Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A New Kind Of Community

A few weeks ago I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir which explores her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Not such an easy relationship to define. They had a love and devotion to one another that few people experience, both of them completely absorbed in the other's creative energies, so dedicated to the idea of 'becoming' an artist as they sat in dingy quarters, sharing grilled cheese sandwiches, trying to express themselves through poems and photographs and sculptures and song.

As I was reading, it occurred to me that, back then, everyone knew one another, whether they were all hanging at the Chelsea Hotel or milling around Max's Kansas city, desperate to make their way into Warhol's Factory. One day someone would be sipping an egg cream and run into their mentor at the local diner. The next they would be sitting on a concrete stoop in the village and share a cigarette with Jimi Hendrix. All the sudden a crooning little bird named Janis Joplin would be in the neighboring apartment writing a song.

A few years back, when I read Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, a book that follows the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, I discovered the same thing. Early in their careers, well before fame and fortune, whether they were sitting at the piano in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, summering on the beaches of Cape Cod, or setting up camp in Laurel Canyon, everybody knew everybody. They all lived together sharing this desperate creative energy to become.
I began to wonder why I didn't live in a hotel full of fiction writers. Why I wasn't having poetry slams in abandoned warehouses, or setting up camp with painters and singers and actors and photographers. Tyler is sitting next to me on the couch watching British football, not agonizing over a blank journal or a tortured canvas.

So where are all the little communities of artists today? Where are all the collaborators forming their relationships? Is anyone sleeping in the Bowery hoping the next Bob Dylan will invite them to sleep on their couch until they sell their first book of poems?

It occurred to me that we're all gathering in different ways. With hash tags and @ replies and blogger comments and guest posts and RSS feeds and Mr. Linkys. I may not be camped out at the Chelsea Hotel, sharing chance encounters with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, but sometimes I'll tweet a #Fridayread and the author and I will get into a twitter conversation. I'll see acknowledgements in published books for groups of people who formed critique groups on the Internet. Everybody's out there but are we together?

It's interesting to me that the successful artists mentioned above all found one another before they were successful in the streets of cities, in the back rooms of restaurants and warehouses, surrounding themselves with creative people to support and learn from. And that, now, we're all doing the same thing through such a new medium.

So, what do you think? Do you wish we were all sleeping on one another's floors in the East Village of Manhattan? Or are you happy to be sitting in your bathrobe tweeting with the next @jk_rowling?


  1. Oh, interesting! I'd love to have more real life conversations rather than so much typing. I love to communicate with so many awesome writers and authors but to sit with them in real life would be like meeting a celebrity.

  2. Great post, Melissa. I think that the communities are online but that doesn't stop me fantasising about writer/artist communities where they all meet up, drink wine and have a good time.

  3. Melissa,
    Off the subject entirely, but saw your comment on Tawna's blog and had to let you know I'm doing a run-down of what I'm learning from Stephen King's On Writing. I'd love it if you checked it out, added to it, or gave me your ideas!!

    -Valerie Haight

  4. Both would be ideal. I always wonder about those gatherings of artists and writers. First I think - inspirational ... and then I think - intimidating, perhaps I am not up to it!

    I do love blogging and the idea of being 'in touch' with the whole world, but maybe I prefer in depth occasions in the flesh 'one to one'.

  5. Melissa...I'm going to my cabin for the month of June and maybe July. Do you want to come? I read, write, swim and boat ride while I'm there. We only have three channels on the TV and have to go to the marina to get internet...

  6. well, i do love being able to look like crap in my slippers and sweats and connect from the comfort of my own home. but it would be cool to have a "artist community"- maybe i just don't reach out enough. lots of singer/songwriters seem to be connected, esp. in the folky scene, but i'm just not one of the cool kids. and it often feels like jr. high all over again. it's funny. i've gone to a few songwriting groups, but it feels a little torturous to me since i don't know anyone, but they all seem connected.

    do you ever go to writer's groups?

  7. Ooohhh, an artist community. I love the way we connect now. I mean take for instance this moment. You would NOT want to see me in person at this moment in time. Hair disheveled, no makeup, jammies on. (The old jammies, but they are clean:) But I would like to pull self together and meet in this huge arena and mingle with writers like you, Melissa. (As long as I had my makeup on.;)

    My crit partner is having her debut book launch Tuesday the 11th. Some SCBWI'ERS will be there. Makeup will be on and I shall pull self out of jammies, carefully decide on what to wear and join them on this evening. Looking good, I might add. I mean I rode the ride with her book since its inception, so I want to be there to see her happy smiles. (((hugs)))

  8. I think the online writing community is huge. It is for me at least. There are so many amazing people I have met (like you, for instance!).

    I also love the idea of being an "artist," but I like to be practical. I kind of like having a nice place to live and not having to sleep on a couch and share grilled cheese sandwiches (though grilled cheese sandwiches are delicious). But, yeah, sometimes I think it would be great to have all kinds of artsy friends hanging around all the time!