42 // Rowan McCandless on How to Create a Writing Community

In this episode, I have the pleasure to talk to Rowan McCandless about finding your writing community. Rowan is someone who is a part of my writing community and it’s the better for it. She is someone deeply committed to the craft of writing and who lifts up other writers.

Go to the episode transcript.

Rowan and I talk about her experience finding her writing community—and as much as there are positive, joyful experiences, she also describes a negative, racialized encounter in a writing course early on. (I mention this in particular for my racialized listeners who may want a heads up before for hearing this.)

Rowan shares four different intentional ways she works in community with writers. And she reads from “An Inventory of Wants and Needs” from her forthcoming book, Persephone’s Children.

You can find Rowan online at rowanmccandless.com—take a look at the about page that stymied me.

And you will find Rowan’s debut book of innovative essays, Persephone’s Children, out from Dundurn Press and in bookstores (support your local bookstore with curbside) in September 2021.

***

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Full Transcript

[00:00:01.020] – Rachel Thompson
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast, I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author. In this episode, it is my absolute pleasure to talk to Rowan McCandless about finding your writing community. Rowan is someone who is part of my writing community and it is the better for it. She’s someone deeply committed to the craft of writing and a writer who really lifts up other writers.

[00:00:44.060]
Rowan and I talk about her experience finding her writing community. And as much as there are positive, joyful experiences, she also describes a negative racialized encounter in a writing course that she took early on. I mention this in particular for my racialized listeners who may want a heads up before hearing this.

[00:01:01.820]
Thank you so much for joining me today. Rowan McCandless in the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I actually want to introduce you and I’m stymied by that because of your lovely website, that I’m very familiar with. Because it’s kind of non-linear in the introduction and that I was trying to find one from your publisher. So I’m just wondering, I know you so well, but I know as someone who’s writing fiction, creative nonfiction, you have a forthcoming book of essays.

[00:01:36.920]
You’ve won prizes like the Constance Rooke Prize, you’re a finalist for the Journey Prize. What else would you like me to include from your bio?

[00:01:46.400] – Rowan McCandless
I would like to include the National Magazine Awards, where I won gold and also received an honorary mention for one of a kind storytelling. That was just this year, so that was what was really exciting.

[00:02:03.250] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, and that was the piece from the Fiddlehead that was a visual memoir. And the reason I’m stymied, I’m going to include this because I think it’s so interesting. And something really cool about you is you really are a visual storyteller.

[00:02:18.079] – Rowan McCandless
Thank you.

[00:02:18.250]
Your About Page has this whole sort of visual patchwork that you can enter into at any point to kind of get the bio. And that was the piece that you went for as well, too, was in that kind of form. As you know, I invited you here today to talk about writing community, and it’s kind of a continuation of some conversations that we had in little snippets here and there. And one time you said to me that writing community kept you writing, that you started writing on your own, but then you knew at a certain point you needed to seek out community and that sustained your writing.

[00:02:54.430]
Can you tell me more about this and what that means for you?

[00:02:59.230] – Rowan McCandless
For sure. For me, the ways that communities sustained my writing from the get go was that having left a domestic abuse situation almost four years ago, I was pretty isolated when it came to connections with people. And so by attending writing workshops and online courses and conferences, those were ways for me to meet other writers and form friendships and foster community. And these beautiful writers supported and encouraged me to keep on writing during the most one of the most difficult periods that I’ve gone through.

[00:03:35.410]
And what does that look like for me in terms of community and it helping to sustain my writing? That one, it’s the ongoing friendships and conversations. And two, it’s that I have a number of different groups that I make use of to help foster my writing. For example, I do two one-on-one workshops with another writer. I have an accountability group. I have writing meet-upswhere we spend an hour writing together and I have two different in-person writing groups, although with COVID we’ve now moved online.

[00:04:18.370] – Rachel Thompson
And how has this changed for you? Because when I met you, you were starting to send work out. I think by then, actually, you had won a prize with Room or you had shortlisted at least for the prize. I’m wondering how now that you’re on the cusp of really becoming a published author, your book of essays is coming out next year. How is writing community changed for you over your journey to be a soon to be published author?

[00:04:45.070] – Rowan McCandless
I think it’s changed in that it’s grown. I have many more connections than I did when I started and that I find that people are just so generous in terms of offering support and encouragement and cheerleading me on. When it comes to my writing, I don’t really find that much of a difference.

[00:05:09.490] – Rachel Thompson
Do you find a difference between this local in-person writing community and that’s in Winnipeg and then, we’ve never met in the flesh, which is so strange to think about because of the fact that, I feel really connected to you in writing community. And I think you have other writers, all over the world really, who are connected to you in that way. So what is the difference, barring the COVID times where everything’s online, but between local and in-person community, writing community versus online?

[00:05:45.200] – Rowan McCandless
Both are supportive, both offer me similar support, the online community on a much broader scale. With my online community however, I’ve made good friends from not only across Canada but also in different countries. So whether it’s in person or online, both communities are very important to me and that the strong connections are there. I very much feel that we’re cheerleading each other on. And to me, that’s a very important part of community is that rise.

[00:06:19.430]
We all rise together as others uplift you and your writing. It’s that I feel my job as a responsible and community member to also then do the same for other writers, that as we all rise, we all rise together.

[00:06:41.300] – Rachel Thompson
I just love that approach. The rising tide lifts all boats concept.

[00:06:49.170]
I hesitate to ask, but then I’m thinking that, sometimes maybe this is perceived or real, but there can be negative experiences in a community like gatekeeping. Have you experienced anything like that?

[00:07:01.080] – Rowan McCandless
The worst experience I’ve ever had was I attended a workshop on poetry and I was the only person of colour in the room, which in some ways is always an initial red flag to me. So during the workshop, first off, one woman bemoaned the fact that many of her friends who are male poets were having difficulty being published because of, and I quote, “all that diversity going around.”

[00:07:32.320]
And then at the same workshop, I had another participant come up to me during break and she said to me that I would have no trouble getting published. So I asked her, like why? And she said, Well, that’s because you’re indigenous. And so she didn’t see me as a person, she couldn’t see me as a writer, I was only a colour to her or what she wanted to project on to me. So when I told her I wasn’t indigenous, she gave me this look like I was trying to pull one over on her so that that was a difficult workshop to sit through I have to say.

[00:08:10.940] – Rachel Thompson
How right it is to kind of make that assessment and go, hey, well, there are only white people in this room, I might not be safe in this room.

[00:08:20.660] – Rowan McCandless
And how these are definitely people that you will not seek out for being part of our communities for sure.

[00:08:30.220] – Rachel Thompson
For sure.

[00:08:30.220] – Rowan McCandless
It’s a much different feeling when I’m in a workshop where it’s all people of color. It’s like we walk into the room and we all agree the collective sigh of relief. There is a difference I find in that too.

[00:08:47.300] – Rachel Thompson
Then knowing you won’t be exposed to that kind of experience, and then unfortunately, you know, maybe there are people who are in a position of gatekeeping who feel that way.

[00:08:59.180]
I think part of community and I’m wondering if you agree, because, you’re saying that to you about being in a workshop where you’re the only people of color, you know, OK, I can breathe a sigh of relief because we can help each other kind of navigate this world of gatekeeping by some people with ignorant points of view like that.

[00:09:20.970] – Rowan McCandless
Absolutely.

[00:09:23.820] – Rachel Thompson
Thinking about that negative experience you described in the workshop, I’m wondering if or how this might relate to any other experience with community you have in your history, like growing up.

[00:09:38.700] – Rowan McCandless
That experience really, really holds a deep history growing up by being black and biracial and not necessarily looking like any particular ethnicity, people always thought that they were in a position of authority to define me, but my identity had more to do with the perceptions of others than it did with me. So, it certainly does relate in terms of my past history, just that some writers thought that they could make an assumption about who I am and also the fact that I don’t necessarily look like a person of colour at times, that some people will say things that perhaps you wouldn’t ordinarily have said to me in person.

[00:10:33.660]
So that’s why I kind of wondered why, that woman with the all that diversity comment, perhaps she didn’t realize who was sitting in the room, but then I think, well, no, she probably she probably did know what was going on. So I think it does have it does ring with my growing up years and something that I still obviously come face to face with, given that situation with that particular workshop.

[00:11:10.140] – Rachel Thompson
And this is thematic in some of your writing as well, too.

[00:11:15.270]
It’s obviously, important in a sense, your personal history, because it’s part of your experience, although, you know, disappointing that has to be the things that you’re writing about. I’m wondering at this point, actually, if you want to talk a little bit about the essays and Persephone’s Children and the themes that you’re exploring in the book.

[00:11:36.990] – Rowan McCandless
Sure with Persephone’s children, it’s a series of genetically linked and inventive essays where I use different forms in order to go into the work. I find just because of talking about that personal family history or that personal history, that’s directly affected me in the outside world that there were stories that were important to tell, and for me, the form is as important to Persephone’s Children as the content. For example, one essay is written as a Q and A, another essay is written as a marital contract, another essay is written as an archaeological study.

[00:12:33.880]
And there are very real reasons why it was written that way. Because when you leave a situation of domestic abuse, which is one of the themes of the book, you don’t remember everything, you don’t remember seeing this necessarily in a sequential fashion, that it’s all kind of fragmented and you remember bits of the bits of that. So for my essay, was very important to me in terms of writing this book so that other people as well can see what was the possibilities in terms of what does a memoir look like so that people feel that they can start to tell their own stories?

[00:13:18.520]
That that was important for me to say here, here, these stories that are written in this particular outlier fashion.

[00:13:28.630]
[background music playing]

[00:13:28.630] – Rachel Thompson
We’re going to take a quick break right now. But after the break, Rowan will read an excerpt from her forthcoming book of essays, Persephone’s Children.

[00:13:40.450]
The Write, Publish and Shine podcast is presented by me, Rachel Thompson and my course Lit Mag Love. This is the five-week course that will help you get a big yes from a literary magazine and then another and then another. It’s really a course that has helped a lot of people, Rowan my guest today included, to learn how to publish in literary magazines and just to increase the professionalism in their writing practice to turn it from a practice to a writing career.

[00:14:13.120]
You can find out more about the Lit Mag Love course on Rachel Thompson, dot co, slash Lit Mag Love. That’s Rachel Thompson, dot co, Slash Lit Mag Love.

[00:14:23.610]
[background music ends]

[00:14:25.690] – Rowan McCandless
We open up the windows trying to breathe new life into the house. I’m ashamed that my friends are seeing my home under such conditions. My home deserves better. I deserve better. Heather, who is petite and brave and writing a memoir about the recent loss of her husband to cancer and who also runs a professional cleaning service and has offered to do the move out cleaning as a gift to me deserves better too.

[00:14:53.270]
Bernie, whom I met through the community classroom and who gives the best of hugs, and her delightful husband, Bill, are in the basement dealing with the disaster of a tool room. The area is overflowing with boxes. Hardware, mismatched lamps, containers of leftover paint, dodgy crafts supplies and various thrift store finds. Tucked against the back wall is a dresser from my childhood, still waiting to be repainted and repurposed. They’re tossing out anything that’s dried up, rusted, missing pieces or in disrepair, anything I won’t use or that can’t be donated.

[00:15:32.020]
I’m fortunate to have their help because if it was up to me, I’d be mulling over every paintbrush, every jar of mismatched nails, every piece of retro furniture waiting to be coated with milk paint. Every object tells a story and I’m finding the letting go difficult.

[00:15:49.750] – Rachel Thompson
And that’s Rowan McCandless reading from “An Inventory of Wants and Needs” from her forthcoming book, Persephone’s Children. So now that you’re teaching and mentoring students, I’m wondering what you do to foster writing community with your own students?

[00:16:06.660] – Rowan McCandless
I very much encourage them to get to know one another and to engage in conversations on Slack. Another thing that we’ve incorporated that I’ve incorporated is setting up Zoom calls where the group can get together and we touch base and to see how they’re doing and how their writing is going. And I find that giving the opportunity, both online, in print and also online to video it makes a huge difference in terms of how that community starts to come together. So I found that those are two very real ways that help to foster community with my writing students.

[00:16:59.360] – Rachel Thompson
Having more real-time conversation.

[00:17:02.810] – Rowan McCandless
Being able to have that time to meet face to face, I think especially maybe in these times just to meet an actual human being is something that fosters that feeling of connection. So I really appreciate that there is this technology out there and it’s something that I can offer my students.

[00:17:28.820] – Rachel Thompson
One of the things that I started doing in my workshops that I’ve been holding with some of my students is like having ground rules for conversations and, you know, identifying those things that you mentioned that were so egregious around, what would be called micro-aggressions.

[00:17:47.780]
But I think now is more apt to say just sort of racial attacks. Do you feel the need to create this kind of ground rules or are you more selective about the students that you approach? Or how do you work that?

[00:18:00.290] – Rowan McCandless
I think it’s a matter of going over the ground rules and just letting people know that, when you meet one another and with mutual respect and in somewhat of a sacred space and that to date, I haven’t had any problems with any of the students that I’ve had in my classes.

[00:18:20.900] – Rachel Thompson
I wonder how long ago was that experience that you had in that workshop? I don’t want to dwell on that experience because I’m sure it was really hard. Also wondering, I guess there’s some kind of optimistic voice in my head and saying, well, maybe this has changed, but I’m sort of being naive about that.

[00:18:42.530] – Rowan McCandless
I don’t know, maybe, those particular people, they had a change of thought or are more cognizant of the words that fall out of their mouth.

[00:18:55.810] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, I guess I wasn’t thinking that, but more like they would know better than to say [laughs] that.

[00:19:03.370] – Rowan McCandless
See, I don’t come with that particular approach. It’s kind of like I have to go in, I guess, somewhat guarded because part of me expects. Something like that to happen. Which is unfortunate, but it’s just, the way. The way I can set up a boundary for myself in order to feel safe to enter that space. If that makes any sense.

[00:19:38.580] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, for sure. I guess what I’m thinking is just how unfortunate for someone like and how lucky we are that you persisted through this writing, and went to find your writing community in spite of these really horrible, demeaning comments that you received early on.

[00:20:01.170]
I’m wondering what you would say to writers listening, and probably you’d have, certain things that you’d want to say to people of colour who are listening racialized people who are writers, who don’t have a writing community and don’t know where to start building those connections.

[00:20:19.250] – Rowan McCandless
I would say, in person, your local library could be a resource, See if they’re offering any community writing workshops that you get to meet other writers in that way. Your province’s Writers Guild, that they offer, workshops and different activities. Such as readings for people to get together, so that’s another way that you can help begin to foster your writing community. Attend local writing festivals and conferences is another way, online classes for sure for me was the way to build writing community.

[00:21:04.670]
So I took classes with people such as yourself, Nicole Breit, Chelene Knight, and Kathryn Mockler. Many opportunities to connect with other writers were fostered in that way. Also with COVID, attending online festivals and conferences and, seeing who you may meet and find compatible to maybe pursue as part of your writing community, engage with writers on Twitter. Many are on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. So just find conversations that you’re interested that other writers are interested in and to engage in that type of thing.

[00:21:52.990]
And those all foster community. As well, I would say submitting to lit mags. A great deal of my community has come from having submitted work to different literary magazines, they led to different opportunities to meet other writers in other ways. And so I would say that’s another way for sure to help to start to build a writing community.

[00:22:22.350] – Rachel Thompson
When you talk about engaging with lit mags, you’re obviously building relationships with the editors at the lit mags and maybe you’re attending readings with other writers who submitted in the issue, what are other things, I guess, that you’ve done or you’ve seen and that’s been effective, like have people reached out to you about your writing and you’ve forged connections that way? Can you walk me through a little bit like the nitty-gritty maybe of how those connections are made?

[00:22:51.840] – Rowan McCandless
Sure. I mean, at first, it would begin with the editors that you’re working with and then there may be, some other person or persons who are attached to the lit mag that also need to work in conjunction with you and editors are people too, so it’s a way to meet other people that way, and then I found that as my submissions were accepted in various lit magazines, that then you get to be known.

[00:23:30.000]
Your certain pieces of writing and people are attracted to you as you kind of then see what their writing is all about and you say, yeah, that’s pretty cool stuff. I want to know more. And that I found that every submission led to every other opportunity and eventually to my book deal for Persephone’s Children has all been based on connections, people who have supported and uplifted and believed in my work.So I’m profoundly grateful to all of them.

[00:24:10.600] – Rachel Thompson
I think you met your editor, that was through the Journey Prize, is that right, that they approached you or?

[00:24:17.870] – Rowan McCandless
Um, let me say no, it was through Black Writers Matter that was edited by Whitney French. She had become an acquisitions editor at Dundurn. And she remembered my work. And I was one of the first people she reached out to ask if I had anything available and luckily, I was working on Persephone’s children at the time, and it just sort of meshed and worked out.

[00:24:48.430]
So it was from the connection with an anthology to then reconnecting with a book.

[00:24:57.220] – Rachel Thompson
Brilliant. I love that story. Is there are there any kind of final things you wanted to share with us about what you think of when you think of writing community.

[00:25:13.080] – Rowan McCandless
My final thoughts, I think, about writing in community that it’s something that’s really crucial to a person’s writing life. Writing is such a solitary act that you need to have community to talk to and review each other’s work with.

[00:25:37.030]
And offer that support, I think it’s so important because writing is such a solitary act and that you’ll meet so many incredible people and be able to learn from them and they learn from you, and I just think that’s like a beautiful thing. So those would be my final thoughts, about writing a community to say that it’s important. And I hope people may be inspired by this to, who haven’t as yet formed a writing community to start to think of ways for themselves in order to reach out and begin that process.

[00:26:16.640] – Rachel Thompson
Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us about writing community, Rowan.

[00:26:22.700] – Rowan McCandless
Well, thank you so much for having me and for this wonderful conversation. I greatly appreciate it.

[00:26:30.010] – Rachel Thompson
So that was my interview with the lovely Rowan McCandless. Rowan mentioned in our conversation four different intentional ways she works in community with writers. The first is she’s in two one-on-one writing exchange groups, meaning she and another writer exchange work and they give each other feedback on that writing.

[00:26:54.140]
I’m imagining that she met them in a writing workshop. They clicked and they enjoyed each other’s writing. And then she has two individuals she’s sending work to that individual and then they’re sending the book back. So it’s this one- on-one way. And it’s a great way to, hone in on the people that you really click with. If you are in a writing workshop and you understand, oh, they get my work

[00:27:17.140]
they get what I’m doing here and vice versa. And we can exchange pages. The second intentional way that Rowan connects with the writing community is in an accountability group. Now, I believe most of the members of this group met in my course the Lit Mag Love course, which is very thrilling for me. But what is an accountability group if this term is new to you? I’ll just explain that it’s a group that checks in regularly about writing goals, and it can be a sounding board for new ideas about what to do next to keep moving the needle on your writing career.

[00:27:51.920]
But more often, it’s a place for each writer who will state their goals aloud and then return to the next meeting to report on whether they did the things they said they would do, something really powerful about saying what you’re going to do and then coming back to be asked by your peers, did you do it? It’s very helpful. And a lot of writers really benefit from that external accountability. The third way that Rowan connects intentionally with writing community is she does one-hour writing meet-ups where writers get together to simply write.

[00:28:25.800]
I’m understanding that most of this is being done online, probably all of it right now. This is a really great way to get your butt in your chair and just simply write. And it’s a really low-pressure way to start meeting with other writers. You don’t need to know or like each other’s work. You definitely don’t need to read each other’s work. The practice is just sitting there being present to your writing. You simply hold space for each other to practice writing. The fourth and final item on Rowan’s list of ways that she connects intentionally with her writing community is an in-person writing group.

[00:29:00.540]
Now, clearly, those have gone online, as she said in the COVID era. But an in- person writing group is probably the most familiar to most writers out there. It’s the kind of group where you meet regularly to discuss pages of your writing. You might do it on a rotating schedule. I was in a wonderful group where we did that and we also shared food. So it was delicious and very incentivizing to show up. And this is again something done in person.

[00:29:30.120]
But nowadays people are doing this online as they’re waiting for it to be safe to meet again. But writing instructors listening, and I know you’re out there. I also thought she made a great point about how finding opportunities to meet face to face and that might be screen face to screen face these days helps to knit a community and bring them together. For me, because I’ve always taught online this has meant using them for video calling and Slack for private text threads of communication.

[00:30:00.340]
And if you weren’t familiar with these tools before 2020, I’m guessing you most likely know them all too well right now. My sense is that these tools help Rowan feel like there’s little difference between her in-person writing community, the people who live in her city and the online community of people like myself who she’s never met in person before. You can find Rowan McCandless online at Rowan McCandless dot com and take a look at the About Page page on her web site, that really stymied me in the introduction.

[00:30:35.280]
And finally, you can find Rowan’s debut book of innovative essays, Persephone’s Children out from Dundurn Press and in bookstores. And I encourage you to support your local bookstore with curbside orders that will be out in September 2021. Thank you, luminous writer [background music playing] for listening to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. If you enjoyed this episode if you glean something about writing community that you found helpful, and if you wanted to find a way to reach out to other writers about writing community, I would encourage you to send the episode and let other writers in your community or other writers you wish were in your community know about the episode and share with them.

[00:31:20.430]
Or you can rate and review all the usual stuff the podcast asked you to do. That really does help other writers find the podcast [background music ends].

 

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