The tribe meets…

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events
The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book
My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.


People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

A party: the ambassador, the Arabist and instant invisibility

The odds are fairly unlikely of naming an island so remote than it’s a pin-dot on a map of the South Pacific — 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti — and meeting someone at the cheese plate who says: “I sailed past there once.”

The island is Mangareva, in French Polynesia. I knew of it from translating 19th century French historical documents for a freelance project. My cheese-plate-sharer turned out to be a sixth generation Caucasian Fijian, the nation’s ambassador to the United Nations, a tower a few blocks north of the party.

Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands
Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course!

Somewhat pneumatic after six weeks of illness and no exercise + a gluttonous vacation, I felt ill at ease amongst the 20-something women, all of them as thin as praying mantises. Manhattan women are almost terrifyingly, uniformly lean, their thighs the size of my forearms. It’s hard not to feel intimidated, outsize and unattractive in their midst.

I sat beside a man in a pink oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt, wearing a Cartier watch on his left wrist. He began our conversation by warning me that he is deaf in one ear, so we would have to adjust accordingly. As one always does here, I asked if — like our hosts and many of the guests — he, too, was a journalist.

“I’m a bad guy,” he replied. Cool! The ambassador had already told me about his four-day prison term and later house arrest. What had this man done?

“I work on Wall Street.”

Yeah, that qualifies.

We shared memories of Corsica and had a great time, his gentle modesty refreshing.

Then a woman, a fellow freelancer for the same paper, and I started talking. Ego, beware! There are few moments more deadly than the “So, who do you write for?”  which is really a whole new fresh hell of potential insecurity and one-upmanship. What you really want to snap is “Google me!” But you can’t.

So she told me all about her four fancy steady freelance gigs, (to my none), and I began to feel very small. Then a friend of hers showed up and I was instantly, after an introduction, invisible as they heartily reminisced about their recent Caribbean vacation.

I edged toward the door, in the narrow hallway, where I started talking to a young woman about some astonishing meals we had recently eaten. Common ground!

She teaches Arabic, which struck me as amazing and exotic and one hell of an accomplishment. Somehow we got onto the subject of church attendance and discovered we both attend Episcopal churches — and that you just can’t talk about religion in New York because it doesn’t do what everyone expects of you — prove that you’re (just as) rich, connected or powerful. It was a rare opportunity to talk about spirituality in daily life, as lovely and unlikely as discovering a stranger with a shared knowledge of one of the Gambier Islands.

Have you been to any good parties lately?