Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why Book Writers Need to Hang Out Together

I teach weekly writing classes for book writers at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Westchester County near New York City. The beginning class, meeting each Monday afternoon for six weeks, draws a range of skill and experience levels. Some writers come in with a good idea, encouragement from friends and family ("You should write a book!"), expertise in a topic, or a group of characters who won't leave them alone. I take the group through a series of writing exercises to determine where their real story lies.

It's the tools in the class that start the process of discovery. But it's the gathering of other writers, those specifically working on books, which lends clarity and inspiration. The class discussions, the helping of each other, bring very interesting results which reveal to the writer (and me, the teacher) where the real stall-out is.

One woman in my class, a brilliant ex-journalist (and I've changed details here to protect her privacy), was writing about an entertainment world legend. She had put together ten chapters then stopped for some reason. Nothing moved the book forward, so she came to my class to figure out why. Over the six weeks, she discovered that she was deeply afraid of ridicule from fellow reporters and of making some monumental mistake in reporting accuracy. Her award-winning newspaper and magazine were pieces of cake compared to a book. How could she ever create copy that was interesting enough to hold a reader for 300 pages? More importantly, how would she keep all those piles of research accurate?

Navigating this writer's block came about through discussion with thirteen other struggling book writers and ended her procrastination on her manuscript.

I've taught this weekly class for many years. I'm fascinated, at the beginning of each session, how varied the group of writers is. We are usually between twelve and fifteen people. We meet for three hours once a week for six weeks. By the end of the session, we are often changed inside. The books we write reveal ourselves, our deepest fears and longings, whether they are fiction, nonfiction, or memoir. Good books put the writer on the page. They can't help it--they have to.

I'm starting a new session in May. Already writers are signing up, coming from around the East Coast. Some drive in for an overnight to attend the class, and when I am amazed at this, the writer tells me, "There aren't very many classes like these. My friend took it last year and raved about it. And her book is actually finished now." I hear many stories like this, because we, as a group, are unique. We specifically address the strange and wonderful needs of the book writer.

I know these classes keep me writing! I have two books coming out this summer, and I am thanking my classes for the inspiration and momentum to keep going on them over the past few years.

If you want to join us for the next session of "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book," here are the specifics: 6 Mondays, 1:30-4:30 p.m., May 4-June 22 (skips May 18 & 25), $355, at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY (near Tarrytown). Visit, email, or call 914-332-5953 to register. Class size is limited, and this one usually sells out. So call soon. Maybe you'll find the missing key to finishing your book, as you are supported and encouraged by this wonderful group of fellow writers.

If you're too distant to join us, try an exercise from the class. Consider the writerly support in your life. Write for ten minutes about how you are encouraged, motivated, and appropriately mirrored in your efforts to write your book. Where does your support come from--and where might it be missing?

Writers, especially book writers, need each other. It's essential to hang out together so we realize (1) we're not going crazy in this book-writing process, (2) it actually demands more of us than we might first believe and there are specific tools to get stronger, and (3) we can keep going when the going gets tough.