The Strength of Community
[...] often, I find myself questioning why I do it. The simple answer to that is ‘the community’. This year, when just about everything went wrong, that fact was brought home to me even more strongly.
I’ve been leading writers in my county through National Novel Writing Month for 4 years now. For those of you who have never encountered it before, the point of NaNoWriMo (which is very much ‘international novel writing month’ these days) is for people to attempt to write 50000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. Being a volunteer Municipal Liaison (ML) involves setting up writing events, moderating the region’s online presence and always being there 24/7 to answer questions or provide encouragement. It’s a full on experience from September to the first week of December; often, I find myself questioning why I do it. The simple answer to that is ‘the community’. This year, when just about everything went wrong, that fact was brought home to me even more strongly.
It started off very well. I had a new co-ML this year who was very enthusiastic and ready to learn. We got together in August and I managed not to scare her off entirely with my overcomplicated ideas for themes and freebies. I contacted the venue we had been using for years and they were delighted to have us back. Everything was going great.
Skip ahead to the end of October, 4 days before our first event. My new co-ML and I met up again and agreed that everything was going fine; we knew there would be some hiccups along the way but we both announced that we’d work through them (‘It would all be okay’). Two hours later, I discover that our beloved venue shut down for good that morning with no warning. Fate had been well and truly tempted by our over confidence.
Those 24 hours of looking up alternative venues and sending out pleading emails are something of a stress-y blur to me now. I do remember thinking ‘Aaaah. I need a grownup to sort this out!’ and then realising that I ‘was’ the grown-up in this situation. I had to sort it out. And we did manage to. Against all the odds, we found a home for all our planned events and were able to get the news out with a few days to spare.
I arrived at our first event in a fog of tiredness, feeling kind of numb. It was hard to let myself enjoy the fact that we were all here after all the sleepless nights it had taken to arrange. As soon as people started excitedly sharing their novel ideas though, it evaporated and I was finally able to feel relieved. When one of the participants presented my co-ML and me with personalised thank you chocolate for dealing with the crisis, I nearly cried.
Of course, our troubles weren’t over. The NaNoWriMo website had undergone a massive redesign (always a turbulent time for any community) and bugs were popping up faster than the hard working dev team could squish them. The replacement venue was very friendly but the space was just too small. My co-ML and I had to split up every session to make sure people sitting in various different bits of the café were included in everything. It worked, people seemed happy but it wasn’t the slick, communal experience I’d always planned. The control-freak, egalitarian part of me that requires me to offer the same level of support to absolutely everyone under my care was in full melt-down mode.
So, I went through a lot of the month, stressing that I wasn’t good enough or that I was missing out on supporting people who needed it (including my new co-ML). It was truly miraculous how easy it was to snap out of that mind-set though when I realised what a good time people were having. Every time we celebrated someone hitting a milestone or were able to convince someone not to give up, I forgot to be stressed. While it’s my job to encourage people and console them, the other writers are just as good at that as I am and just as willing to pitch in. When we ended up singing Disney songs rather than doing writing activities at an online writing session or when an in-person meeting devolved into a conversation about rubber ducks, I was reminded that it was okay to go off script.
While it’s crucial to give people a space to ask serious questions about what they’re writing or to organise structured activities to help them, it’s also equally important to have a laid back and imaginative environment where people are free to forget the stress of how many words they’ve got down. I’ve known this ever since I plucked up the courage to attend my first session as a participant but it takes my community being unapologetically themselves to remind me of it sometimes. Our venue might not be ideal, there might still be bugs to overcome and I might not feel like I got to talk to people as often as I needed to but our community is far bigger and stronger than any circumstance. That is worth the months of exhaustion and anxiety many times over.
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