Saturday, November 22, 2008
The longer I'm in this business, the more tribal the writing community seems. I don't yet belong to a tribe. I'm the Happy Wanderer (or, sometimes, not so happy). Occasionally, temporarily, I sneak into tribes. Usually, though, I just circle around or amble past them.
So what constitutes a tribe? A group of writers and/or readers who are bound by a common interest or faithful to a particular leader. (Tribes have a lot in common with high school cliques, it seems.)
There are likely tribes within RWA--frequently warring tribes, no doubt. An entire stable of authors at a particular publishing house can be a tribe if that publisher is small enough. If a publisher is larger, there are tribes within it (like writers who band together to form group blogs or critique circles, or authors who've been with a company since its inception and are the revered "veterans"). Individual authors can have their own tribes, and industry bloggers have tribes of supporters and tribes of detractors. Subgenres are also spawning grounds for tribes.
It isn't easy to break into many of these close-knit communities. In fact, sometimes it's impossible. But if you want to be part of a tribe that does admit new members, you have to work at it -- earn your body art, so to speak. This is a delicate process. You can't just burst into a tribal council meeting and shout, "I want to be part of this tribe!" Oh no.
Every tribe has its own unique standards for acceptance. Maybe you have to be exceptionally sharp and witty. Or exceptionally level-headed, a natural mediator. Maybe you must demonstrate selflessness, or a happily blind devotion. Maybe you simply need to be docile but persistent. On the other hand, maybe you must shine, brilliantly and irresistibly. Sometimes, a limitless talent for schmoozing does the trick.
I've seen and read about such tribes in action, and their dynamic continues to mystify me. Maybe we writers (and some readers) are like clubby high schoolers, with our need for approbation and our silly sensibilities and our conviction of a superiority that never gets recognized quite enough. It's as if we're constantly crying, "Leave me alone to pursue my art!" -- and then, in a pathetic whimper, add, "But don't leave me alone too much for too long."