Friday, March 18, 2005

Writing Friends

The phone rang at 6:45 a.m. this morning. It was a friend of mine from New Mexico who was about to send a book proposal off to an agent. She had some technical questions about formatting.

Last night, I ran into another friend, Joel Ben Izzy, a storyteller whose book, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, was published by Algonquin Books. He had just received the cover for the Russian edition of his book, and was excited by the picture drawn by a famous Russian artist.

Earlier in the day, I met with my writing group, North 24th, in San Francisco. We discussed a draft of a prologue written by one member, whose book will be published by the University of California Press. We heard comments from an agent about another member’s work-in-progress, a memoir about the end of a marriage. Another member had just had a great lunch in Palo Alto with her agent, and was jazzed about the stories she planned to write. I described what my agent was doing to find a publisher for my book. And yet another woman discussed a possible book idea.

Writing can be a lonely business. I have an office on the top floor of my house with a view of trees and San Francisco Bay. Day after day I sit there, by myself, playing with words, pouring through books and documents, surfing the Web when I need to procrastinate.

I could never have survived without the support of my writing friends. They have buoyed me up when I’ve been rejected, rejoiced when I’ve been published, and critiqued my work over and over again until I felt it was polished. They’ve been my cheerleaders in my quest for an agent and publisher.

Writers around the world endure because of the support of their friends. I don’t know of any other industry that is so reliant on support groups to survive. I don’t hear of nurses meeting regularly to get insight into their work or lawyers sharing briefs to make sure they have covered all the essential points.

But writers? There is a group for almost any genre. When I left the San Jose Mercury News I joined a creative non-fiction writing group led by Jane Anne Staw, whose book, Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block, has just been released in paperback. Jane has supported and encouraged dozens of Bay Area writers, and her name is laced through acknowledgement sections in dozens of books.

I’ve attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – a weeklong conference near Lake Tahoe – twice. Each time, it’s been like a shot of pure heroin. I’ve been able to talk shop 24/7 with hundreds of other writers, some famous, some never published. How do you combine historical research with character? How do you build tension? What makes a book interesting? The talk Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, gave last year on description (and you can buy it on CD) was worth the cost of the conference.

Po Bronson, one of the founders of The Grotto, put it elegantly last year at a Commonwealth Club talk on the Bay Area literary scene. He and Ethan Canin formed the Grotto, a collection of offices shared by writers and other artists, to cut down on isolation and increase camaraderie. The Grotto has now become an institution in itself, and its members have written great books.

Bronson encouraged other writers to form their own communities. He even said they could use the name Grotto. (And believe me, it’s a brand with cachet). Bronson said writing should not be regarded as a zero-sum game, where one person’s success meant another writer would achieve less. There is room for everyone, Bronson insisted, and the best way to ensure success is to support other writers.

Of course I want my name up in lights. Most writers do. But I also gain strength by the accomplishments of my friends. I rejoice when they rejoice. I exult at their success. I need them to navigate through these uncertain waters, to help understand my work and the publishing business. And I think they feel the same way about me.


The Happy Booker said...

What a wonderful post about writing groups and the support of writing friends. I would like to link to it on my blog in the coming week--i think my friends would appreciate it. Also, the Ghost Word link should be up and running in a few moments! Blog on-- The Happy Booker

Susan Kitchens said...

I loved reading this post for many reasons. (I discovered you thanks to Kevin Roderick and LA Observed.)

The support of writing friends is important. I take a short stab at one possible downside in a response post on my blog --- what happens when your writing buddies become your audience, or they otherwise loom large (maybe too large) in your writing process? Maybe the answer is, "get a life."

Anyway, your post gave me hope. Especially the mention of The Grotto, which I'd not known about. And which, in the last couple of months, I've been yearning for.

That, and generous attitude about another writer's success.

(Oh, and not on topic for this post, but I saw it referred to on LA Observed, I *so* related to writing/researching/doing something on paper about the life of an ancestor in a kind of historical way. My grandma graduated from MIT in 1920, and worked as an engineer... There's a story there that I want to discover and tell. Glad to see another person deeply involved in a similar venture.)