What Wolves Are You Missing? How Writing Communities Improve Our Writing
By A.H. Reaume
“The Yellowstone river is healthier today than it was in 1995. The wild part about this positive ecological trend (which cuts against so many other ecological trends in the world) is that we understand pretty well why it’s happening.”
I grew up in a family of non-readers.
My mom kept a stack of self-help books she saw on Oprah in a pile next to her bed. They gradually gathered a layer of dust as I grew from a child into a teenager -- but she never opened them.
My father liked to talk about how he loved to read when he was my age. But I don’t remember ever seeing him holding a book.
My siblings had other hobbies.
Reading was something I did obsessively and on my own. When I was 7, I started bringing a book with me everywhere just in case there was an opportunity to read. At 8, I was thrilled when I realized that there was just enough light from the streetlamp to read when I was supposed to be sleeping. At 9, I decided to read 50 books in one summer and ended up reading 52.
Reading, and later writing, were always solitary acts for me. None of my friends read much, either in elementary school or later in high school.
“I can’t. I have a date with Virginia Woolf,” my 16-year-old lit geek self once joked my friend Luke when he asked me to go with him to the opening night of one of the Lord of the Ring movies.
“Are you angry at me?” he asked, not understanding why I would prioritize reading over going out.
My mom expressed similar confusion when she asked me once if I wanted to go on vacation over March Break. I told her I was burned out from school and would rather spend the week writing. I had to confirm this multiple times since she kept expecting me to change my mind.
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“It’s just not a normal response from a teenager,” she explained.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I would meet other people who read as much as I did. And it wasn’t until recently when I’ve felt like I’ve found a writing community.
“In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. And—quite unexpectedly—the results of wolves once again roaming the park is that the river is healthier.”
I met the first person who I felt truly understood me in university. I was in the Honours English program when I became friends with Manuel, who often spoke up passionately in class about the same books I did. We became so close that people nicknamed us ManManda – an amalgam of our names.
We once begged off studying for our Shakespeare midterm by spontaneously going to a performance of Waiting for Godot instead. We then stayed up late afterwards writing a parody of the play entitled Waiting for Our B.A.s to act out at an end of year party.
Together, we were unashamed of being relentlessly geeky. But we were self-aware about it and made our classmates laugh by frequently parodying ourselves.
“Reintroducing a predator caused the moose to move more and stay out of valleys, which allowed more vegetation to grow (moose are munchers), which allowed beavers to flourish, which reintroduced beaver dams, which in turn created more beaver dams and river restructuring, which meant there were more pools and breaks, which allowed fish to flourish, which introduced more nutrients. These points are just the larger impacts, there’s much more in the details.”
Meeting Manuel, and the other students in my program, changed me. It was the first time that I met people who were like me. I was no longer a weirdo. I had a community. And through the strength of that community, I developed the courage to be more comfortable with myself. To not worry about what other people thought. To give in to my passion for books.
I also got to think beside them. Their views challenged me. I learned. I grew in my capacity to think about books and theory and life. I also grew in how I thought about writing.
But after university was over, all those friends who loved books as much as I did left Vancouver. We tried to stay in touch, but life got busy.
I was alone again in my reading. I didn’t feel like a weirdo anymore, but I missed the exchange of ideas. I missed reading something and having someone smart to talk about it with afterwards. I liked holding ideas and stories up in the presence of others and seeing how the light might refract through them differently for each of us.
“Everywhere on earth is an ecosystem; a set of interrelated systems that have evolved into some form of equilibrium.”
It was ten years before I found other readers and writers I could connect with in that way again. During that time, my reading and writing felt lonely. Looking back now, I can see how it also wasn’t as good.
We often think about writing as something that we do alone, but it’s not. Writing is done not just when we’re typing up or editing our work and not even just when we are asking people to read it and give us feedback. It is also done in the conversations we have with each other about literature, writing, and ideas.
“What’s the problem with existing disability narratives?” I ask my friend Adam as I try to figure out how to tell my own story about my disability.
“How is realism inherently ableist?” I discuss with my friend Erin.
“What books should I read if I want to think about being disabled and performing your own disability for gatekeepers as a form of labour under neoliberalism?” I type into the ether on Twitter and get a dozen responses back.
Roland Barthes infamously said that the author was dead or more specifically that, "the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."
For Barthes, all works are a tapestry. All works are dialogic. All works are essentially created by an ecosystem.
Authorship is a process that is too complex to fully understand. I can no more write a novel alone as I can create a new language. I inherit the words. I inherit the historical and current cultural conversations. My friendships and the dialogue about books and writing I have with others shapes what I write. These conversations make my writing richer. They do so, in part, by helping me move more quickly from an initial curiosity to an idea like the moose moved more quickly through the brush or by giving me resources that I wouldn’t otherwise have just like the beavers got access to more vegetation and also by providing me with safe places to test out my ideas like the fish in the standing pools of water. When we don’t have those things – something critical is missing from our writing. It loses its complexity and its depth. It’s less robust. Less likely to stand up to scrutiny.
“There are signs that we can figure out how to consider the broad range of connections that exist between everything that lives.”
The very structure of this piece is a testament to the way my community shapes my writing. The quotes I’m braiding into it are from my friend Winston’s newsletter Literary Threads. In fact, I got the idea for this piece after reading his book recommendations this week.
“I know this is extremely corny to say,” I texted him a few minutes after the newsletter hit my inbox, “but you’re the wolf that was missing from my ecosystem.”
“That might be past my corny limits,” he joked, “But thank you.”
Winston and I met on Twitter when a friend of his tagged him on a tweet about how much I read to say that I reminded her of him. We discovered that our reading tastes overlap almost exactly and, as we both process ideas verbally, we started reading books and discussing them together.
We don’t live in the same city, but we talk on the weekends. Once for an epic 8 hours because we had 8 books we’d both recently read that we wanted to hear each other’s thoughts on. We pull novels apart to see how they work, what they are trying to accomplish, and whether they accomplished that. We talk through the ideas in theory and non-fiction books to help clarify our own ideas and deepen our understanding. We don’t always agree -- and we like that. When we have different opinions, we are eager to understand why – seeing it as a chance to potentially shift or complicate our thinking about something. We are excited to learn and eternally curious. We ask far more questions that we will ever have answers for.
Winston knows more about my works in progress than I think I do sometimes. He’ll suggest an idea or a book for me to read and it will somehow be exactly what I’m looking for. He also shares with me his creative and writing ideas and we often prioritize reading books we’re both interested in just so we can have someone to discuss them with.
In an act of peak nerdiness, we send each other books in the mail that we mark up with marginalia for each other -- another way to share our reading.
“The more we read and think together,” I told him once, “The more I feel we’re able to help each other creatively. We are becoming so intellectually enmeshed that,” here I paused to think up a proper metaphor. “I feel sometimes like you’re my brain’s external hard drive.”
Winston laughed. “I think that it’s more like we’re part of the same fungi network,” he said recalling a previous conversation about the remarkable way subterranean fungi redistribute nutrients and resources unseen below forest floors -- allowing different species of trees to help each other thrive.
Yesterday, Winston sent me an interview by Tressie McMillan Cottom, the author of Thick: And Other Essays, a book that we read and both loved.
“I want to be as critically insightful as Dr. Cottom and I plan to spend the next decade working to build my capacity for this goal,” he texted.
“I’ll print out the article and read it so we can talk about it tomorrow,” I messaged back. “Let’s both set that as a goal. And help each other get there.”
“The below books have all challenged me to think about ecosystems; to notice how a topic is situated in a broader environment; to wrestle with what corrections would be minimal versus what might be done to deeply impact the ecosystem. In the cases where these books address systems that are toxic or declining, I find myself asking what wolves are missing and how do we reintroduce them.”
Winston isn’t the only wolf helping me craft my next book. I shared this metaphor with my friend Erin. She, unlike Winston, thought it was poetic.
“You’re one of my wolves,” I said, citing how our conversations about literary form and disability helped inspire my most recent book idea, an auto-theory memoir about living in an invisibly disabled body.
“You’re absolutely one of my wolves, too,” she replied.
We talked for a while about the impact of friends on our writing and the richness that having a community of writers and readers brings to our work. At the end of our conversation, I asked Erin if she would mind being a character in my memoir.
“Can I talk about our conversations?” I ask. “I love the way we think through ideas of disability together. You’re so brilliant. I can see our phone calls being a really important part of the work.”
“I’m honoured,” Erin responded. “Yes. Absolutely.”
I have whole dens of wolves in my life now. Some give me book suggestions. Others encourage me. Some just talk through ideas with me in ways that help me see the light in them from a different perspective. A few will even become a direct part of my work – their words making their way into my next book. Their lives and experiences becoming subjects.
There are too many big and small ways that these wolves change and improve my writing and my writing life to name. They tell me that their writing has improved because of me, too. It is a beautiful exchange -- an ecosystem that’s so complex it’s impossible to ever disentangle all the ways we intersect and support each other. We are both wolves and fungi for each other. We are the things that were missing and the networks that nourish each other. We braid ourselves into each other’s work in visible and invisible ways.
Wolves are hard to find, I have been without them for a decade. But I am excited to see what the next decade will bring now that they have been reintroduced into my life.
 All italicized quotations are from: Hearn, Winston. (2020) Ecosystems. Literary Threads. Vol 3.
 Barthes, R. (1968). The Death of the Author. 1st ed. University Handout.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.