By Kate Brandt
On the Sanctity of Writing Groups
I’m late, as usual. I clutch my laptop and head into the restaurant, trying to ignore my nervousness. We’re discussing my essay today.
It’s my third draft, and I think—I hope—I’ve got it right this time. Deb and Jimin are already inside, eating their salads and talking. We’re meeting at Panera, where the food is cheap and decent, and it’s near most of our homes in northern Westchester County.
When I come in, there are kisses all around and laughter. I tease Jimin about watching too much Downton Abbey.
We do this every time; it’s part of the ritual. We need to laugh, to let the jitteriness out before we focus on the writing. To my mind, there’s something sacred about it.
Normally, there are five of us—Jimin, Deb, Pat, Alex, me. We meet weekly on Friday nights, rotating houses. But this particular week, Pat and Alex couldn’t make it; they were at the AWP conference. So, the rest of us decided to meet during the day.
In this group, we are close. We know each other’s spouses, children, histories. Together, we’ve survived divorce, abortion, unrequited love, single motherhood, children diagnosed with autism and cancer, surgery, chemo. We’ve listened to each other sob, offered babysitting, driven each other home at night if one of us, stressed and distracted, has lost her car keys.
But those aren’t the main things. Mostly, we help each other write.
At our last meeting, in late January, the five of us met in Alex’s living room in Yonkers. Alex had made cheesecake. Everything she bakes disappears. There were six pieces when we sat down, and as we settled in to discuss her novel, only one remained.
Alex had been working on this novel for about six months, on and off, and we were tough on her.
“No way,” said Pat. “No abortion.”
“You think she should have the baby?” Alex asked.
“She has to,” said Pat, her voice rising. “The whole book is going to deflate if she doesn’t. Why would we keep reading?”
Alex looked crestfallen.
“I agree,” I said. “If there’s no baby, we become less interested in the story. This book is about their love. If there’s no baby, it’s like their love is not alive.”
• • •
I write because I want someone to listen. Tom Spanbauer, my first writing teacher at Manhattan's West Side Y in the early '90s, put it best. “People write,” he told our class, “because they weren’t invited to the party.”
I’ve been at it for 25 years now. When I started, there were no word processors. I sat on the floor of my apartment in Spanish Harlem with an old electric typewriter perched on top of an upturned milk crate and banged away.
I wanted to capture in words some of my most persistent memories: the sight of my mother’s face when my father left her, bones burning through her skin; the light on the walls of a Spring Street apartment where I met a lover regularly one New York summer. If I wrote well enough, I reasoned, those places would exist outside me, where others could see them, too.
In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville, his fictional detective and fourteenth-century friar, remarks:
Thus God knows the world, because He conceived it in His mind, as if from the outside, before it was created, and we do not know its rule, because we live inside it, having found it already made.”
In the same way, when I write, I descend into my own inner world. To bring my world to life, I must live inside it. Totally. If I write a rape scene, I must feel the terror and fight of the victim, her pain and rage. If only for a short time, I must be what I write.
When this happens, there’s a kind of ecstasy in the process. The piece writes itself, and I don’t have to think about what comes next—I know.
But then comes the time when I need to step out of my world and observe it from the outside, as a reader would. I struggle, trying to look down from on high, my own version of God, failing. My blind spots get in the way.
Maybe it’s as simple as forgetting to finish a scene or a sentence. Or maybe I’ve got a knottier problem. What is the story here? Why did I write this? What has kept me—fear, habit, insistence on my original vision—from taking the story where it needs to go?
What seems clear to me may not be clear to others. Which is where my writing group comes in.
• • •
Of the five of us, I’ve had the least success in the publishing world. Jimin’s novel is being shopped around right now, and Pat’s young adult novel has been published. Alex has published a memoir; Deb’s plays are produced all over the country as well as internationally. But my relative lack of success—two essays published in all these years—hasn’t yet discouraged me.
In Panera, we’ve finished eating, and it’s time to look at my essay. It’s about the house where I grew up and about my father—a writer also, and a powerful, complicated force in my life.
“It’s remarkable,” says Deb, “but as a reader, I want to know why you’re telling me this.”
“I see themes I’ve seen before in your writing,” says Jimin. “Reflection. Mirroring. But it isn’t coming to the surface."
"Why now?" Deb asks.
"Maybe you can change the order...?”
I listen, holding back my dismay. These women are good writers. Both teach writing, and the publication of my last essay was due largely to Jimin’s help.
“This part, about being in the fourth grade?” Jimin adds now. “This might be the best opening. I see how you could segue from that to the part about the mirror, which I think is so telling.”
I have no idea how I will accomplish what they’re suggesting. I have no idea—but I push that worry away. I jot down notes. My job is to have faith.
I do love mirrors as a metaphor. “I am silver and exact,” says the mirror in the Sylvia Plath poem of that name. “I have no preconceptions.” My writing group is this kind of mirror—an honest one. They care about me and will tell the truth. They will show me my essays and stories from the outside in a way I cannot see them.
Most important, they know something of the world I write about. For Deb, Pat, Jimin, and Alex, the house where I grew up, with its three floors, gold-backed mirrors, and endless rows of bookshelves, is not just a physical place; it’s also a state of mind. They’ve lived there, too, through my writing. It’s the same for me with Porcupine Plains, the town in Canada where Alex grew up. I have only to hear the name, and a whole world comes forth.
The truth about writing is that we often work in the dark. We have to keep going, even when we don’t know what we’re heading for, and that takes faith—and community. It isn’t just about success; it’s about self-discovery. Until my writing group tells me what I’m saying, reflecting it back to me, I often haven’t understood it myself.
When I leave Panera, driving home to resume my mundane life (meeting my son’s school bus, hosting a playdate), I think how strange it is to feel this happy. My group has just picked apart my latest labor of love. Yet, I feel thoroughly seen, thoroughly listened to. I am not alone in this most difficult venture; there are others who struggle alongside me and will offer help. When I get home, I’ll look over my notes again. Next time I sit down to work on this essay, what my friends have said will guide me.
I slip a CD into the player and start to hum. Feels like I’ve finally made it to the party.
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (Harcourt Brace, 1983).
- "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath, written in 1961 and originally published in Crossing the Water (Faber and Faber, 1971); also in The Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1981).
- "Work with Reflections," "Crystal Apple Reflection," and "Reflections" © Felicity Rainnie; used by permission
Kate Brandt works as an adult literacy teacher in New York City and lives in Westchester County, where she meets with her writing group.
Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.