You’ll perhaps not be surprised, after you read Tanya Egan Gibson‘s post, that I met her through a couple writing groups we both belong to, one of which is SheWrites.com. Her debut novel, How To Buy a Love of Reading – just out in paperback! – has been praised by one of my favorite writers and 1st Books guest author, Leah Stewart, as “a novel for those of us who love both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” and “an inspiring argument for the necessity of stories.” Tanya is also mother to a five-year-old girl who produces countless construction-paper “books” that she insists Mommy “getpublished” and a two-year-old boy who thinks books are for throwing. Somehow she still finds time for – and time to share her story of – writing friends. Enjoy! – Meg
My friend Amanda likes to say she’s the only writer she knows whose kitchen gets a mention in a novel’s acknowledgments. Also in the acknowledgments of my novel is the cottage of our wonderful teacher, the late Stephanie Moore. And so, of course, are the people that once populated Stephanie’s cottage on Tuesday nights and now continue to congregate in Amanda’s kitchen.
Stephanie was a vibrant, amazing teacher who forced her students to create work on the spot that we then had to read aloud to the rest of the group. Because people raved about her classes, I tried a one-day workshop, despite having misgivings: reading first-draft material to strangers wasn’t exactly my idea of fun. Also, I didn’t like *groups.* I’d been in writing workshops in college and at conferences. I’d been in critique groups that worked for a while and then didn’t. But I’d never felt completely comfortable. And the truth was, I had (and still have) a very thin skin, and people could be mean.
Yeah, I was anti-group. But after a few more one-day workshops I realized I was producing more work (and better work) on my novel in her cottage than anywhere else. So I signed up for one of her month-long classes that met weekly–Tuesday nights happened to work best for me. Because we only had to commit to a month at a time, different “Tuesday People” at first filtered in and out. But over time, the same Tuesday People kept coming back. Soon we weren’t strangers anymore–we were a *group*, one trained by Stephanie to critique each other’s work in the most generous, most compassionate, and ultimately most helpful ways. She had no problem telling us when something didn’t work (“Dear, that was…interesting…but…) but she framed criticism in context of our strengths, teaching us to recognize lovely moments in our own writing and the writing of our peers and to weed out material that didn’t measure up.
Most importantly, she taught us not to impose our own values and goals on other people’s writing. We wrote fiction and nonfiction and plays; we wrote mainstream and literary; we wrote for children and teens and adults. Yet none of these differences mattered. Your job, as a member of this group, was to help the other writers bring to fruition their goals, not try to turn their pieces into what you felt like reading. Becoming this invested in other people’s writing, and feeling other people’s investment in my own changed everything for me. It became about craft instead of ego. It felt amazing to be on a team. And most importantly, I was growing to love these people like family. We were taking this amazing journey, us former strangers, together. And it was all because of Stephanie.
Stephanie saw the good in people and the good in people’s writing. Everywhere she looked she saw potential instead of failure. I remember hanging around after class one evening to confess to her my deepest fear about my writing—my characters weren’t “sophisticated” the way characters in literary fiction all seemed to me to be. They had “big round baby feelings” the way *I*, in fact had big round baby feelings, and I was positive that people would laugh at them. And *me*. People would laugh at me! Nobody intelligent had such dumb sappy, unsophisticated feelings! What was wrong with my characters was what was wrong with me: they had weird little hearts because *I* had a weird little heart, and I couldn’t seem to be able to write my way around this. This is who I was; I couldn’t change.
She said, “*Don’t* change–it’s going to set you apart. It’s you.” She said she loved how it was different, she said the people in this class loved it because it was different. She reminded me that the class cared about me and my book and that nobody was just shining me on. And she said, “You should write that phrase down–‘big round baby feelings’–and put it into your book.” (Which I did, many years later, to humanize Bree McEnroy, the overly-cerebral writer in How To Buy a Love of Reading, a woman who is afraid to write what is real to her because she is afraid to be vulnerable.)
In July 2005, Stephanie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Six months later, when she passed away, all I could think was that now there would be no one to hold us together. Except us.
I–the non-joiner, the anti-group-er–could not imagine going forward as a writer without these people. They were like a family and I loved them. I am forever fortunate that nine other writers felt the same way. Staying with them was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in my writing career. Stephanie had this wonderful gift of bringing people together, and it was like she gave us the best gift of all: before she left this world she gave us to each other.
And so we moved from eating Trader Joe’s cat-shaped cookies and sipping cinnamon tea in Stephanie’s cottage to eating cheese and drinking wine in Amanda’s kitchen, where we meet still. On Tuesday nights we reaffirm our support for each other’s writing and our belief in our “us”-ness. We are a team. If my own writing isn’t going well (one catchphrase of our group is “I suck,” which is always accompanied by laughter), hearing about other folks having a great writing week or getting a story published gives me hope, makes me happy. Together, we wage a war on what we call “suckitude.”
We writers need feedback from people who are honest, who are analytical, who are firm. But from Stephanie I learned that these qualities are enhanced, rather than diluted, by generosity and acceptance and love. The investment is huge: being happy for other people’s successes, feeling pain at their failures, opening yourself up to vulnerability. But in return there is trust, loyalty, friendship, and kindness. And maybe, if you’re lucky, people who change your life.
I am not only a better writer because of those people in Amanda’s kitchen: Cyndi Cady, Chris Cole, Amanda Conran, Tom Joyce, John Philipp, Jill Rosenblum Tidman, Maya Lis Tussing, David Winton and Jon Wells. I am more trusting. I am more emotionally connected. I am, thanks to them, a better person. – Tanya