The company of other writers

William Zinsser, whose classic On Writing Well is one of the few how-to books on writing I own, states in his last post at his weekly blog column that he doesn’t hang around with writers.

He’s not “a citizen of writing.” He doesn’t join writers’ organizations, or show up at writers’ talks and panels.

Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

In my humble opinion, thinking oneself more interesting than one is, wanting mainly to talk about one’s work or interests, or complaining about those who make that work a trial can be fairly consistently observed across the board of humanity. Still, for all that it smarts, his assessment of writers is probably right, even when he goes on to describe them as “one of nature’s most insecure species.”

And he’s right, too, I think, to hold up as example his own identity as a “lone craftsman,” and his use of only his editors and a few friends for “the objective judgment and emotional support” that he, as every writer, needs.

Zinsser insists that writers should write what they want to write, never mind what the voices around them say or seem to demand. He insists that writing be treated as a craft, as precise and dignified as a plumber’s. And I suppose he knows well enough, as I’ve also learned, that insecurity is rarely alleviated by sharing it, but will diminish — though never completely — by hard work relentlessly practiced through one revision after the other. Zinsser wants writers to focus on the process, rather than the product.

So yes, the focus, and the lone hard craft. But still, I’ve been thinking about the company of other writers and want to raise a glass to those who also join up here and there, attend now and then, become landed immigrant if not full citizen.

I’ve been thinking about this because next Monday five of us — Elaine Pinto, Lori Matties, Barb Slater, Sarah Klassen, and myself — who used to be in a poetry group, are meeting for lunch as catch-up and mini-reunion.

And, just yesterday, I was at the last meeting — at least for a while — of my current writers’ group. For the past two years, Leona Dueck Penner, Dorothy Siebert, and I have been meeting every month or two to share our work and talk about writing. We came to call ourselves the # 1 Ladies Writing Group in playful resonance with Alexander McCall Smith’s # 1 ladies detective agency books. But now Dorothy and her husband Harold are heading to Pender Island as volunteer hosts at the MARK Centre retreat chalet. Dorothy will be writer-in-residence. So our group has changed, perhaps ended, and I’m keenly aware of what I’m going to miss.

The poetry group I referred to earlier morphed out of an earlier group that consisted of Sarah, Lori, Doug Schulz and myself, and for a while, Melody Goetz. Later there was a group consisting of Wilma Derksen, Sarah Klassen, Elizabeth Falk, Dorothy Friesen, and myself. We met for several years and even enjoyed a weekend retreat together.

As people moved or priorities changed, each of these groups ended. They were good and natural deaths.

But each, while it lasted, helped me as a writer. For one thing, they always provided a deadline. (One has to go to the group with something to read!) I got a few decent poems out of the exercise of poetry; I realized prose is my better genre. I used my fellow writers as first readers of stories and articles. Invariably, there were helpful comments. In one case, I completely re-worked the structure of a piece because of those observations. I’ve left writers’ group meetings discouraged, but just as often I’ve felt affirmed and connected.

Writing groups eventually outlive their usefulness as far as the particular reasons for their first forming go, and I don’t think it’s a slight to anyone to say so.

They leave their legacies of help and example, however. Perhaps friendship is their ultimate gift. Bonds are created in the good and bad experiences shared about editors and writing dilemmas and publishing woes or successes, and yes, insecurities. Shared poems and stories draw us into each other’s lives. As we discover individual styles and strengths, a few people from writers’ groups may emerge to be among those “trusted friends” Zinsser speaks of who transcend the ordinary interaction of citizenry and become writing confidants to whom one may turn for judgment or support.

To Leona, Dorothy S., Elaine, Lori, Barb, Sarah, Elizabeth, Wilma, Melodie, Doug, Dorothy F., then: I could go on and on about writing of yours that I remember, or things you said. With gratitude for knowing you “in group” and beyond. But for brevity’s sake, here’s E.B. White in the last paragraph of Charlotte’s Web, in reference to the pig Wilbur and spider Charlotte, to give my feelings words.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte… She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

2 thoughts on “The company of other writers

  1. “Zinsser insists that writers should write what they want to write, never mind what the voices around them say or seem to demand. He insists that writing be treated as a craft, as precise and dignified as a plumber’s.” If you meet a plumber (or a drywaller) who plumbs (or muds) “what they want … never mind what the voices around them say or seem to demand” please introduce me to her / him. I’d be very curious to see what they produce.

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