What does the word “community” mean to you? Do you imagine small towns and villages, neighbours popping over for a cuppa, and local events (village fetes, music festivals, and summer solstices) that bring people physically together. That’s certainly a definition of community, but the word has taken on so much more meaning in the past few decades, and even more so with the advent of the internet and its online resources.
Community means different things to different people, but both desiring and having a sense of belonging is a common experience. Belonging means acceptance as a member of something larger than yourself. It can take people a lifetime to discover their community, and others have several communities that are all just as relevant and essential to their lives. Most of us want to feel like we belong; in many ways, it’s as basic a need as good and shelter. Feeling that you belong helps us see value in life and understand we’re not alone with our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires.
A sense of belonging – of community – can come from a church, with particular groups of friends, a group that reflects a particular important and strong part of our personality, or through social media when you can connect with people from across the globe who have similar interests to you.
The size of a community can vary as well; it doesn’t have to be a particular size; some communities are made up of just one or two people, whilst others have complex and interconnected webs across their region, their country, or even across the world. There are also those who don’t want to belong – there are genuine lone wolves out there who find strength from a solitary existence – and others who struggle to find a sense of belonging; their loneliness becomes a cloak they wear heavily round their shoulders, and a physical aches that’s almost visible in their eyes.
Studies have shown that a sense of belonging to a community improves your motivation, health, and happiness. When you see your connection to others, you ;earn something very important; that you are not alone. Other people will have had similar experiences to you, and will know what you’re going through. They will listen and understand because they know what you’re experiencing, and that’s an incredibly liberating experience.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate, as I’ve found my communities after years of searching – when I didn’t even realise that I was searching. When I was a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time thinking that I didn’t belong; that I was weird, odd, an outcast. The usual angst at school was part of my daily routine, without me really understanding that almost everyone feels something similar to a greater or larger extent. But that’s something we need to learn for ourselves, and it often takes an adult pair of eyes to really understand those feelings; when you’re in the moment, you can’t see beyond it. I had a small group of friends who were, I suspect, all looking for their places in the world as well, and that creates a unique bond between you. The world certainly felt a touch less forbidding because of those relationships that I had.
But to build a sense of fulfilled belonging requires active effort and practice. One way to work on increasing that sense of belonging is to look for ways you are similar with others instead of focusing on ways you are different. That took me a long time to discover, until into my twenties when I began allowing myself to explore different aspects of my personality and integrating everything into a cohesive whole. Because I kept some things at arms length – my dyspraxia, which had become a guilty secret after I’d been diagnosed at 15, and a vague sense that my sexual preferences weren’t quite as other people’s – I wasn’t able to explore those parts of myself until I was willing to accept the possibility that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me; that, just because I was different to other people, didn’t mean I was wrong or broken or needing to get into the human repair shop for a tune-up and a repair job, with a bit of work on some rusty patches and … I think I’ve run that analogy into the ground, don’t you?
As I became a more well-rounded person, opening my eyes to more of the world, I began to understand that there were communities of people I could belong to – people who knew what it was like to live in a similar way to me, and that was a wonderful feeling and sense of attachment.
It’s interesting, I think, that the two of the three biggest parts of my life – dyspraxia and asexuality – didn’t bring people together in a sense of community until, really, the internet came along and allowed people from different locations to meet and talk. Because there aren’t necessarily any tell-tale signs of those two descriptions (well, unless you ask me to try and walk in a straight line or try and describe what sexual desire is like, but you take my point), I can “pass” as someone not dyspraxic or not asexual after a fashion. There’s no tattoo on my forehead or sign hanging round my neck, and pretty much all of my fellows are the same. As well as that, we’re minority groups in society, spread rather (depressingly) thinly across the country – and across the globe. There’s a lot of us, but not congregated in one area; having all the dyspraxics living together in one city would undoubtedly require a lot of soft edges and fewer stairs, and a place full of asexuals would struggle to supply new generations of little asexuals to keep the population going.
For me, the internet has been a great liberalising force; it’s enabled me to research and understand more about the parts of me that were previously neglected. The other parts – being a writer (it really is a fundamental part of who I am, and the third part of the trio of core parts of my life, and I’ll come on to that later) and being a humanist (where there are so many high-profile people and groups advocating this positive, life-affirming view of the world) – were already huge and well-discussed, but dyspraxia and asexuality never were, so it was difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The overlap between the two disparate groups in terms of representation fascinated me, and still does in fact; both groups had some representation, but not for the entirety. In the case of asexuality, this was primarily because the groups that did exist are either too big or too localised; that’s no criticism, I promise, just an acknowledgment that with such a large group, it’s often difficult to follow everything. There’s so much going on through the website that I struggled to know where to start, or even how to keep on top of the information flow; that’s at least partly because I forgot to log into the site regularly enough, and so I wasn’t really making full use of it.
To go from a place where I couldn’t work out what I was – was I straight? Gay? Repressed somehow? – to know that there was another explanation that actually fitted what I was was very refreshing. So I created a group on Facebook that was more suited to how my own brain worked, and would hopefully working in conjunction with the others that were out there. There’s certainly a niche fit for it, focused on the UK asexual community, and it allows a group of people to focus on that particular scene. For me, that’s my area of interest, and I’ve got more chance of meeting in real life people who I speak to online – and I’ve been able to do just that. Having conversations with people who have become my friends is frequently punctuated (aside from the laughter) with cries of, “Yes, I’m like that too!” and so forth. It’s quite a liberating feeling, and whilst I don’t get the opportunity to go along to very many physical meetings, I get to as many as I can, and revel in the fact that others are going on because of the group, friendships are being formed, and stories are being shared. I cherish the connections being made, and I genuinely value the friendships I’ve made as a result; we’re a diverse community, and I’ve made diverse relationships, which is a wonderful experience. Coming from a place where I hadn’t even heard of asexuality until my early thirties, I have been opened up to new ideas and points of view as a result of becoming part of this community, and that’s helped broaden my worldview so much. Even when I don’t agree with something (and that’s going to happen from time to time – we’re a spectrum, after all), knowing that we all share this common experience is heartening.
On the dyspraxia front, that was an interesting experience for me. I knew I was dyspraxic well into my teens, but didn’t want anyone to know about it; I was embarrassed to admit what was then barely known about (and I’m talking about the mid-nineties) – and when it was discussed, it most in the form of a disability that was somehow life-limiting. I didn’t want that in my life, and I certainly didn’t want that kind of negativity hanging over my head. I’m not stupid – I’m not a genius either – and I resented being treated as such by well-meaning but patronising employers, educators, and anyone who thought I was drunk because of the way I walked or a bit simple because I spoke fast or had a lisp.
The dyspraxia community was also very fragmented; groups that did exist were primarily run by and for professionals and parents of children with the condition. There was nothing out there in the ether for adults who wanted to talk, share experiences, learn from each other, and just discover the diversity of each other; instead, the medium was mostly around school tests, adapted equipment, not helping people find ways of dealing with real-life situations, and keeping people (it seemed) wrapped in bubble wrap for far too long.
I didn’t want any of that for myself; I wanted to be seen as a human being, not a person with a label who couldn’t hold down an effective job with a sense of satisfaction because I was seen as disabled or less than the next person. It was easy to find others who felt like that, all of whom were adult dyspraxics who had experienced the same sense of pressure from authority figures throughout their lives, and who all wanted to do something about it; we wanted to be equal in the eyes of society, and gain confidence and authority in speaking about our own difficulties, solutions, and what we need to make our lives easier.
When I befriended Barbara – or did she befriend me? Who knows? Who cares? – we realised that, as well as having a shared sense of humour, we had a shared drive and passion for changing the conversation and the community into a positive one? What can dyspraxics do, and does it really matter if we can’t do other things in the same way or as fast as everyone else? Who really cares?
So we formed a group called The Two Dyspraxics – so-called because there’s two of us and we’re both dyspraxic, as well as being very creative with titles – and have begun pushing for change. It’s taking us time to do, because there’s a lot of stages to get through, but that’s the nature of the beast; one of the biggest changes we want to make is to change expectations – of society, of parents, of teachers, of employers … everyone. We’ve set up groups for people to talk and listen and make friends, and help people see the positives and the abilities of a person with dyspraxia, and that’s so rewarding. When it works, it works brilliantly, and when people’s minds remain stubbornly in a narrow focus, we just see that as a challenge to crack it more open, even a small notch to accept other ideas into it. The community’s growing, and the positivity is infectious; people want to know that there’s a future out there for them which doesn’t just involve passively sitting back and accepting what life throws at us. This way, through a sense of community where people can share ideas and get advice and support, people grow and thrive.
I mentioned as well earlier in this article the sense of community that can come from writing and being a humanist / atheist (I use the terms interchangeably, although I accept they are distinct). For me, I’ve never felt the need to belong in any meaningful way to the atheism community per se, or play any kind of active role within it; there is a community, to be sure, and it’s a strong, witty, emotionally intelligent and clever one that I’m clearly very proud to be associated with, but I’ve never sought it out to play an active part. I’m not really sure why that is, to be fair; perhaps because I’ve never felt oppressed over my atheism. Many people have, sadly, and there is still a global movement – even in the supposedly enlightened 21st century – to suppress and ridicule the accumulation of knowledge and reason in a secular and rational way. It’s just that I’ve never taken the lead or even any kind of part of in that community, except by writing about it. perhaps I should, as I am very passionate about secularism and free thought, and am even more passionate about a separation between religion and atheism that allows for both to flourish. Where there’s still oppression of atheists for speaking their mind – where people in some countries can be arrested, imprisoned, even killed for being atheist – then I’m incredibly glad that a community is there to speak up for the oppressed and try to enact change. I want to help with that, and I wonder if I’m sparking off a thought process of trying to change my own mind by this article. Something for me to think about.
As for writing, this is an interesting one. Authors are, by and large, solitary creatures; they’re not all introverted, singular individuals who desire nothing more than their own company, but the work they do cannot really be done in a social circle, at least not in the same way. Creative types do band together into writer’s groups, artist’s circles, poetry corners, and so on, but to writer, you need to sit in front of a computer or an empty book and write, irrespective of whether or not anyone else is around.
This forms an interesting dichotomy; when writers then get together to discuss writing, they’re by definition not actually doing the thing they should be doing in order to actually do the job – that is, writing. Writer’s groups are excellent ways of bringing together writers from all walks of life and styles. This can often be both a blessing and a curse; you get to meet people in both your own genre, but also from the wider spectrum, and that alone broadens your mind to new skills and ways of working. However, it also dilutes the meaning to your own personal genre as well, when the group has to be generic, and when the group is specific, you don’t get any broader themes from outside. The eternal paradox.
I’ve tried out different writers’ groups in the past, and I’ve come to the realisation that I can’t commit to one full time. Half of me wishes I could, but I’m not built to thrive in that collaborative style of environment, which I admit with a fair amount of chagrin. I always thought I was a lot more collaborative, and in many ways, I am – but not when it comes to my writing, it would seem. I will always be open to improving the quality of my work, by developing a one-on-one relationship with an editor I trust; the three books that I’ve had published, I’ve had to opportunity to work with very effective, very clever people (Peter, Antonica, Sara), who I know emphatically get my work without me needing to sit down and explain myself in excruciating detail. They pore over every line and concept, and I trust them all implicitly to give me honest, fair, and even-handed responses to my work; if they don’t think something is working, they’ll tell me it isn’t working, and then help me work on a new way. They also respect the creative process because they’re writers as well, and I’m confident they’re helping me get better.
But working collaboratively in a writers’ group setting just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid; there aren’t any sci-fi / fantasy specific groups locally, but there are a diverse number of writers’ groups that meet anything from weekly to monthly. Thanet, my little area that is home to me and 127,000 other souls, is an incredibly creative and artistically diverse place, so I know there’s a place for pretty much everyone. It’s just that the place for me is dipping in and out of writers’ groups whenever I need specific thoughts on a structure or construct; to be honest, it’s not that often right now, as I feel that my writing community belongs within Inspired Quill, my publishers, and I’m also very supportive of anyone who belongs to a writers’ group. I sometimes contribute to local groups, very willingly, as I’m happy to support anyone with a love of words and a drive to do only good for their fellow writers.
My IQ stablemates and I form a loose coalition through social media, located as we are up and down the country with a diversity of particular interests, but with a particular interests in science-fiction, fantasy, poetry, LGBT fiction, and short stories. I even created The Grammar League on Facebook with a fellow IQ writer, Craig Hallam, as we’re both genuinely passionate about language and wanted to bring everyone round to our point of view; that language is fascinating, interesting, and much more fascinating when people treat it with the respect it deserves. We’ve never met in the flesh, Craig and I, although I know that’ll change in the future, but all IQ writers still form part of my writing community, and I’m very proud of that.
All told, communities can vary in strength and necessity for each individual; how much we rely on our communities depends on what we get from them. My asexual and dyspraxia communities give me a sense of awareness, a sense of who I am in the real world when I’m trying to analyse my own (minority) response to a bigger question; whereas my atheist and writers’ communities form more spaced-out and diffuse communities that I dip in and out of in a more targeted, necessary way when I’m looking for reinforcement or additional support, or when I can support someone else. It’s a small but very precise difference, and that works for me.
What works for you, however? How do you react to your own communities? How important are they all to you?