Advice

A Writing Group of Two

Brian Taylor

December 16, 2010

Whenever I drive over the mountain passes from Spokane to Missoula, I have a writing summit with my friend Nancy, an English professor. We share new work and critique the hell out of it. Last summer was different. I'd spent much of it living in Missoula, and each day I would trundle out of bed and head to Break Espresso, a coffee spot on the main drag, and settle in to write from 8 a.m. to noon.

I did that every day. Three or four days a week, Nancy joined me. Sometimes Jeff, an economist, sat with us. I've long been in the habit of spending my mornings writing in some public place. But when there's someone across the table from you, it's harder to sneak peeks at Facebook or look for great deals on outdoor gear from Steepandcheap.com.

I've written in this space before about the usefulness of a "writing date." You buy a kind of accountability when you're with someone and you're both supposed to be working. It's like study hall—there's a monitor there, and sure, you can pass notes or even whisper, but some internal bully will eventually tell you to shut up and get back to work.

Last summer I got an astonishing amount of writing done, as did Nancy and Jeff; we all suffered together, over endless cups of coffee and an occasional scone.

But Nancy and I did something else, too. When one of us got stuck, we asked the other for help. And by stuck, I don't mean when you have to stop looking at the page for a while and go out for a run, bake a cake, or do whatever you do when your brain needs to be reset to start working again. I mean stuck as in paralyzed. You know what you need to do, but you just can't get there.

Maybe that doesn't happen to everyone. But it happens to me. And it happens to Nancy. It's easier for me when it happens to Nancy. And that's when we move from having a regular writing date to being members of the Writing Group of Two.

Here's how it works. Nancy will say something like, "I have to put this book proposal together." And then she will stare into space for three hours. Or start working on a syllabus for some course she might teach someday. Or search for an apartment to rent in Paris.

That's when I say, "OK, let's get to work." I make her think out loud and interrupt her with a stream of questions. I ask her what the argument is, and make her articulate the question she is trying to answer. I ask her why she is the right person to write the book. I tell her she has to come up with a table of contents. Nancy is a slow typist, so usually I grab her laptop and curse that rainbow-striped Apple when I can't find the right keys and make stupid mistakes. But I type as she talks.

Everything is already in her head. It's not that she's stuck on the thinking part. It's that she finds it difficult to get her thoughts onto the page. So, like a translator, or a secretary, I listen to what she's saying and I record. I don't worry much about getting things right—that's her job. What I do is help her produce that first impossible draft.

Then it's my turn. My problem is different. I can write a first draft. But often, while I suspect it's crap, I can't figure out where it's gone wrong. The language is generally fine. Sometimes, in fact, it's too good; fluid prose can hide hideous flaws of thought—at least from the author. If you get a draft that you like, you tend to memorize it; the sentences start to seem inevitable and unchangeable. I know that once it's out there in the world, there will be people quick to point out my inadequacies, my glibness, my habit of skimming along the shiny surface.

So Nancy reads my embarrassing first draft and says, usually, "I think it's more complicated." Then we discuss. She forces me to refine my thinking, to deepen my questions, to broaden the implications of what I'm trying to say. Like a shrink, she says, "This is what I hear you saying," and reflects back to me the best version of the place I'm trying to get to. But, unshrinklike, she assesses my arguments, makes fun of my bad ideas, and ferrets out the weak spots.

Sometimes it's depressing because she makes me realize that I have to start over and do more hard work. But if she says there's a problem, I listen because she's usually right. She may not be able to fix it for me, but I can't ignore her critique. Then we talk about how fortunate we are to have each other.

That kind of exchange will be familiar to many in the sciences and social sciences, where researchers are used to collaboration. But in the humanities, we still cling to the notion of romantic genius, toiling alone in a grotto or the stacks of a library, perpetrating academic prose. Nancy likes to point out how sad and ironic it is that often the first person who reads our drafts is the editor we submit them to.

Many of us are not in the habit of asking colleagues or academic friends to do the intellectual equivalent of sorting through our dirty laundry. If I didn't know Nancy so well, I would be ashamed to have her see the soiled workings of my untidy mind, my bad sentences and shoddy insights, my pathetic arguments and unhinged paragraphs.

The truth is, it can be dangerous to be that vulnerable and exposed. Remember the literary parlor game for academics in David Lodge's Changing Places? The game is called Humiliation, and the goal is to reveal the most embarrassing gap in your reading. One guy gets so caught up in the competition that he discloses that he's never read Hamlet. He wins the game but loses his job. Like all satirical literature, it's funny only because we recognize the truth in it.

It makes no sense for the first person who will read your work to be the editor who is in a position to reject it for publication. And there's a difference between needing to figure things out when you are intellectually stuck and becoming frozen with fear.

A nonacademic friend used to say that I was fortunate in that I got to take for granted being around smart people in my job. But what's the point of being around smart people if you don't use them to make yourself smarter?

Our Writing Group of Two has been more useful to me than I could ever have imagined. When Nancy and I started working together, I thought I would be getting a babysitter—someone to keep me on task when I started to toddle away. What I got, though, was an editor, a sounding board, someone whose successes I take as much pride in as I do my own. When she gets a good draft done, Nancy sometimes says she couldn't have done it without me. That's not true. It just would have been harder, more time-consuming, and less fun.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane.