How did this happen? I talked to her, and now my pen is finally moving.
Occasionally in my writing journey, another writer has offered a bit of advice, suggested a new way of looking at something, or even just added a word, and it has made a life-infusing impact on me and my writing. At times, I’d almost categorize it as magical.
As I’ve reflected back on how other writers have enriched my writing life, I’ve found some themes emerging. Take this very article, for instance. After hovering over my highlighter-marked list of brainstormed writing ideas for ages, I still wasn’t strongly gravitating toward any one of them. I did all those things a writer should do to get the creativity flowing: I journaled, mulled, walked, played piano, read in my genre, read in other genres, wondered about the etymology of genre, and then pored back over my list. At last, an idea crystallized that I felt sure of—go for help.
1. A writer friend may affirm specific writing strengths and joys
It was time to bounce ideas off someone else—someone I trusted with my process. I emailed another writer, my calm and supportive editor. After mentioning that perhaps something in my new Ted Kooser book would inspire me and quicken my pen, I asked, “Is there any kind of post in particular that you would be interested in reading from me?” My editor offered helpful feedback, as usual. In particular, this part helped sharpen my focus: “I think your strongest voice and best pieces come when you are sharing personal stories. You seem most happy writing these pieces, too, so that matters to me also. …”
2. A writer friend’s experiences can reveal new insights
I continued to give the matter serious thought and to then, logically, bake cookies. Three days later, while hand-mixing shortbread dough (after discovering my mixer was out of commission), I listened to Laura Lynn Brown interview Luci Shaw. As I muscled the metal spoon in circles, a certain comment repeated itself back to me.
In the interview, Luci Shaw discusses a variety of writing matters, like the value of getting together with other writers to share their work and exchange critical feedback. At one point, she mentions working on poetry with her son, John, who is also a doctor for a humanitarian agency in Burma. She says, “When he’s in the States, we’ll spend Friday mornings together working on his poems and my poems. So those kinds of friendships, you know, [are] so invaluable. I think I would just lose interest, almost, without some way of running my work past somebody else who understands the process of writing poetry.”
When I started writing, I hoped to somehow encourage or help others feel less alone. But what I realize now is that I need that help as much as anyone. I don’t think I could sustain my writing life without supportive and trusted writer friends. Their nourishing feedback helps make my pages readable. And the magnetic joy and camaraderie that develop from working through dry spells, idea-hunting, and solving word-puzzles together helps draw me back to the page.
3. Trusted writer friends can create comfortable space to share in
I say trusted writing friends since trust feels key to a free and ongoing exchange of ideas. And although I’ve become more objective about processing critique over time, it can still be a bit of a vulnerable moment when I reveal an essay with only half its hair brushed and ask for candid feedback.
But with a “trustie,” the exchange makes for a deepening of our understanding of each other and a richer friendship. And applying their input makes anything I write far more reader-ready. I’m grateful to have several trusties. One is freelance writer and copy-editor, Leah France, a close friend of 13 years who has generously read innumerable rough drafts and given me critical edits and specific encouragements. She also relates to my 90’s-junior high fashion and music references and makes me laugh to the point of tears, which doesn’t hurt. (I bought my daughter a scrunchie the other day, Leah.)
4. Writer friends may offer support in the wider, wilder world
A writing friend in Tennessee is also dear to me. We savor words together by discussing what Ted Kooser poems we’re enjoying and emailing each other updates on what we’re writing (or not). Recently, she sent me this suggestion, “Let’s inform one another when we have posts about to publish, your Tweetspeak writing, etc. I want to support and encourage you on social media!” We share both our celebration milestones and plenty of candid yikes-moments in the writing process. Her support and sense of humor help me relax a bit and not take myself too seriously, both of which help me write with less hindrances.
5. A writer friend can pave new writing paths
Sharing with writer friends has revealed surprises too. I’ve discovered that unpacking with a friend why I cannot write might actually be substantive prewriting work itself. Such a free discussion—with no expectations—can allow us to roam down new forest paths. Sometimes I stumble onto a lit-up runway to take off from. I had no idea this was even here.
It’s like the live active cultures of my friend’s willingness to listen mixes with the lukewarm milk of my blank page, and poof—fresh yogurt.
6. Writer friends support one another’s quietude
During certain phases of writing, I actually don’t share what I’m working on. If I’ve just had a tiny turn in my thought process, a whisper of a new idea, I may go quiet. Possibly, if I’m silent and don’t make any sudden movements, I can track it and see what kind of scene it develops into. Talking about it too soon might collapse that potential snowglobe world. I appreciate how my writing friends support sharing only if it’s helpful.
Although writing is often solitary work, there are plenty of non-starts, something-left-to-be-desired finishes, or spots where something just isn’t sitting right, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I’ve exhausted fistfulls of strategies alone, then what?
7. Writer friends let each other test the waters
In August, I chatted in a group message with my fellow Poetry Barista writing friends, Donna Falcone and Sandra Heska King. I wrote, “That Luci Shaw interview was fascinating. A part of what she said snagged on me and hasn’t let go. … I might end up incorporating/riffing a bit on that in my next TSP piece. Possibly. We’ll see.” I wasn’t completely sure if I was on to something or not, and wondered if I would just sound like a repeat of other articles on similar themes.
Donna encouraged me about the idea, and we three chatted about sharing ideas you feel “questionmarky” about, how individual perspective can make a piece new, and about workshopping and receiving feedback.
8. Writer friends offer encouragement and important perspective
At one point in the conversation, Sandra said, ” … There’s a little voice in the back of my head that says if you need to change something, it wasn’t that good to begin with. I know that’s wrongo-pongo. But still it speaks. … ” She added in a later email, “Even Luci [Shaw] needs friends to help workshop her writing.”
I responded that I was glad she called out that nagging thought about edits, to bring it into the light so it would lose some of its bullying power. Honestly, I don’t know any writer—brilliant or not—who can write final drafts first.
Donna added, “It sure can rattle one’s confidence when our inner bully starts shooting spitballs. I think we have to be careful how we use the word ‘good.’ It can be a real buzzkill.”
With the final nudge I needed to get moving, Sandra wrote, “So I really think you should write that piece about workshopping and writer friends and editing and encouragement, Bethany.”’
Thank you, writer friends. I’m sending this off to the editor now.
1. How do other writers affect your flow of words?
2. Can you think of times where their input or listening ear did something to your writing process you couldn’t do alone?
3. How does the involvement of other writers in your process work?
Photo by JFXie, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Bethany Rohde. All quotes shared with permission, with small edits for clarity.