We were three writers regularly sharing our lunchtime, talking about our works in progress. One was writing a book about aging, one a science fiction story, and one a contemporary novel. I was the youngest.
It was 1970s Houston. Think skyrocketing oil prices, inflation, disco music. Environmentalists were worried about the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island; I was worried about a mattress my wife and I had ordered, stuck on a boat on the frozen Ohio River. We were reading books like Ordinary People by Judith Guest, Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, Lancelot by Walker Percy, and Roots by Alex Haley.
The three of us—Catherine, John, and I—worked for an oil company. In those days in Houston, everyone worked for an oil company or a big Houston law firm. Catherine and I were in the speechwriting group; John, the science fiction writer, edited an employee magazine.
I know how our conversations about writing started. Catherine had recently joined the company, and I passed her in the hallway. I smiled and said something perfunctory like, “How are you doing?” The conventional answer, even then, was “Fine” or “Just fine.” Catherine was not conventional. Her response was, “Do you really want to know?”
Taken aback, I said the only thing I could say: “Yes, I do.” Catherine dragged me into her office and proceeded to tell me the story of the aunt she was caring for who had dementia; the cousin with the lobotomy who had been stalking her, jumping out from behind bushes to frighten her; and how she was trying to decide whether she could survive working for our employer after only three days.
She came from a famous Houston family. I was wide-eyed and completely fascinated.
We began to talk at lunchtimes, and soon John joined us. The three of us were as different as you could imagine. Catherine read only a little fiction; John read almost exclusively science fiction; I read everything. I was starting to work on a novel, inspired by the stories of Catherine’s family but disguised enough that even she didn’t recognize the characters. All three of us were writing outside of work, and we’d read from our works in progress. We discovered a mutual admiration for the stories of Flannery O’Connor. We’d also talk about our job-related works in progress—speeches, articles, and essays.
We didn’t think what we were doing was odd or strange; the floor was filled with writers, and everybody always seemed to be talking about what job-related project they were working on. But we were different. No one else talked about their extracurricular writing. We would talk, listen, read each other’s pages, comment, and critique. We could share things about our jobs and know what we shared would stay within our small circle.
Of the three us, Catherine was by far the most serious writer. For some time, she had been working on a manuscript about aging being a process of “becoming more so,” meaning that the behaviors of youth and middle age only get more pronounced as we grow older. (This was not dissimilar from Passages by Gail Sheehy, a popular book at the time.)
John was the most earnest. He could wax eloquent about some of the most esoteric subjects related to science and science fiction, like rocket thrusters, time warps, and black holes, which had only been discovered in 1971.
And me, well, I was the “least formed,” but I was also the most sponge-like, soaking up everything I heard. My novel in progress was tentatively entitled Sisters, about two aging, unmarried sisters living together, one of whom had long been suffering from a mental illness unrecognized by the other. I even went so far as to submit it to a writer’s conference for editorial critique, and the editor of a big-name publisher in New York read it and said some nice things about it (and also some discouraging things). But the most important thing the editor told me was, “You know how to write.”
What I remember most was our threesome’s seriousness. We considered ourselves serious writers, and we were determined to continue to be serious writers. And what we had created with each other was a small, tight-knit, mutual encouragement society.
I was the first to leave, headhunted to St. Louis. Catherine was next, remaining in Houston and developing her own freelance business. John left, too, and moved to California. We stayed in touch for a while, and then our letters and notes dwindled away (this was pre-email).
But I never forgot those discussions, nor my gratitude for them. They taught me the importance of encouragement in a writer’s life, and how a little can provide sustenance for a long time.
Imagine a friendly “lunchtime literary society” of your own. Feel free to make this a completely fictional society. Who is in it? Where do you meet (someplace surreal, exotic, forbidden, ordinary)? What writing are you sharing together? What draws you together? Apart? Writer anything from a simple vignette to a full-out short story. Come back and share and excerpt with us if you like.
Consider the kind of writer you are. Casual, career-minded, relational? Accordingly, consider what it is that provides you the most sustenance for the kind of writer you are. Then simply turn that outward and encourage a writer or artist friend who is casual, career-minded, or relational, by saying, doing, or giving them something to support their journey.
Or, the next time you are with a writer friend or even a set of family members who might find it fun, do the “lunchtime literary society” prompt above. You can do this simply in conversation, as a kind of storytelling game. Or you can write first, then share.
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