Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Lady (Actual and Honorary) Writers' Lunch

Writing is a lonely business. Well, maybe if you write screenplays as part of a committee, it isn't, but for most of us, the process involves endless hours with just us and the words on the page. No wonder we end up talking to our characters and listening when they talk back. There's a listing for that in the DSM-IV.

One of my secret weapons against the perils of isolation is the writer's lunch. When I lived in Los Angeles, I joined my first critique group, an eclectic mix of sf/f writers, mystery writers, and mainstream "literary" writers, with a core of Clarion and UCLA Advanced Writing class graduates. One of the other sf/f writers and I started going to lunch once a month or so. The group meetings were tightly focused on critiquing manuscripts and there wasn't much time for schmoozing about general writing issues, nor was the group atmosphere hospitable to sf/f shop talk. I quickly learned the value of having a writing buddy, someone to cheer me on, help me choose markets, analyze the personalities of editors, commiserate with about rejections (and try to interpret those letters), and more.

Kay Kenyon put it like this:

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a writer you mostly have to hunker down and write. You do, of course, have to write. But you also have to survive the slings and arrows of a very tough business. For this, there is nothing like a friend.
If possible, a very close friend. A best pal can anchor you in the writing life, providing:
  • Advice and problem-solving.
  • A friendly ear when one hits bottom.
  • Someone who’ll applaud you without (too much) envy when a success comes.
  • A  companion for conferences and signings.
  • A mirror to your own writing life, to give perspective.
  • Source of laughs, gossip, and wisdom.
  • Dependable guerrilla marketing and cross-promotions with you.
My first writing buddy and I eventually went our separate ways, but by then I'd found other like-minded writers. A few of these were writers I admired tremendously and were much further along in their careers than I was. From them, I learned new ways of looking at the business, and also that I'd been judging my own progress too harshly. I learned that even successful authors have crises of confidence, think their work is dreadful but know how to revise like maniacs, get rejected, get dropped by agents or publishers -- and pick themselves up, switch genres, change names. So when some of those things happened to me, I knew I wasn't the only one and I knew it was possible to recover, reinvent myself, and go on.

After I moved to the redwoods, I did a lot less of this sort of networking. For one thing, there were far fewer writers in this rural area, although for a time I did attend a very small beginner's group, mostly to hear people talk about writing. I did a certain amount of schmoozing online, as time permitted, because I was now working full time as a single mom. Also, I was beginning the Darkover collaborations, and for various reasons it wasn't appropriate to workshop them. I missed that face-to-face camaraderie.

When attending Baycon, I hooked up with a new writer friend. I loved what she had to say and we instantly hit it off. Both of us had the same sense of give-and-take, of listening and advising, of asking questions and sharing experience. . Before long, we'd figured out a half-way point from our homes and set up a lunch date. So was born The Lady Writers' Lunch.

The name, Lady Writer's Lunch, is a play on the Lady Writer's Commune. Once when I was feeling discouraged and terrified of my financial future, a dear friend said, "If worst comes to worst, we can pool our Social Security checks, rent an old house in the country, and set up a little old lady writers' commune." I laughed so hard, I cried, and the image of writers supporting one another has stayed with me.

My new writing buddy and I wrestled through story planning, plot and character problems, getting an agent, pulling a project from a publisher, balancing writing in more than one genre, how to write with kids at home, how to write through tragedy, how to use social media or keep it from eating our lives. (We've found that IM can serve well for moment of support or just a "Hey, I've finished a scene!" "Hooray!") From time to time, we'd include others, but the two of us remain the core of the lunch group. Right now we've got a male writer, too. The joke is that we've made him an Honorary Lady, and we're feeling our way through a new dynamic.

One of the gifts of such a group is not the support I receive from it, but the honor and joy of watching someone else come into her own as an artist, to celebrate her achievements. It's the opposite of Schaudenfreude -- it's taking immense pleasure and pride in the success of someone you have come to care about.

The illustration is by Sadie Wendell Mitchell, 1909, and is licensed under Creative Commons.

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