there is just too much good stuff out there to enjoy.

    What I’ve found in person is more difficult. The only local writers’ group is “closed,” and you have to apply to get in. They only take a certain number of writers on the grounds that they can’t “help” too many people, and they will only take “serious” writers–by which they mean (defined by their web page) what they consider “good.” There was a long, long list of rules for participation. Talk about creating an incestuous, insular group!

    Outside of that, I haven’t found the writers I know on- and off-line to be like that at all. I feel blessed and encouraged in my journey.
    Amy recently posted…The time it was my faultMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I know what you mean, Amy – obviously, my writing community is broad and deep, and yes, I have trouble keeping up. Maybe that’s why that group is so closed – they want to do well by the people involved. Still, it’s frustrating when you’re looking for that community. For what it’s worth, I prefer a closed writing group that only takes serious writers because, well, I don’t want to spend a lot of time critiquing people who don’t take writing as seriously as I do – hobbyists, I guess. I’m happy to share with people who give their time and effort to their work regularly, but if writing’s a hobby for them, I just don’t have time. Does that make sense?

      Thanks so much for reading.

  • http://www.riverofthoughts.com Christine Niles

    I know I’m super-late to this party…I read this post as I was hopping off a plane and headed to meet a group of awesome young writers. But I have been flipping this over in my head for a week now, and I do see it as a problem for me. In many ways, I’m playing it too safe in my writing… I have people I cherish on both sides of many fences, and I find myself playing to the center far too often.

    I’ve written a lot of pieces that are a lot edgier than what I usually post on my blog, and I think it might be time to take more of a position. To be more honest and risk upsetting some people. Scary stuff, but you’re right…the bubble is not a great place to be. Thanks for the challenge!
    Christine Niles recently posted…Lies That Make You Think You’re Fat…And How To Beat ThemMy Profile

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