Brewing Community with Rivqa Rafael

Brewing Community is a series of guest posts in which readers, writers, artists and fans are invited to share their experiences of community. Whether online or in person, these groups bring a great deal of support and sometimes stress to their members. The aim of Brewing Community is to share the joy and find ways to brew stronger communities.

The series first ran in 2015. In returning to it after several years, I wanted to focus on how these experiences of community may have changed in recent years, and how people would like to see them change, as well as delving into what books and media have brought comfort in difficult times.

Of all the people I’ve met at SFF cons over the years, one I count myself most fortunate to have met is Rivqa Rafael. She is a talented writer, insightful editor, stalwart friend and fierce advocate for justice and compassion. Today she offers something a bit different to the usual interview.

Balancing Burnout And Connection or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying* And Skip Online Cons

As an extremely online person, I wasn’t too worried about cons pivoting to virtual space. I loved Twitter, texted incessantly, and used to play online games for hours on end. I’d be fine with video panels and text-based Q&As, right?

Absolutely not.

I wanted online cons to be an exciting opportunity, a silver lining in what was otherwise a pretty shitty time of a global pandemic. After all, they were expanding accessibility for folks who aren’t able to attend in-person conventions for a variety of reasons (disability, finances, family responsibilities, and more). Online cons are a good thing. They just don’t work for me.

My bad experiences with them started with the first one I attended. I got up at the crack of dawn for a panel I was excited for, only to hear a panellist make ignorantly supersessionist and antisemitic statements. The accompanying Discord channel exploded, but the panellists couldn’t see that. A volunteer alerted the panel moderator, who misunderstood and handled it poorly. And while it was a relief to easily connect with others who felt similarly, the open forum also meant we were a captive audience to less sympathetic individuals. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how differently it might have played out in person, with a collective gasp from the audience, or someone brave enough to shout back, or even a pointed audience question that didn’t have to be delivered by text. If the debrief had happened with someone who could offer me a hug. I left angry and disappointed, and two years later I’m still not sure I’ll ever attend that con again.

At the time, however, I blamed that con more than the online experience more generally. I tried again, and found that attending as a panellist was more rewarding for me — when I could pretend I was having an interesting chat with intelligent friends and strangers. I hosted a small online gathering of friends during WorldCon, which was fun. But I didn’t meet anyone new. For someone who’s made at least one new friend at nearly every con I’ve attended (including the host of this blog, at my very first con ever), this was a deflating realisation.

Replicating the bar con experience is hard for online conventions. At one, Discord voice channels had to be booked, increasing safety but effectively removing the opportunity to make a new friend — unless you had a mutual acquaintance proactive enough to introduce you. At another, the spaces were freely available, and you could see the names of the cool attendees without entering. But without eye contact and a welcoming smile, the prospect was daunting. I gave it a try once or twice, but was beset by connection issues and people AFKing when I wanted to talk to them.

All of this feels like a social anxiety whinge, but how much of a con is made up of its interstitial moments? Not just bar con, but also the shared experiences of lining up for panels, laughing together, being outraged together. Friends of friends stopping at your lunch table and becoming new acquaintances. Hugs with old friends and new. Handing over a book to its author for signing with tears in your eyes because it meant that much to you.

And attending a con at home means you can’t leave real life behind for a few days, especially with parental, carer, and other responsibilities. As much as I appreciate the internet for keeping us connected over distance and especially through the pandemic, it has its limitations. Family and housemate interruptions, internet problems, Zoom fatigue, and of course the stress and tragedy of the pandemic itself — I’m sure all of these factors, large and small, contributed to my decision to nope out of online cons.

I haven’t attended an online con since 2020, so maybe they’ve ironed out some of the wrinkles. But I have no desire to revisit them. Soon after my last one, I found myself in burnout. Always conscientious with my short story submissions, in early 2021 a cluster of rejections felt like too much. I stopped submitting stories, and very soon after I stopped writing them. Did the lack of satisfying cons contribute to my burnout? The community, solidarity, encouragement and education of a good convention is hard to replicate. Or was it the increasing toxicity I was noticing on social media, especially Twitter? The pandemic itself? Again, I’m sure it was all of the above.

Social media toxicity probably deserves its own paragraph, given that this is a series about community and I am well aware that the internet is real life. It’s real, it can be great, and it can cause immense harm. I don’t have any answers about how to fix its problems — the trolling, the deliberate and accidental misunderstandings, the algorithms that spread outrage over joy. When my heavy use of the block and mute functions were no longer enough, when I spent too long wondering if I’d be next in the line of fire, I withdrew, and I know I’m not alone in that. Nowadays, my online writing community happens in walled gardens: private Discord servers, select authors’ Patreons, private messages and video calls. My virtual world contracted alongside my meatspace world.

It’s hard to see this as a bad thing, overall. No one is obliged to fight every troll on the internet, nor can they. After some experimentation, I found a format for online group writing that worked for me (no to all-day video calls; yes to encouraging text chat with a video chat lunch break). My critique group, which pivoted to online early, has been consistently supportive and understanding. I started writing again, attended online writing workshops, and participated in a one-off online panel. I said no to things that felt like too much. I still haven’t submitted a story to a magazine, but I’m sure I’ll get there. While I have made new connections, they haven’t developed into the lifelong friendships that have arisen from in-person conventions. Then again, I met some of my closest friends online, so maybe that’s just bad luck.

All this has left me thinking about creative communities, and how they thrive or falter. In an ideal world, an overlapping system of online and in-person communities would support everyone who wants to write. In reality, some people will be left out, no matter the forum — and sometimes with no malice at all. My experiences weren’t due to abuse, mistreatment, or even conflict, although there was plenty of that in the background. While some people write in complete isolation, most of us need a community around us. At this point, I’m thinking about how I can contribute to writing community in ways that work for me. I know I could do more, and that it’ll be good for my writing, too. Two years into the pandemic, it’s time to give back to the network that supports me.

* Statement may not be true.

Photo credit: Bruria Hammer

You are what you write, which is why most of Rivqa Rafael’s fiction is about queer and/or Jewish women. Her award-winning and shortlisted stories have been published in Strange Fire (Ben Yehuda Press), Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and elsewhere. Rivqa lives in Sydney, where she studies psychology, works as a science editor, and dabbles in kitchen alchemy. She can be found online at rivqa.net or on Twitter as @enoughsnark.

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