Writing often feels like a solitary act, a lonely occupation. Many of us create our best work in moments of quiet solitude, rubbing our tired eyes as we stare at a bright computer screen in a dimly lit room.
But any writer who thinks she can do it all on her own is kidding herself. As author Natalie Goldberg has taught me, writing is a communal act. Sometimes we need someone to help us banish writer’s block or to make us submit that article, short story, poem, or proposal. Sometimes we need someone to tell us to stop talking about being a writer and actually write something for heaven’s sake!
This is why I have a writing partner. For the past month or so I’ve been meeting with my writing partner every Tuesday afternoon at a local coffeehouse. For two hours we just sit together and write. And it is wonderful. It’s hard to explain how much I enjoy our time together, but I know it simultaneously feels like recess and worship. Each pen stroke is an act of prayer and a moment of play.
I recently helped some members of See Jane Write Birmingham find writing partners and blogging mentors within our group. I call this little literary matchmaking program The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pens, a name for which I cannot take credit (Thanks, Erin). Last night a few of the women in The Sisterhood got together for dinner at a local pizza parlor. Over slices of warm pie and glasses of cold beer, we chatted about our writing goals and the books we’re reading. We dished about family drama and confessed our Twitter obsessions. And in just two hours we felt like family and were trying to figure out when we’d do this again.
Irene Grubbs, Glenny Brock, Javacia Harris Bowser (me!), Mimi Latoine, Mindy Santo, Jennifer Dome, and Amber Roberson
Writing partners Mimi and Mindy share a laugh.
The reaction when Glenny revealed the topic of the book she’s currently writing.
At Tuesday night’s panel discussion Freelancing 101, one audience member asked how could she connect with more of Birmingham’s writing groups. Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell her other than what panelist Glenny Brock said for me: “There’s no better group than See Jane Write.”
But, seriously, the very reason I started See Jane Write was because I had a hard time getting connected with Birmingham’s writing community when I moved back here 3 years ago.
After the panel discussion I was chatting with someone else who attended the event about this issue. He (Yes, “he.” See Jane Write events are so awesome even guys want to join us.) said he’s sure Birmingham has a writing scene, but it seems to be a quiet one. And that makes sense. We writers tend to be introverted homebodies who want to stay in our quiet corners and write. Or at least that’s what I hear. I’m actually nothing like that. I love to mix and mingle and the word “networking” makes me giddy. I get some of my best story and essay ideas from talking to other people.
And why should Birmingham’s writing scene be so quiet? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? As writers we need to be the voices of the city, but how can we do that if we’re hiding behind our laptops? Yes, we need that time of solitude to do our work, but we also need to be on the scene if we’re going to write about it.
My hope is that See Jane Write can begin partnering with some other local writing groups to host networking and social events. And speaking of other writing groups, here are a few I have found since I’ve been back in my Sweet Home Alabama. If you know of others, please add them in the comments section.
Alabama Bloggers — A networking group for bloggers based in Alabama. They connect online and through occasional luncheons.
Write Club — A monthly forum for local amateur writers to meet and discuss their week. Meetings are held at the Hoover Public Library.
Alabama Media Professionals — A statewide organization on professional communicators who meet monthly to network, share common problems, exchange ideas and keep abreast of the changes in the media and journalism-related industries. AMP is affiliated with the National Federation of Press Women.
I believe in the power of the written word, and I believe in the power of women. This is why I blog, this is why I write essays, this is why I teach English, and this is why in March of 2011 I started See Jane Write.
On Monday a few of the women from the group and I (pictured above) got together for lunch at a local Thai restaurant. The food was good, but the conversation was even better. After a brief talk about politics (there’s always plenty to discuss in that arena here in Birmingham) we got down to business – discussing the writing life.
Being a writer is hard. Being an artist of any kind is difficult in part because there’s such little respect for these professions. In fact, they aren’t even seen as professions by some, but simply considered hobbies. For many of the women at the table when we told our families we wanted to be writers we were told, “OK, but you need to get a real job too.”
Being a woman writer can be even harder. The byline gender gap has been well documented by groups like VIDA. Women’s voices are still underrepresented in the media and literary arts. And this is another reason I founded See Jane Write. I believe that women who dare to express themselves, to tell their stories, and to share the stories of others through the written word need a strong support system. They need someone to encourage them and to hold them accountable.
Because the writing life can be so difficult it can be easy to get off track, to go weeks, months, or even years without writing. Lately, I have really been struggling with feeling like a real writer because now that I’m an English teacher and no longer a full-time journalist I’m not being paid for my written words. But one published author at the table said something that really stuck with me. She said something that reminded me not to put a price on my art in that way.
The true measure of whether or not you’re a writer is simple: Are you writing more than you’re not? In other words, you may not write every single day, but you need to write most days. All relationships, even your relationship with writing, need quality time. Are you truly showing your love for writing or just offering lip service? I, for one, am ready to give it my all.
The folks at the skirt! Creative Conference surely know how to save the best for last. The workshops and talks on Friday and Saturday had been so informative and so inspirational I could returned to Birmingham Saturday night and felt I got my money’s worth. But, boy am I glad I stuck around.
Sunday’s keynote speaker was Claire Cook (pictured above), author of the best-selling novel Must Love Dogs, on which the 2005 romantic comedy of the same name was based.
Cook is one of the most down-to-earth writers I’ve ever met. She has this generous spirit that’s so bright it’s contagious. And she’s a woman who believes in sisterhood and solidarity. In fact, near the beginning of her talk she shared a famous quote by Madeleine Albright: “There’s a place in Hell reserved for women who don’t help other women.”
Cook gave us practical advice, such as: Collect email addresses everywhere you go. Add your Facebook and Twitter sites to your business cards. The best way to become a better writer is to become a voracious reader. Choose one project and work on it wholeheartedly until it’s complete instead of dabbling in too much at once.
But the real message I took from her talk was simply love yourself, love other people, work hard and play nice.
Love yourself. Stop trying to imitate your favorite author or trying to write the kind of book that seems to be popular these days. Write your story. What is the thing about you that gives you a book only you can write? Tap into that and write from that place. Novelist Emily Giffin, who wrote Something Borrowed (also adapted for film) and a host of other books, spoke at the conference and she too gave this advice.
Love other people. When you’re trying to make it big as a writer, or whatever your career of choice may be, it’s tempting to only look out for yourself, to only focus on your goals. This is a mistake. Cook has spent years offering free workshops to people, especially women, because she wants to help others. But by helping others you often indirectly help yourself as you build a name for yourself and build a community of supporters who will be your biggest fans.
Work hard. When working on a novel, Cook commits to writing two pages every day. Period. No exceptions. Set a similar rule for yourself so you can complete your project.
Play nice. The Must Love Dogs movie almost didn’t happen, but it did mostly because Cook is a kind person. Gary David Goldberg revoked his initial offer to make the movie, but instead of burning bridges and breaking ties, Cook wrote him a thank you note showing gratitude for even being considered. This started a great friendship and when Goldberg was once again in a position to make the film he did. And Cook made enough money to put her kids through college.
Because I’m a feminist, Cook’s dedication to helping other women obviously stood out to me most and it really encouraged me too. Never again will I doubt the work I do with organizing groups such as See Jane Write. At the end of her talk one of the women in the audience said, “If it’s true that there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women, there must be a special place in Heaven for you.” To me that is the greatest compliment a woman could ever receive.
This weekend I had the privilege to attend the skirt! Creative Conference, a two-day event in Atlanta, Georgia for creative women, specifically women writers, organized by skirt! magazine. Never before have I been in an environment in which I was surrounded by women who understand my passions and dreams and who genuinely seem to want me to succeed even though they’d only known me a few hours or a few minutes even. Any attempt to describe how amazing the weekend was will fall short, but over the next few days I will try to share some of the wealth of inspiration and information I received.
The conference kicked off with a keynote address by Kim Marcille Romaner, founder ofPossibilities Amplified, Inc.and author ofThe Science of Making Things Happen: Turn Any Possibility into Reality. Her talk was called Creativity in the Time of Corrosion: 6 Strategies for Surviving Today’s Belief Crisis. Why is this a time of corrosion? Quite simply because things suck – the economy is still sluggish, natural disasters are ripping through the country, and many other nations are facing civil unrest. How do you hold on to your faith, how do you hold on to the belief that you can make your creative dreams come true in the midst of all this?
Though Romaner’s theories are rooted in complex scientific theories, they’re actually quite simple.
Strategy #1: Be kind to yourself. What do you need to do to be nicer to yourself? I need to rest more so I’ll have the energy to write. I need to learn to say “no” so I’ll actually have time to write. I need to stop doubting my talent and self-worth so I’ll have the confidence to write and share my work.
Strategy #2: Let go of things you think you know. Often we have an idea of how we think things should happen and when they don’t turn out that way, when things get off track, we allow our hopes to be deflated. But we must trust that our dreams could come true in a way we have never imagined.
Strategy #3: Move into wade mode. Romaner launched into some pretty complicated science talk here, but the gist is that we need to open up to all possibilities and one way to do that is to ask unlimited questions. For example, instead of thinking I will never be able to do this ask yourself If I could do this, how would I?
Strategy #4: Raise your perspective. Instead of seeing your creativity simply as the stories you write consider how you want creativity to be expressed in every moment of your life.
Strategy #5: Expand your comfort zone. Take risks! Romaner had us make a list of risks we’d challenge ourselves to take over the next 30 days. I challenge you to do the same.
Strategy #6: Apply the Inverse Zeno Effect. I’m sure you’re thinking, WTF, but let me explain. Here Romaner explained the importance of measuring things in an encouraging, not disparaging manner. So instead of saying, “I suck. I got nothing done today,” take a closer, more honest look at your day. Write down all the things you did that were positive contributions to yourself and to others – whether it’s updating your blog or brushing your teeth.
And can you believe that was just the first day? Whew!