Sometimes, They Even Want to Eat Lunch with You: How I Found My Writing Community
I was the kid the other kids threw rocks at, a sacrifice to the gods of normalcy, in a small town that recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump in the Massachusetts primary. I did not have many friends and I liked it that way, retreating into a Flogging Molly hoodie rather than meeting the eyes of the guy who sat next to me in homeroom, hanging around the English department’s office instead of heading to my next class. I was so brutally unpopular that even my gym teachers were forced into mercy, excusing me from the disgrace of being a dodgeball target to go walk circles on the track.
All of this seemed perfectly normal to me — my lot in life, the cards I’d been dealt, even among my family. Brothers, if not mainstream cool kids, weren’t the kids who had to pretend they weren’t hungry anyway so that they could spend their lunch hour in the library researching achondroplasia for a short story; they were probably out behind the school doing whatever it was that kids with mohawks did. Counter-culture kids had a home with each other, at least, and even amongst them, I was too strange.
I kept a list of names tucked into the back of my binder, heroes from books and Irish songs, side by side with their causes of death. Dark but not criminally so, so when the DARE officer took me aside to ask why I kept a hit list, my face flushed hot and I had to explain to him that no, I wasn’t planning on dueling “John” in the middle of the Australian outback and that as a matter of fact, I didn’t plan to move into an annex in Amsterdam with Peter, either. Don’t you read, sir? This, he said, was a part of why I was friendless. I shrugged at him and pressed my finger into the broken spine of a paperback, one of the several I carried everywhere. I flipped my binder open again to lines of blue ink, the round, hopeful loops of a middle school girl filling page after college ruled page. I am not friendless.
In the summer after junior year of high school, I convinced my parents to pay more than they could afford to send me to Emerson’s Summer Writing Program for High School Students. Here, I knew, I would be no more popular than I was at my own high school, but having long since made peace with my lack of popularity and understanding it as essential to The Writing Life, I was willing to put my work out there a bit. I imagined that, as with my classmates at high school, when these people said they wanted to be writers I would scoff into my collar and wonder if they meant journalists. I was not so much convinced of my own moral superiority as I was in disbelief that other people might display a willingness to submit themselves to the rigorous solitude I thought would be necessary as a writer.
So I sat alone outside Emerson’s campus in a cemetery on Boylston Street, eating a tuna salad sandwich during lunch on the first day of class, my legs itching in bright sunlight and denim. On day two, as I settled into a desk with my binder — no longer containing anything that could be mistaken for a hit list — someone sat beside me and asked for my favorite book. “Where did you eat lunch yesterday?” she asked me, before inviting me to go with the rest of them for frozen yogurt and D’Angelos at City Place. There is no closeness quite like your first writing group.
I keep in touch with these same classmates, though we’ve scattered across the globe. Matt is in Israel. Krista is in La Vegas. Charlie — well, he’s notorious. The next summer, when my parents could not afford another year of daily classes and me not working, my teacher from Emerson pointed me to GrubStreet, where I took free sessions of their Young Adult Writing Program. I ate lunch with my classmates, showing them the wonders of by-the-ounce frozen yogurt bars and eavesdropping for a story. And I’m still at GrubStreet, ten years later, taking classes and stunned at the idea of having a community.
Someone told me recently about a coworker who sends her poetry and then expects critique. “Send her to GrubStreet!” I said, excited for this woman I’d never met that she would have the opportunity to find her people the same way I found mine. “I used to write in high school but I stopped,” someone at the dog park told me recently. “Go to GrubStreet!” I said, remembering that first tuna sandwich among the tombstones, the decade of workshops and lunches that followed.
Sometimes, writing is the cure to loneliness, the answer to having nowhere to sit in the school cafeteria even though you’ve known these people for twelve years. Sometimes, writing is lonely, when you send poems to a coworker who really just wants to go home to her family, or you move to a new city and you have no other way to spend your time. I found my people in writing workshops — first at Emerson and eventually at GrubStreet. People who wait for your writing with eager inboxes, who want to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, they even want to eat lunch with you.
Ashley Weckbacher is a student and a Pauline Scheer Fellow in GrubStreet's Novel Incubator Program, Class of 2016-17. She is currently revising her novel in progress, based on the Scottish Selkie myth.