“If you don’t love to write, do something else. There are so many things far less painful.” Short story writer and teacher Grace Paley said this at a lecture I attended during my first year in graduate school.
For years I quoted her on the first day of every writing class I taught, and then a student said to me, “I don’t love to write. I just don’t have any other choice.”
Now I tell my students, “If you have a choice not to write, run now, leave this class… We will refund your money… GO… Save yourself.” Of course there will be moments where you will be thrilled with something you’ve written, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole chapter, but these are the suck-you-in moments. It’s like playing the lotto. That one winning ticket, no matter how small the payoff, gives us the illusion that we will win again and again.
Just like it only takes that one story written effortlessly, yes, we got it right on the first try, no revision needed, to keep us needing to write. After hours of torment spent at our computers with nothing to show for it but aggravated carpal tunnel syndrome and intensified neck and back pain, we need to keep writing. We’re hooked. We don’t have a choice.
Addiction? Compulsive personality disorder? Out- of-our-freakin’-mind-syndrome? I don’t know the reason why many of us can’t walk away from writing. I will leave the analyzing to the psychologists, psychiatrists, podiatrists, or anyone else who cares to figure out why some of us can’t walk away from writing, even when it hurts.
Instead, I accept my lot in this life, and offer these words of advice: If you can’t run, and you must write, then don’t suffer it alone; find yourself a writing support group. Do this now. Fortunately, unlike playing the lottery, if you’re open minded, patient, and willing to keep trying, the odds of finding the winning fit are in your favor. Still, finding a group of like-minded, like-spirited, and just plain likeable writers that’s the right fit takes time. For me, it took two years out of graduate school, working with different groups of people, to find the support group I’ve been with for eight years now. As with revising your work, it can take lots of trial and error, patience and frustration to get it right, but when you finally get it to work, it works.
Of course, you can try other options first. I did. There are books upon books–hardcover, paperback, eBook–that offer suggestions on how to, or what to, write and how to keep writing. I’ve probably read most of them. And many have taught and inspired me, but what has kept me writing through divorce, my son’s battle with cancer, and my self esteem being so low to the ground that it was only visible after I tripped over it, was my writing support group.
Five writers who will critique my work and help me cement the cracks in my plot structure and develop the right balance between my characters’ inner and outer worlds. Writers who offer me the feedback that helps keep my writing alive. Women who also understand that who we are as writers is not defined by any one particular. We are all the words we have ever written and ever will write– red cells, white cells, platelets, plasma cells and all the other thousands of components that allow us to breathe and bleed and survive the writer’s life.
Every Friday night, and in summer months every other Friday night, I meet with five other woman, all writers, mothers, and partners, and a slew of other things that helps them to get me, and for me to get them. It’s not about what genre we write in or about what subjects and themes we explore. It’s chemistry. A shared connection that inspires enough trust among us that no matter how insane, zany, depressed, zippy, or pissed off we act, we know we will not be judged. Okay, sometimes we do judge each other, but we understand that it comes from a place of respect and the knowing that we’ve all been there and will be there again. We’ve all had that rejection that we couldn’t just “get over.” That one rejection that we crawled up in bed with swearing we would never write again. That’s when my writing support group comes calling, emailing, pounding at the door, and says, “I get it. Now get out of bed and get your ass writing.” Actually, that’s the kind of thing I would say. Gloria says, “I hear you.” Jimin says, “You should write about how you feel.” Kate–”It does suck. It does.” Alex–”Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” And Deb, “Your work is great. They’re idiots.”
We trust each other. We believe in each other. We have each others’ backs.
Usually, we meet in our living rooms, or at some local eatery where the wait staff doesn’t mind us sitting for hours on end. We moan and cheer about writing, of course, but mostly about life. All that life gives us, takes from us, and at times smashes in our face.
When my son was receiving chemotherapy and living at the hospital more than at home, the support these woman gave me, sitting at my side on brown vinyl couches in the patients’ family room, helped me to write about what I couldn’t talk about. And when a publisher made an offer on my book contingent on edits, these woman were there for me, chapter by chapter, and from one chemo treatment to the next.
We don’t let each other give up. We trust. We believe. And we write.
Go now. Find a group of two, three, four, or five other writers where together you can write through your lives, about your lives, and, when necessary, around your lives.
Let’s face it, running isn’t an option.
Originally appeared in the Portland Book Review–July 15, 2012