As an exercise, I made a quick (and necessarily incomplete) catalog of some of the communities I’ve participated in over the last week or so: Mormons, genealogy enthusiasts, writers, Mo-Lit enthusiasts, college students, role-playing gamers, gun enthusiasts, sf&f fandom, political commentators, community governors, word freaks, educators, language enthusiasts.
Sometimes it’s a challenge keeping those communities separate, especially when many of my friends are members of many of those communities. The lines blur—right up until they don’t.
A meander in two and two-halves parts on community, identity, and shapes of responsibility.
I thought I was clever with the title of this post, but while doing a Web search to make sure I got the grammar right I discovered (unsurprisingly) that others beat me to it. It seems this phrase has already been used in a far-reaching discussion of immigrant identity in general, and Hispanic community in particular.
This is not about that.
While I suspect I may touch on similar themes and ideas, I am not educated to either the educational or social particulars of that conversation. Any similarities will be accidental rather than intentional.
Just to be clear.
Managing Many Melting Pots
I was at a writing workshop a couple of weeks ago with four instructors acting in the role of four editors for widely differing publications. Thirty class members had each submitted a story to a generic slushpile. Each of the editors read that same slush while applying both their personal preferences and the standards of their individual publications, and explained their thoughts and reasoning when considering each story to the class.
We all got copies of all the stories and read them in preparation for the workshop. The writers were a disparate lot. We all wrote science fiction or fantasy to some degree, but many identified their primary audiences as romance, mystery, alternate history, literary-academic, military, or erotica readers. Some were from Canada, others from Europe, most from the United States. Most were from the Pacific Northwest, others from the Midwest, the Deep South, or the Intermountain West. No New Englanders in the group.
We were unified by a common theme, but approached that theme from different foundations and with very different execution. The variety of stories was amazing.
It was interesting to see how the different editors responded. The first and second (magazine) editors nearly always disagreed at the level of story—one specialized in unusual or quirky stories; the other in broad market appeal. The third and fourth (anthology) editors were the same way—but diverged from the magazine editors in requiring a broader spectrum of stories across a wider range of types for their publications.
So it was pretty common for the first editor to dump a story after one page (too mundane—not for my readers); the second to dump it after three to five pages (good writing and hook; needs more setting); the third to read it half-way through before dumping it (loved it, but I already have one just like it from a Big Name Author, so I stopped reading—sorry); and the fourth one declaring it a buy (or at least a close second look).
One of my stories prompted one magazine editor to hold the manuscript between finger and thumb and hand it straight to the second editor while saying that I pushed every one of his negative buttons by the bottom of the first page. The second editor promptly said she loved both the idea and the writing. Another author’s story so enraged one of the anthology editors that she simply tossed the manuscript back with no comments at all while shaking her head as her complement explained the disconnect.
A single community of authors and editors unified by our enthusiasm for story in general and sf&f in particular. Yet we still diverged in fundamental ways to the point of functional (professional) incompatibility.
Hierarchies of Allegiance
I just served oatmeal to my five-year old. He doesn’t care what flavor (maple and brown sugar, cinnamon roll, apple, blueberry) or what bowl (glass, plastic, or ceramic; clear or opaque; large or small), or what size/shape of spoon.
But it *will* be served on the snowman pad (a specific pot holder with a Christmas design) or he *will not* even sit down at the table, no less eat it. He can accept a great deal of variety up to that point, but this one thing is not negotiable. Ever.
My mom was like that with technology, if in an inverted way. Her first introduction to (non-game) computer software was a spreadsheet (Lotus 123). She was organizing hourly schedules at the time to ensure that there were enough people to cover a variety of different roles in the organization she managed. It was the right tool for the job, so it was naturally the one she first learned on her brand new computer.
When the time came to write letters to her volunteers describing both their weekly schedules and their responsibilities, she just opened a new spreadsheet and wrote the letters there. It made sense—easy copy and paste, built-in font handling, existing familiarity (and comfort) with the tool.
But she quickly became frustrated with limited formatting options and graphic handling as she branched out into making recruiting fliers. She would call me and complain bitterly that the tool wasn’t meeting her needs. I told her to use a word processing package, and she politely demurred and went away muttering that I just didn’t understand what she was asking…
I thought it was cute, because I use hundreds of different applications depending on the task (four different word processors this morning alone; ten different applications open at once as I type). Mom used three—Minesweeper, Solitaire, and Lotus 123. If she couldn’t solve the problem with one of those, the problem would simply have to go unsolved.
I kind of admired her stubborn allegiance to that one tool. It met one primary need with optimal aplomb; she forced it to meet additional needs despite its obvious unsuitability. Her creativity in manipulating (wresting) the tool proved quite remarkable—and remarkably effective.
E Pluribus Unum: Managing Many Melting Pots (Reprise)
Most of us count ourselves members of many communities, and feel both affinity with the totality of the community and distinction from many of its individual members. It’s the nature of the beast; we are complex beings with complex interests, so we pursue multiple memberships in communities of interest.
Except when we don’t.
Sometimes we find a primary community and demand that it satisfy all our various interests. If the single community cannot meet those needs, we are disappointed—and sometimes feel deeply hurt at its failure to meet us on our own terms. We lobby within that community to make it see (and do) things our way so we are not required to seek other sources of social, intellectual, or spiritual sustenance.
Our little Mormon literary community is a clear example. Some of us see it as the center point; others as merely one of many communities. Some of us demand it bend to our tastes; others drop in for brief visits before moving on to other venues. But we all declare with relative certainty how things should be in our little community regardless of what others think.
Except when we don’t.
It’s not always necessary that the community bend to our will; it can both delight and disgust simultaneously. It’s an interesting balancing act that creates strong feelings of both community and alienation. When you mix in a religious foundation that encourages unity in purpose, doctrine, and broad behavioral norms, separating personal interest from communal identity can become a fraught, difficult task.
I won’t pretend to know the right answer. I’m a stubborn devotee of too many individual products, ideas, and communities that regularly tick me off to the point of rage to suggest simple pluralism as the answer. We are both many and one simultaneously. That tension is at once necessary and unrelenting.
Which is why it’s so useful (and interesting) to tell our various stories according to our various assumptions and aesthetics—and lobby for our individual takes on the question to our various communities. Not to create a single homogeneous melting pot of bland goo, but to spice our various communal dishes with those elements that individually define and enrich us.
Like my five-year old or a magazine editor who demands to be surprised and delighted within certain well-defined limits and conventions. An interesting (and frustrating) challenge. But also the reason we play the game.