Interview: Brynn Markham on Finding Writing Community and Support Through James River Writers

“Writing is hard and it can be isolating. Community provides the vital support to keep going. James River Writers provides that community.” This was the ethos that inspired James River Writers, and it has kept this dynamic, active, and connected collective of wordsmiths thriving ever since.

Today on our blog, we’re sitting down with Brynn Markham, Director of Programs and Communications for JRW, to discuss how this multifaceted group helped revitalize Richmond’s literary scene, and why writing communities can help improve and support each member’s individual craft.

1). What is and who are James River Writers? What does your writing community do?

James River Writers (JRW) is a nonprofit that builds community by connecting, supporting, and inspiring writers. We provide programming year-round to help writers at all skill levels develop their craft, as well as the business side of their work. In addition to our signature event, the Annual James River Writers Conference, we offer Master Classes, a Writing Show series, on-demand Encore! classes, and opportunities to socialize and connect through our monthly Writers Wednesday events.

2). How did JRW originate, and how did you get involved?

JRW was founded 20 years ago (next year!) when local writers in Richmond, Virginia, saw a need for supporting the growth of its budding literary community. This small group of writers hosted its first conference the following year, and James River Writers has continued to grow its membership and program offerings exponentially since then.

As a nonprofit communications professional in the Greater Richmond area, my work with public media (VPM PBS/NPR) connected me to James River Writers through my community engagement efforts. As a lover of writing, especially poetry, I always admired JRWs work from afar, and wanted to get involved with their efforts, both professionally and personally. In the fall of 2019, I made the decision to leave my work at VPM, in order to provide space for the perfect opportunity to come along. I wanted a flexible workplace that fueled my passions and allowed me to continue to work in Richmond’s nonprofit sector. James River Writers was the perfect fit. I now have the opportunity to add value to the community I live in, while also (selfishly?) benefiting from being inspired by talented writers every day!

3). What are the benefits of being involved in a writers community like JRW? How have you seen writers evolve and grow?

I joined JRW in February of 2020, right before COVID hit. As a result, I was only able to host two in-person events before we made the pivot to online programming, including hosting our signature event, the Annual James River Writers Conference, virtually.

I definitely had reservations about whether I would be able to effectively connect to our community in a meaningful way when there were no “live” options to do so. But this community of writers is nothing short of amazing, and my reservations were completely unfounded. Our membership is highly engaged and extremely supportive of one another. I’ve mentioned several times to everyone that you can plan all the details of an event or program, but if the participants and presenters are not authentic and personable, your planning is for naught. It’s the people that make an organization. The relationships within James River Writers are what make it such a success. Our seasoned presenters and instructors, like Newbery Medalist Meg Medina and Emmy Award-Winner Hank Phillippi Ryan, genuinely want to see our budding writers succeed. Our new members want to learn and be in community with one another. As one of our long-time members, accomplished author Karen A. Chase has said, “JRW…is so wonderful at championing all writing genres, encouraging diversity, and giving rise to varied viewpoints. If you’re a JRW member, as you grow and gain successes, you’re always welcomed back in to share that knowledge with writers coming up. JRW is the ladder of success, and it’s always there for everyone whether they’re on their first book, or their fourteenth.”

Writing is hard and it can be isolating. Community provides the vital support to keep going. James River Writers provides that community.

4). The James River Writers Conference appears to be your flagship event. What goes into creating a successful writers conference? What advice would you give to writers who want to make the most of their participation in a writers conference (whether they’re part of a panel or event, or just going as an attendee)?

Yes, our Annual James River Writers Conference, held in October every year, is our flagship event.

Because my first JRW Conference was hosted online, one of our main concerns was whether or not we would be able to recreate that sense of connection and community that keeps everyone coming back to us. Luckily, our attendees and speakers overwhelmingly told us that they were amazed at how connected they felt during our conference, in this online space. To do so, we not only incorporated the important professional development opportunities to teach the business and craft of writing, we also included ample opportunities to network and connect with other writers, as well as time to benefit from one anothers’ perspectives in more relaxed settings. As a writer, to make the most out of your time, force yourself to come out of your shell (so many of us tend to fight this), establish some new contacts, and then continue to connect after the conference. Writing is most definitely a marathon. You need someone to cheer you on, and to offer you refreshment along the path when you need it.

5). What suggestions would you make to writers who want to join–or get “more” out of–a dedicated writing group or workshop?

I would suggest that, in order to get the most out of writing groups, you do actively have to participate. Don’t just pop in to ask a specific question, or to make a specific contact, and then never be seen again. Some of the best moments that result in next steps for writers come from conversations with others before and after our programs. And, whatever time and energy you put into your community of writers, you’ll get back tenfold. Our community celebrates the successes of one another, both privately and publicly. Many times, they collaborate on events when their works present natural opportunities to do so. Writers are some of the most supportive people because they know how hard it can be. You’ll never see a successful writer only singing their own praises.

I also highly recommend building up your contacts on social media, and following those writers, agents, and publishers that align with your work. This will help you stay informed of submissions opportunities and industry trends, and feel inspired and seen on the days you just can’t seem to get any words on paper.

6). In your opinion, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

This is a tricky question, because the answer is most definitely different for everyone. And, depending on where you are on your writing journey it also changes for the individual. Success for a writer can be as simple as setting a goal and keeping to the measures you set to get there. Showing up each day and putting “pen to paper.” If you start measuring your success by industry standards, then that’s likely to keep you from getting you where you want to be. As a recent presenter on one of our panels put it – Are you still having fun? Enjoying yourself? If not, then stop and think about why that is. Are you constantly stopping the flow of ideas because you’re obsessed with the editing or word choices, at every turn? If so, change course. You’re probably not focusing on the writing, but on that goalpost.

If you’re interested in checking out James River Writers, a great entry point is our free monthly Writers Wednesdays events. Now offered online, and open to writers at all levels of expertise, Writers Wednesdays offer a chance to network and socialize in a relaxed environment. We’d love for you to join our community of writers.

Learn more about James River Writers here: https://jamesriverwriters.org
Follow James River Writers on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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