For me, writing alone was a challenge. Desire, guilt and pleasure all rolled into one. It was a little bit like getting up at 6am on a Saturday to sneak the last piece of homemade chocolate cream pie before my sister got to it first.
There was the mouth-watering anticipation – gotta get to the darned pie first! (Oh, I can’t wait to have the time to sit down and write!) This was quickly followed by the nervous sneak - sneak down stairs, careful to let the dogs out quickly before they could wake anyone else up. (I’m heading to the coffee shop with my laptop and a notebook…the clock is ticking! Almost ready!) If I actually got to the pie plate first – and Dad had left the last piece there, ripe for the picking – I’d grab a fork and dig in. Who needs a plate? Glass of milk? No time! Must gobble and snarf, scrape the last of the baked meringue from the edges and use a damp fingertip to pick up every last crusty crumb.
Then the realization of what I’d just done – looking at the empty pie plate with the slightly-upset-stomach feeling of having wolfed down the chocolate-y goodness before I was even really awake – would hit. I’d be disappointed. I’d feel like I should have enjoyed it more and savored it, as a sign of…well…of respect for the pie.
And so it was with this writing thing – I’d gobble and snarf my way through thoughts that were already bouncing around in my head. Or – worse yet – I’d end up with a blinking cursor in front of me and a desperate slightly-upset-stomach feeling of not knowing where to begin. In either case, I’d end up disappointed. I’d get to the end of my coveted block of time and look at the page or screen before me – wondering why I didn’t enjoy it more. Wondering if I was missing something – if, perhaps, I needed to learn to respect the act of writing more so I wouldn’t end up with this strange feeling of emptiness and anticlimax when I packed up my laptop to go home.
At the urging of a lifelong friend, I decided to go out on a limb and take a one-day writing class. It was very informal, conducted in a local community center, and attended by almost all women about my same age. We learned a technique for writing practice. And from that class, a weekly writing group was born.
We called ourselves the Quills and would spend at least two hours, sometimes more, in Stauf’s Coffee Shop in Grandview Ohio. We would write. We would talk. We would read what we had just written – no editing and no ego allowed. Just write it and read it. Share it. Respect the words, the process, and ourselves enough to let the words out. As a group, we were able to support each other’s instincts, encourage each other’s style and listen – really listen – with respect, fascination, laughter, and sometimes tears.
So the solitary act of writing became a herd activity. Well…that’s probably taking it too far. We did write by ourselves. The words on the screen or in our notebooks came from only one of us. The thoughts and ideas recorded went from one brain, through one set of hands to one place…only then to be shared and validated and appreciated by the rest of us.
We wrote crap. (We will all still, to this day, admit that freely!) But we also created art. And often, the art came not from the solitary act of putting words on paper. But from the collective act of listening. The collective act of respecting what the others had the courage to write and to share.
This experience of writing with a group opened up my head and my heart to write with a level of freedom and pleasure I never experienced when I kept it all to myself. It made me a better writer. And prepared me for the next steps in this writerly journey – more classes, fleshing out characters, struggling with plot, participating in critique groups and the biggie: collaborating on a novel. Oh yeah…and writing my own stuff…all by myself, too.
Advice: Join a writer’s group. Take a class. Find others who will listen to what you have written and listen to them. You will learn more about craft and style and expression than you can imagine. You will be a better writer.
If you are in need of some creative juiciness or a little nudge in the direction of freeing up your respect for your own writing process…find Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and read to what she has to say.
In the meantime, I’m still going to dream of that last piece of pie. Remember with the fondness of childhood the silky feel of the chocolate and the fluffy meringue first thing in the morning… But if and when I ever honor my mother’s memory by making this very pie myself, I will be sure to treat that last piece with the respect it deserves. Maybe even let someone else have a bite. Maybe.