Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Finding and Longing for Community (Life Changing Moments Series)

This is the first in a series of guest posts from people who are sharing moments that changed their lives. I asked Jane Friedman to kickstart the series, because she has been equal parts friend, leader, mentor, cheerleader, and inspiration for me. Anyone lucky enough to meet her knows she's smart and has a great sense of humor. Jane is an assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. Plus, she is the former publisher of Writer's Digest and still offers advice for all types of creative people at her website and blog—

Jane Friedman, media guru and friend

I grew up in a rural Indiana town of 2,000, where every year they still crown Little Miss Sweet Corn. It's a town of a dozen railroad crossings and no traffic lights. I went to sleep and awoke to the sound of train whistles, and my friends and I would lay pennies on the train tracks and collect flattened pieces the next day.

My town's high school consisted of 300 students, and that was after drawing from surrounding farming communities that didn't have high schools of their own. There wasn't much to do aside from go to school, visit the local library, and do what the local teens called "cruising." Cruising meant circling around town on the major thoroughfares—one mile per lap—with country music blaring.

As a bookish sort—always the first to raise her hand in class or volunteer to help the teacher—I didn't fit in too well. I tended to participate in activities I wasn't cut out for, just to fit in and have something to pass the time—track and field, volleyball scorekeeper, church youth group activities. These were pre-Web days, and even though I had a desktop PC, I had no way of learning how to program or finding more advanced activities, unless it involved raising livestock, welding, or preaching.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I saw a poster in the library announcing a new magnet high school for gifted and talented students, limited to juniors and seniors. It was called the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, and there was no tuition because it was a publicly funded school.

Of course there was no doubt I would apply for admission, and my mother encouraged it. I was the only student from my high school to apply, and to this day, I'm still the only student from my hometown who has ever attended. That's partly because it's a 4-hour drive from my hometown to Muncie, Ind., where the Academy is based. Attending the Academy meant I wouldn't be at home more than once a month—during mandatory breaks—which my mother wished was even less often. (The drive was hellish when undertaken 4 times in one weekend, and Academy students were not allowed to have cars.)

I applied to the Academy because I wanted an academic challenge. But I was afraid of leaving my hometown friends, so much so that I hesitated to confirm my spot when I received my acceptance letter. My mother nearly went out of her mind with frustration when I indicated I might not go. How could I pass up a tremendous opportunity to improve my education because of friends?

So in fall 1992, a new world opened up.

For the first time, I was surrounded by people smarter than I, people who were far more advanced in their schoolwork. I had to take the lowest level math courses since I was so far behind everyone else. But I devoured the eccentric and deep-dive literature classes, such as Lost Generation Literature, Shadow Literature, and Shakespearean comedies.

For the first time, I found friends who I had something in common with aside from geography.

For the first time, I found that boys could really be interested in me.

For the first time, no one made fun of me.

It was only after graduating from the Academy that I realized its biggest gift had nothing to do with the education (though that was invaluable, too); it was the gift of a community that accepted me and gave me permission to become whoever I really was. I developed confidence, a unique voice, and a foundation of independence that I later built upon while in college.

Today, I still retain some social awkwardness and introversion, someone for whom making new friends feels more difficult than it ought to be. What's so paradoxical is that the Academy has been both helpful and harmful when it comes to such tendencies. The Academy showed me what real friendships look like; it was a far more intimate and personal bonding experience than what I found in college.

But because I once lived and breathed in a tight-knit community of like-minded people, I'm impatient and dismissive of anything less—and since then, I live with a distant desire in my heart, a dream of finding another community that can be that personal and meaningful.


If you think you have a great life changing moment to share, click here to learn how to get the conversation started. I'm sure if you think it's important, I may too.


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See how the Not Bob blog is getting a little more personal with these posts:


Anonymous said...

Jane, you're awesome. And you're not so bad yourself, Robert. :) Thanks for all you guys do for new writers and building community. -cat

JeannetteLS said...

This was wonderful, and inspiring. I am far older than Jane, but her topic is one that my own "community" discuss frequently. The older I get, the more important being a part of a community of like-hearted AND like-minded people becomes. You have inspired me to kick this whole subject around.

Jane has--and you, not Bob. I look forward to your guest bloggers. Thank you so much.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks, Cat. Jane is rather awesome.

I've been involved with quite a few super communities over the years, Jeannette, and it's amazing how even the best ones change over time--perhaps because they are so good. Being near great people inspires me to be great.

Also, I just want to throw out another thank you to Jane for this great post!

Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

I'm excited for the series you've started this year. Moving post to start it off. I can wholly relate.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks, Andrea! I'm excited about the series too.

Linda Taylor said...

Robert. thank you for this.
Jane, I just signed up for your newsletter, and will be contacting Robert soon with an idea for a guest post inspired by yours! I'm new to the 21st century way of entering publishing as an author; not new to publishing. I was always on the production end. My writing was personal, unfinished and/or only for the businesses I worked for. Now I'm ready to enter the fray as an author. Blogs like Jane's and Robert's give us newbies hope, promise, inspiration and a platform. Thank you both from my writer's heart.

Joanna said...

Thank you, Robert, so glad jane introduced me to this site.

Loved this post, Jane. Community and a longing for it when not part of a kindred one, have played such important roles in my life too!

Anonymous said...

Jane, I so identify with your comment about introversion. I was so shy as a kid that my mom teased me and called me the Mole, as in, you know, those little blind creatures who hide underground? But I didn't want to play with other kids. I didn't understand them, and they bored me. So I read, and read, and read, first every book in the library about horses. When I'd exhausted them, about other animals. A fifth-grade teacher introduced me to biographies and I got hooked on them. Now I'm a writer. Big surprise, huh? Best wishes to my Mole-sister, and thanks to Robert for a wonderful idea.

Pete Dulin said...


Sweet, inspiring post. I'm glad you experienced that moment!

Anonymous said...

Like "much older" and Jane my town HS was 300. No Academy for me, so your writing made me look for what introduced me to smart, energized people. I was lucky to stumble into great communities and grateful for the modeling and inspiration to me and our 5 kids.

I feel those achieving friends helped me break a family cycle of intellectual defeat and impoverishment. My adult kids are making real marks in their personal and professional lives. -Thanks for bringing the impact of my supportive friends on these outcomes to my attention

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. I'm glad your parents encouraged you to join this community. And I'm glad you found the intellectual stimulation you needed. Community is crucial. Have a blessed and Happy New Year.

Megg Jensen said...


My Illinois hometown sounds so much like yours - except we didn't even have a public library. Nor did I have a chance to attend a high school like that. I didn't find my tribe until my 30s. It's a long, lonely journey for us introverted literary girls, but I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who walked that path.


Patricia V. Davis said...

After reading this post, I understand why I took to Jane so quickly after meeting her at a conference. Jane, you share a background and a number of experiences with my husband. He could have written this post, with a few minor changes. Robert, thanks for posting this. Now that I've found this blog, I'll be sure to stop by and read more in this series.

Warm regards to you both,

Rita Ashley said...

Jane, Thank you for sharing yourself. We would have been best friends in either school! I recall sitting on the black and white checkered linoleum floor in our brick apartment in Cleveland reading "The Book of Knowledge" just for fun. My mother banished me to the outside to 'play.' I snuck back in to read. That social awkwardness issue plagues so many of us because we have an uncommon litmus test. But rest assured, you have hundreds of friends-in-waiting.

Anne R. Allen said...

What an inspiring story. It's amazing how our culture looks down on smart kids (and smart people in general.) I guess that's why most of our doctors and scientists come from other countries. Americans seem to be dumbing ourselves down into a permanent underclass. How lucky you were to have parents who could put you in the right environment to grow.

Elizabeth Munroz said...

I think of a seed that if not nurtured grows into an average or constrained plant. As a parent of another Indiana Academy first year student. I think of seeds nurtured beyond belief who all grew to be spectacular. I still marvel at the good fortune of that school coming into existence. Jane is a perfect example of how far one can go with a life defining moment like that. Have you ever wondered, Jane, what your outcome might have been if you had never attended?

Anonymous said...

I can certainly relate to the need for community. As a writer, we spend a lot of time alone with our computer. Although I developed enough social skills along the way to function successfully in group situations, I am still an introvert with hermit tendencies. I know I need to build and maintain my social media platform but I'm still a little shy. I am grateful for my supportive friends in my read/critique group and in all the classes I've taken on the internet.

Lorna Faith said...

thanks for sharing...:) I totally understand the small farming community thing...since I grew up on a farm near a town of 800 people:-) Love online communities like this where an introvert can express themselves freely. Feel inspired...thanks!

Dennis Wright said...

Thanks so much for sharing of yourself. Life changing moments? I've had a few. None so positive and inspiring as yours.

Jane Friedman said...

@Elizabeth - I often wonder about that outcome, yes!

Russell Ragsdale said...

I had the opposite experience, Jane. I stayed with friends and toyed with intellect in secret. I didn't find community until the university and my roommate (a physicist with a 250+ IQ) who is still one of my best friends. As I read your post, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to find real community in another way and at an earlier time. Your post was enjoyable and enlightening!