Monday, March 28, 2011

Building Literary Community with author Timothy Schaffert

I'm willing to bet my morning cup of dark roast you've probably heard a little something about writers like you joining online writing communities and doing everything from sharing their blog posts to getting feedback on their latest query letters to workshopping chapters from a novel they hope to find representation for (no doubt there are groups who will support them/you in this endeavor, too). And it's all very lovely. Ten years ago this large scale opportunity for writers to connect didn't exist. There's no doubt in my mind all this online getting-to-know-you has helped writers conceptualize, craft and sell their work.

And yet, as we shift toward an ever more E-centric (no pun intended, honestly) method of "connecting" via social media and friending, something is missing. That something is real face time with the literary comrades in our own back yard. The opportunity to connect with one author or a roomful over coffee or a glass (or two!) of wine is what the writing life is all about - sharing the collective experience and having a few real laughs out loud.

I asked one of my literary neighbors, Timothy Schaffert, author of The Coffins of Little Hope and founder of (downtown) omaha lit fest, to share with us how he began to shape Omaha's literary community through this annual event.

Here's what Timothy had to say:

"Writing is a famously solitary act - and for many writers (and for the classical "portrait of the writer") solitude is a necessary habit. Whatever our routines, herbal tea at 4 a.m., or a gin martini at happy hour, or midnight bouts of insomnia fueled by nothing but anxious sleeplessness - we tend to summon a creative trance in
hopes of dropping not just from society but from all the trappings of self. Readers thrive on solitude, as well, perhaps even more famously so. (Even the public acts of reading in Andre Kertesz's series of photos "On Reading" depict people untethered from their surroundings by clinging to a book.)

Nonetheless, we still often seek community among the like-minded. It's from this contradictory impulse - gathering to discuss acts of solitude and reflection - that the (downtown) omaha lit fest evolved. Though people often refer to it as The Omaha Literary Festival, I made the name all lowercase and diminutive in an effort to lower expectations. The event is meant as an informal and idiosyncratic opportunity for readers to meet writers and vice versa. And its themes - which have included "Depraved Women Writers," "The Sordid Acts of The Cheap Paperback," and "Plagiarism, Fraud, and Other Literary Inspirations," - tend toward the obscure.

Despite my intentions, attaching the city's name to the project has implied a civic endeavor, and the use of the word "fest" has suggested festivities. And we do what we can - we have an opening night party with wine and nosh, and we partner with arts organizations that focus on disciplines other than literature, in an effort to provoke a general curiosity about contemporary fiction writers, poets, and memoirists, and the writer's life. We have literary inspired art exhibits and
performances in addition to more prosaic presentations on poetry and prose. I feel less like a curator than a nervous host at a party where all the guests may prove "too interesting."

Yet, we endure. I invite you to join us for our seventh annual event (the date is TBA; "like" us on Facebook, please), with a theme focused on "mechanics" - not just the mechanics and techniques of process (to include authors dissecting their own books for "anatomy of the novel" sessions) but the very machinery of production: typewriters, letterpress, bookmaking."

Having attended last year's lit fest, I can tell you Timothy is being modest when he speaks about "enduring." Last year's emphasis on the roots and role of the fairy tale in classic and modern literature was timely and involved two rock star authors within the genre, Kate Bernheimer (editor of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me) and Melanie Benjamin (Alice I Have Been). Until I stepped out to attend this event, I had seriously questioned if the town I just recently left L.A. for had a literary heart. Schaffert made it clear in all caps that indeed it did.

Your Action: Explore the literary events in or near your city this week. Make it a point to attend at least one and learn from the experience. Meet someone new, connect. No lit events to attend? Attend the next best thing - whatever that is - an art show, a music festival - just GO! You never know where inspiration will come from or who you'll meet. The writing life is about living and creating through experience. Login not required.

Have fun this week, writers! Build your community.


About the Contributor:

Timothy Schaffert is the author of four novels: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (winner of the Nebraska Book Award); The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection), Devils in the Sugar Shop (a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice), and The Coffins of Little Hope (starred review from Publishers Weekly), all from Unbridled Books. In addition to directing the (downtown) lit fest, he teaches in the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and serves as the director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference and Web Editor of Prairie Schooner, a literary journal.


  1. So very true. Since embarking on this writing adventure 4 years ago, I have taken 2 on-campus writing courses and 1 on-line course, all 3 university transfer courses available through the local college. The in- person contact was appealing to a certain extent but a lot of time was spent in small talk and chitter-chatter and a whole lot of time was spent critquing others' work in exchange for their critiques of mine. A great format but not so great if students are taking the course for a change from their grueling acadamia and have nothing to say in a critque but, 'it's good, I like it.' I've also attended 2 writing conferences/retreats and found them somewhat useful, and fun, of course, but at this point in my writing journey I prefer one-on-one and so have been working for the past year with an on-line writing mentor on my first novel.

    In terms of general online activity I tend to ignore the flash-in-the-pan format of Twitter, preferring the meaningful contact of writers' personal blogs or the larger writing groups like She Writes, etc. One of the great things about virtual writers' communities is the opportunity to dip deep into the international well and form meaningful writer and reader (!) friendships across the globe. This, I believe, cultivates a much broader readership (and a more stimulating writing community).

  2. Thanks, Cathy!

    I totally agree with you - regardless of HOW you connect, it's about quality over quantity.

    Social media is certainly a fabulous tool, but I strongly feel what you put out there must speak to who you are as an author. Speaking for myself, I try to make sure whatever I communicate inspires, educates, informs or maybe gets a laugh (in a good way) out of my readers.


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