Like the great cats, or giant pandas we labor alone at our craft, at least most of the time. Oh, we may venture out occasionally to find a mate as do the majestic beasts, but we have no colleagues with whom to shmooze, to bounce off ideas, or to complain about the frustrations of publishing.
I sometimes wonder why this is so. At first the answer seems obvious. Writing is the product of our own unique brains. It contains our ideas, or creations and our take on the world. Mixing in someone else’s views may distort our intent or our meaning.
But wait! Aren’t we all the sum of influences all around us? From our earliest days, we are surrounded by people and experiences that leave a mark on our brain, however unconscious.
Later in life we read books, listen to others, see films and watch television (gasp!). These also imprint their mark on our thinking, want to, or not. So if we can come to terms with the idea that nothing that appears on our blank pages is totally pure of influences, why not make a conscious effort to acquire positive influence on our writing?
Many writers, in fact, do participate in various sorts of writing groups, though I’ve heard that some big name authors discourage it. I have also heard nightmare stories about some writers groups: members insulted for the quality of their writing to the point of quitting writing altogether, members shirking their responsibilities to provide serious, high quality critiques to peers and sometimes general time wasting in idle chit chat. As unfortunate as such cases may be, I’d attribute it to human nature, not to the personalities of authors in general.
If we are willing to open ourselves up to the thinking of others and have the inner resources to analyze and not glom on to their words, writers groups can be helpful, especially for those in the early years of their writing careers. I will share some of my experience in the hope at least some of you may benefit.
I participated in an outstanding online course on memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshops. I enrolled with a great deal of trepidation being a bit wary of Internet relationships. But I had been so satisfied with my in-person instruction at Gotham that I took the risk. To my great surprise I found the online class superior. It took me a while to figure out why, then it hit me. Both the instructor and participants had to write down their critiques and comments. When we write something, especially something a number of others will read, we tend to give it more thought, more attention; after all our professional persona is at stake.
Consequently, I found the comments in the on-line course of much higher quality than those casually tossed out during an in-person class. What a delightful surprise!
At the end of the course I could easily assess whose comments were most incisive, well written and offered with tact and sensitivity. I decided to ask those few participants if they wished to continue after the end of the course in the system we used in class. They all agreed readily.
Each spoke of how helpful it was to hear an outside opinion on how their words were being heard and interpreted by others. So, we set up our goals to critique a certain amount of words per week or month; decided on the rotation and added a new twist. We would each select a reading of something outside our own writing, a piece we thought especially well written, or interesting and we would discuss it on a particular schedule agreed to by all. The intent here was to get a bit outside our comfort zone.
Five of us continued to exchange comments for six or seven years. We became online friends, getting to know each other’s families and life stories. All of this was particularly helpful as we were critiquing memoirs. We were scattered throughout the United States and for many years never met one another, yet we relied on these members for their steadfast support. Eventually we accepted a new member who came highly recommended by one of us.
The adjustment and shifting of schedules took some time, but we stuck together though thick and thin. When any of us suffered a personal problem, a broken leg, or a serious family illness, trays of food and bouquets of flowers made their way to homes we had never seen. But we celebrated happy occasions too: children’s graduations, awards and publication of our works. We exchanged suggestions on where to submit our work and held our friends’ virtual hands when the inevitable rejections arrived.
One of the side benefits, but one that proved enormously helpful, was that we had male members whose perspective was somewhat different and they saw things we may not have noticed with our female eyes. We did the same for them. I do not believe that such mixed-sex writing groups are very common.
Eventually, for me, a point came when the time it took to comment with depth and insight into the writing of others impinged too much on my own writing time. I began to feel resentful that I had to put my work aside right when I felt in the groove and felt reluctant to switch gears into someone else’s story. That was the time to say goodbye to my writing buddies with regret, but with a feeling each of them too, could eventually feel they could take off the set off training wheels.
I am grateful to each of them. My book may not have found a publisher without their wise advice. One of my fondest memories is the warm speech one of our male members made at the launch of my book in New York City. Now I look forward to the day I will raise a glass of champagne at his launch.
Annette Libeskind Berkovits is the author of “In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags and Soviet Communism” published in 2014 by Wilfrid Laurier University Press and in paperback on September 5, 2016. You can read an excerpt and learn about her other writing projects at www.annetteberkovits.com
About In The Unlikeliest of Places:
Annette Libeskind Berkovits thought her attempt to have her father record his life’s story failed. But in 2004, three years after her father’s death, she was going through his things and found a box of tapes―several years’ worth―with his spectacular life, triumphs, and tragedies told one last time in his baritone voice.
Nachman Libeskind’s remarkable story is an odyssey through crucial events of the twentieth century. With an unshakable will and a few drops of luck, he survives a pre-war Polish prison; witnesses the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz and narrowly escapes; is imprisoned in a brutal Soviet gulag where he helps his fellow inmates survive, and upon regaining his freedom treks to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he finds and nearly loses the love of his life. Later, the crushing communist regime and a lingering postwar anti-Semitism in Poland drive Nachman and his young family to Israel, where he faces a new form of discrimination. Then, defiantly, Nachman turns a pocketful of change into a new life in New York City, where a heartbreaking promise leads to his unlikely success as a modernist painter that inspires others to pursue their dreams.
With just a box of tapes, Annette Libeskind Berkovits tells more than her father’s story: she builds an uncommon family saga and reimagines a turbulent past. In the process she uncovers a stubborn optimism that flourished in the unlikeliest of places.