community · PhD · writing

Still Writing, Still Eating, Still Together

Every third Saturday, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Brunch gets served, coffee gets poured, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip, and babies, and partners, and jobs. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis. We’ve been doing this for years.

Each session, two of us send around a 25-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—nineteenth century novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, the picturesque, modern drama—we’ve come to know each others’ work well over the many years we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize fresh eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed. And not just in our academic writing. Most of us are now finished or nearly finished our dissertations, and doing some combination of teaching/working/writing/preparing for the future. We trade tips and horror stories about job applications, book proposals, writing resumes, finding jobs, figuring out what comes next. And we’re still doing it together.

I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. Our PhD program is quite large—my cohort had nine people in it, and that’s about average for the English program at York—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a graduate program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other–a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help you get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. Few of us are intending to stay in academia, but our writing skills are crucial to our success wherever we end up, and being together–writing a lot, and writing well–will serve us well wherever we end up. Indeed, it has already. I’m testament to that.

I can’t say how grateful I am for our little group, one that is filled with people who make me a better scholar, a better friend, a better person. It’s no coincidence that on the same day as our last writing group session, our host Sam also held a meeting for the group of couples we both joined to sponsor a refugee family from Syria–that’s the kind of people my writing group is. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate scholarly community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as a person and a writer, and in ways I couldn’t have imagined back in the days when we all thought we were headed for the tenure track. That our group has continued and adapted as our plans and goals and lives have changed is a wonderful thing.

So tell me: what version of academic or creative community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?