Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why I Needed a Writers' Group

Tuesdays with Amy

In the middle of the night while soothing a fussy infant, I began writing my obituary. No, I wasn’t suffering from postpartum depression, but being a stay-at-home mother to three young children in the suburbs can give one pause. I immediately began listing off everything I could do well: I was a good mother, but no one gets paid for that; I enjoyed baking, though leaving for work at 3:00 am each morning would wreak havoc on my baby’s nursing schedule; I’d always done well in English class and I did write the winning essay to the Father-of-the-Year committee when I was 12 years old. That’s it! A writer was born.

I spent the next few weeks composing a series of essays, first in my head, and then, whenever a free moment presented itself, on paper. I sent ten off to Beverly Beckham who at the time was my favorite columnist for the Boston Herald . I was on tenterhooks waiting for her to call. After a few weeks, I realized she was too embarrassed for me and would politely ignore my pathetic attempts. As the days rolled one into the next, and then into long sleep-deprived nights, I’d cringe each time I thought of her sorting through my sheaf of papers.

But she did call. First she told me everything that was right with my work; it was a stunning revelation that anything I’d written could touch another. Her enthusiasm made me weep. And then in a kind, no nonsense manner she explained all that needed tweaking. Though my hand shook, I wrote down every word she said. A few months later, I sent off one of those revised essays and within a week, an editor at the Boston Globe called to tell me they were running it.

Soon my essays were being accepted at other publications and I was even picked up as a regular freelancer for the Globe where I lobbied for, and was given, a column. But I wanted more. One dreary Saturday, I heard Jonathan Franzen being interviewed by Terry Gross, and he said something that startled me. He said writing The Corrections was the most fun he’d ever had. Writing a book was fun? Not terrifying, not excruciatingly difficult, but fun?

Within minutes, I plopped myself in front of my computer and began a novel. Eight hours and twenty pages later, I understood exactly what Franzen meant. My experience with Beverly taught me just how important a good critique was to writing. But I couldn’t return to her with this mammoth project, I needed a writers’ group. That same week I saw an article in my local paper profiling just such a gathering that met at a nearby library. I called the woman who was interviewed, sent in my writing sample, and joined my first writers’ group.

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