Traveling Companions on the Writer’s Journey

Today is my oldest child’s 19th birthday (Happy Birthday, baby girl!), and I find myself reflecting on life’s journeys, and the people who are part of them. On my journey toward published author, I have had many traveling companions who haven’t just made the journey more pleasant, they have made it possible.

Nineteen years and about 1,000,000 words ago on my life's journey.

I feel very fortunate to have companions who have been in turns hand-holders, critics, cheerleaders, and most importantly, friends. They have shared honesty that made me a better writer. They have kindly pretended not to notice when I’ve thrown childish tantrums, and they have laughed at my jokes, some of which may not have been that funny. That’s the kind of truly dedicated companions that I believe make a writing journey a successful one, no matter where it leads.

So where does one find these companions? For me, they come from a variety of sources. Here are a few:

Family

My first reader has always been my mom. An artist herself, she has a keen appreciation for transferring the mind’s image into something tangible. She also has a sharp eye for pace. She has yet to return a manuscript without several marginal notes, “this drags here,” and she’s usually right. (Okay, she’s always right, but one should never admit that outright to one’s mother.)

My kids have been great readers, too, and the young audience I need, but they have been more than that. They are the ones that fill my soul with joy and light and humor when it might otherwise be drained dry by the stresses and mundane duties of life. In that sense, they have been not just my readers, but my muses as well.

Writing Groups

My wonderful critique group, Mike Hassel, Megan Kelly, Kiersten Stevenson, me, and Jenn Bertman, celebrate the sale of my first novel by all sitting together very closely on a four-person couch.

A stable, long-term critique group has been so vital to my writing. I am fortunate to have a group that has stuck together for over five years. We meet every other Sunday at a local coffeehouse (we’ve outlasted two other meeting locations.) We have held each other up through rejections and frustrations, talked through character or plot problems, and honestly told each other things we didn’t want to hear. I am grateful for them every day. THANK YOU, Mike, Megan, Kiersten, and Jenn (of Mixed Up Files of Jennifer Bertman fame.)

Without my critique partners, I would not be an EMU’s Debut today. They pushed me to rewrite MAGIC CARP, the manuscript that sold to Karen Wojtyla at McElddery Books in November. It was a manuscript I had abandoned, but they could see the merit when I could not. And when it did sell, they brought me gifts, hugs, and big, happy smiles, and not a one of them succumbed to the temptation to say “I told you so!

Gifts from my critique group when MAGIC CARP sold, including a "diamond in a lump of coal," since MAGIC CARP is about a coal mining family.

I also belong to the Coffee House Percolator, a writing group of a very different sort. The Perc is an online freewriting group with members in numerous countries. Daily writing prompts serve as inspiration for quick, unfiltered writing, which is posted to the group listserv. We then comment, but only positive feedback. The point is not critique, since the work is spontaneous, unpolished writing. The point is to access deep writing and identify what is best within it. The Perc is just that–a perky pick-me-up when the journey gets grueling, but it offers more than affirmation. Sharing freewriting brings me back to the reason I am on this journey–the pure joy of creativity.

Groups of Writers

In addition to having writing groups, I have found support and inspiration in groups of writers who have never read a word of my prose. From them I have gained valuable advice and perspective on the challenges we all encounter on this journey.

EMLA clients at our Fourth Annual Retreat in Chicago, May 2010, an event filled with sharing, writing, laughter, and friendship. Four EMU's Debuts members were present, L.B Schulman (second from left in back row), Jeannie Mobley (fartherst person to the right), Cynthia Levinson (immediately left of Jeannie), and Natalie Lorenzi (the barely visible head next to Cynthia's head.)

Examples of these groups for me include SCBWI Schmooze Groups that sponsor presentations or brainstorming sessions, and a listserv for EMLA clients, where my agency siblings freely share experiences from the heart-wrenching to the silly. This sharing has been so valuable that we have begun annual retreats, where the camaraderie and friendship reinvigorates us all. And of course I would be most remiss to not mention the incredible support of my agent herself, Erin Murphy (dead center in the photo, in purple and orange.) But more on her role in another post.

These are just some of the groups that have made a difference in my success and enriched my journey, a journey that is far from complete. If you are on the writing journey without traveling companions, look around you. Writing groups (and groups of writers) can be found everywhere–on blogs and listservs, in local bookstores and coffee shops, on Facebook and Twitter–maybe even under your bed or between the couch cushions. Maybe right here.

Share with us where you have found your traveling companions for this journey, and how they have helped you. The more we share, the more we have on this writer’s journey.

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10 Comments

Filed under Writing, Writing and Life

10 responses to “Traveling Companions on the Writer’s Journey

  1. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Hey, Jeannie! Great post! I agree—the people in our lives are what make the journey so much darn fun! And, in truth, make it possible in the first place.

    I have had a few different writers’ groups. The first one was most significant, as I met life-long friends and learned the mechanics of critiquing. Turns out that I was a wordy beginning writer. (Can you imagine???) I learned to cut, I learned to craft, and I learned, “What have I got to loose by trying?”

    My present group, The Writers’ Bloc, is held in my home on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. These ladies are talented—but, also, very dear friends! Personally, I think members of a writers’ group need to be friends and have personal connections. Let’s face it—sharing your writing is an act of vulnerability, as is giving/receiving feedback. Also, a good writers group doesn’t just discuss the writing itself but all the other layers within it—such as insecurity, joy, fear, and the AHA! Moments. I look forward to more champagne popping with these girls! 😉

    I am honored to consider you, Emus-debuters, as part of my writing circle these days, too! 😉

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    • I agree that there is a lot of vulnerability in presenting writing, so having a group that you can trust to be simultaneously honest and kind is important. Before I landed with my current critique group, I was writing partners with several people, and was in several online or in person groups. They all started out gung-ho, but before long, people started feeling overwhelmed or panicky, or just plain unable to keep writing and critiquing for reasons of time or because of personal insecurities raised by the process. I felt like I was burning people out–I was too intense and wanted something bigger or more focused than they did, and I felt guilty when the groups fell apart, like my intensity was to blame. What it really comes down to is a dynamic (social, professional, and creative) that is well balanced for everyone. When you get that group of writers, my advice is to hang on to them as hard as you can!

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  2. J. Anderson Coats

    One side-effect of having a good group of beta readers is the motivation factor. If I know they’re counting on reading my draft, I’m less tempted to slack off.

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    • That’s great, J. but a little different from my group experience, because we don’t have specific deadlines for each other. But it is interesting there are side effects that we don’t necessarily think of when we start out with groups. I have discovered that I am more aware of perspectives other than my own from having received their feedback, so now it is like I have their critiquing in my head even when I’m not with my critique group. I will be reading over something, and I will think, “Megan would say…. about this character,” so they are helping me edit even when they aren’t with me.

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  3. Great post, Jeannie! You are so right–the people we surround ourselves with are so important on this writing journey. It’s been a pleasure being a part of your support circle and counting you as part of mine.

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  4. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    What a nice reminder of how many people it actually takes to write one book. 🙂 My parents have definitely given valuable feedback, along with my husband and kids. My debut novel would still be a manuscript on my hard drive without my long-time supportive, savvy, smart critique group, the Lit Wits (Joan Paquette, J. C. Phillips, Kip Wilson and C. J. Omololu). And Erin’s gentle prodding kept me going through The Rewrite.

    The kid lit community is also a rock when it comes to support–Verla’s, Erin’s other clients, my local SCBWI chapter–I’ve always been able to find someone who is going through the same writing highs and lows as I am, and it makes such a difference when I have others with me along the journey.

    Thanks for the reminder, Jeannie, and Happy Birthday to your daughter! 🙂

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    • Okay, sounds like Natalie and Lynda both have critique groups with names. My group has been together for quite some time and I don’t think we’ve ever discussed naming ourselves. Hmmm. Maybe we need to get onto that.

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  5. What a great post. A reminder of how important is to surround yourself with people who understand and respect the process of writing and who are able to share in the journey it takes to make a piece of writing come alive. My critique group is so important to shaping up my books/manuscripts, as I am can tell yours were. I think maybe all writers should strive to get a critique group together, even if it has to be an online one. Working alone in a vacuum is the hard way to go.

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    • You have a good point with the question of those who understand and respect the process. most aspiring authors have no doubt also encountered all the people who say “aren’t you published yet?” or “haven’t you finished that book yet?” Many of them are kind, well meaning people, but theyjust don’t understand the process, and that can really put a strain on the spirits when you are struggling, and waiting.

      I have also met people at conferences who immediately jump to the conclusion that to get an agent you have to “know somebody,” and they want to know who I know that got me in. And I do/did know somebody–lots of somebodies, but only in the sense that I took the time and effort to get to know people, to work with people, to make connections, all of which helped me become a better writer and also to have connections of people who knew which agents were looking for work like mine so I knew who to query, and got advice from experienced people that helped me through the process. So if it is that I knew the right people, it was because I had built those connections with people.

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