To belong or not to belong

I’m a big believer in community. I’m convinced that it’s very very very difficult to produce good art without some kind of a community behind you. I can date the turnaround in my own writing to my first showing it to other writers. Their critiques hurt like hell, but my writing got better in ways it never would have otherwise.

The communities of writers and other publishing folks I’m involved with share a wealth of information with each other. We tell each other about which editors we enjoy working with and why, which houses have the best publicity/sales/marketing departments. Who got paid what by which house. When third person is a better fit than first. What the differences are between writing middle grade and young adult books. What Amazon numbers mean (bugger all). How to survive writing the third book in a trilogy and so on and so forth.

I honestly don’t know how I’d cope in this industry if I didn’t have all my publishing friends to turn to. I’ve also been enjoying passing on what I’ve learned to others via my musings, this blog, at various appearances, and by other means, most enjoyably in person over a yummy meal. Helping other folks is even better than being helped. Who knew?

And yet I’m also extremely reluctant to join organisations.

I’m currently a member of SCBWI because I taught at one of the SCBWI workshops and was comped a year’s membership. I doubt I would have joined otherwise. I’m also a member of ASIF! because censorship makes my blood boil and also it’s not a formal organisation in the way that SCBWI is—it’s more of an activist mailing list based around one particular issue. Mailing lists I can do. I’m also not a member of SFWA which is the premier organisation of science fiction and fantasy professionals.

That’s weird because although I made my fiction debut as a young adult writer, I’ve been a part of the sf and fantasy community for more than fifteen years now, dating back to when I was researching my PhD (which became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction).

I think it might be because I know too much about SFWA. As part of my doctoral and post-doctoral research I read a vast deal of correspondence about SFWA and a great many back issues of their SFWA Forum. The result is that I feel completely burned out by the organisation without ever having been part of it.

This is not to say that SFWA is any more dysfunctional than any other organisation. Show me an organisation whose members are all a hundred per cent gruntled and I’d want to know what drugs they’re on.

Professional organisations have a great deal going for them. The best of them provide vital services to their members like advocacy when professional disasters occur, cheap lawyers, cheap health insurance, and so forth. They’re also a good way to meet your peers, which (see above) is invaluable.

However, you can be part of a community but not of any its professional bodies. There are some who’d say you’re not being a good citizen in doing so, but, well, I seem to disagree. Thing is I’m not entirely sure why.

It may be a touch of the Groucho Marxes (“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”), or it could be that I worry about being associated with an organisation that is on the record as supporting causes I don’t support. Or not on the record for supporting causes I do. I guess I would much rather keep my solo voice as part of broader and more disparate communities.

Or maybe it’s because I didn’t enjoy playground politics in high school. Nor did I enjoy the university version—either as a student or as a staff member. It could be that I’m just not comfortable with the politics of any formal organisations. I guess there’s a reason that the happiest I’ve ever been is as a work-at-home freelancer.

Could also be that I’m just lazy.

Or something. Those of you who are members of these kind of organisations—what do you get out of it? How do you cope with the politics?


  1. claire on #

    justine, i don’t know that i’d be willing to join orgs in the sf/f community because although i love sf/f, i don’t feel about it the same advocacy fervor i feel about social justice (esp. asian american or women’s issues or whatever). but i have been involved and continue to be involved in (and have even started) organizations that are run in similar ways.

    the politics are a bitch, no two ways about it. and i’ve been burned repeatedly. but i stay in and do my part because what you get out of it is power. power is such a dirty little word; we all have to pretend that we aren’t power hungry, but we all are. feminists and other types of activists are seeking power. the members of professional organizations are seeking power. even the lowly writer in the garret seeks power, if only that electrical surge that fills your body up to the skin when the words are flowing well.

    and the power of organized groups is mind boggling when it comes together. there’s a high you get from working inside a functional group that’s like nothing else … and the results are bigger, smarter and hundreds of times higher impact than anything you can do by yourself.

    if you see something wrong and actually want to fix it (rather than just complaining about it on your blog) then the best way to do it is to join or start an organization and deal with the bullshit and the compromises. if you want to do something that’s bigger than your own personal power can manage, then getting together a group of the like-minded is the only way.

    and frankly, that’s more than half of the human experience, isn’t it: dealing with groups of people. you don’t have to be a part of an organization to do this, but joining an org is like mainlining group dynamic. some people are good at it. some are less so. but unless you’re a hermit, you have to do some of it.

  2. Cecelia(C.C) on #

    um….I haven’t read your entire entry, but as far as i can tell communities are great. (i wouldn’t condidering that i’m only a teen) but i write stuff, i’m even halfway to finishing a book(yay!) and communities, or friends or any type of support helps.

    by the way, i can’t wait until magic’s child come out. it’s killing me!

  3. Sherwood Smith on #

    I belong to sfwa–just ignored the politics. most of the arguments are between a handful of noisy folks who seem to find it recreational to argue. I don’t read their posts–time is too precious. So they don’t bother me. Also, I have no interest whatsoever in awards or requalification, the two biggest bones of contention, so again I just shrug.

    an organization is what one makes of it. I do think that if one volunteers in areas one likes, tries to do a good job, one’s own effort will totally fly under the radar that blips on the nutcases and the splashy personalities, but it contributes to the overall good.

    (my take–i also have no quarrel with those who don’t join things.)

  4. Justine on #

    Claire: Should have made it clear that I’m solely talking about professional writers’ organisations. I’ve been a member of various other more focussed groups over the years, not to mention being a part of the WisCon concom for four or five years because it is something I care about passionately. Which is to say that I entirely agree with you. And you’ve added another reason as to why I haven’t joined SFWA etc.

    Cecelia: So pleased you’re excited about Magic’s Child—I reallly hope you can manage to wait until March. It’s really not that far away . . .

    Sherwood Smith: I have to say I’m majorly squicked by the way the Nebulas work. Seems to me that having the nominating proccess secret and the way the actual voting works public would make a lot more sense.

    And good on you for beavering away from within.

  5. Rebecca on #

    “I didn’t enjoy playground politics in high school. Nor did I enjoy the university version”

    I am currently not enjoying the university version as well. luckily for me, there are pockets outside the influence of the crap which i have more or less managed to find my way into. so i’m not insane yet. as for organized writing orgs, the closest i come is a critique group, which i like. this probably has something to do with the fact that it only has six core members. i’ve never been much for sticking steadfastly to stuff larger than that, because chances are quite good that i won’t agree with every single thing they stand for. so i prefer to drift, doing what i can where i can without tying myself down to one org or another. when i do join them, they’re always small ones, where i have access to what’s going on and can know about the inner workings. that way, i stay informed and if/when they start doing things that don’t work out, i’ll know.

  6. schoolblows on #

    i think i am insane!!! its just as bad as high school. the same bitches. same nasty guys. when does all the peoples finally grow up? 🙁

  7. Rebecca on #

    “when does all the peoples finally grow up”

    That’s what I’d like to know too. *rollseyes*

  8. Diana on #

    Those of you who are members of these kind of organisations—what do you get out of it? How do you cope with the politics?

    well, to start with, we spell it with a ‘z.’ You’d be surprised how much zing you get out of such a small change.

    Other than that, the politics is such a soul-killer. caused more heartache. still, i wouldn’t be pubbed without rwa, so I put up with it. can’t live with, can’t live without… also, if the good people who can’t handle all the crap politics abandon the orgs because “I don’t need it anymore and I can’t deal with the crap” then the newbies who are so much like I once was will have no one to show them the ropes but the emotional vampiric power trippers. can’t have that, can we? think of the children!

  9. Justine on #

    Rebecca & Schoolblows: *Sigh*. The bad news is that some of them never do grow up. The good news is that by the end of university you’ll find others like you. I promise! (Or if not than after uni, honest.)

    Diana: You can keep your imperialist attempt to change my spelling! I will not be moved!

    I knew someone would try to guilt me into joining. I just knew it! Maybe I’ll join RWA . . . or the authors’ guild. Anyone know about the authors’ guild?

  10. Charlotte May on #

    What about PEN?????

  11. Justine on #

    Charlotte May: Please, I don’t use pens—I have a computer!

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