Warning: Things are about to get earnest. But it’s been a brutal winter and now with the first green shoots muscling their way through the cracked earth I feel compelled to return to this hopeful classic. Everyone knows Frog and Toad, the ultimate amphibian odd couple, opposites in every way: tall, short, optimist, pessimist. Frog and, well, Toad. Despite differences and whatever scrapes they get into their friendship endures as it is grounded in trust and understanding.
Frog and Toad, their push and pull and balance of one another, mirrors the dynamics of my writing group. There are four of us. We are all women and we live in the same borough but that’s where our similarities end. Every month we meet and drink and eat cheese and stay until way-too-late for a weeknight. We don’t eviscerate each other or even workshop as a cringe-worthy verb as much as offer notes and provide a safe environment for presenting new and/or unfinished work. We also vent, discuss books and list the celebrities we’d sleep with if given a Sundance chance. Did I mention the drinking and eating?
Whether it’s a traditional group, intuitive partner or long-distance cousin having at least one go-to close reader is key. Writing is lonely business and the marketplace bleak, which doesn’t always make for a party in our heads. Groups provide that necessary check but like everything else a good one is hard to find and a bad one can be toxic. For one, first readers must want you to succeed and put your best work out there. Meg Wolitzer said once that it’s a relationship rooted in love and it’s true that swapping drafts is an intimate act that requires you to let down your guard and open your vulnerable self up to what’s coming. Because they have your best interests at heart, they will tell you if, like Toad, you look idiotic in your bathing suit. Hopefully, they will tell you before you plunge into the river and freeze your buns off and offer yourself up for ridicule, but if they can’t catch you in time they will enjoy a goodhearted chuckle when you emerge with a chill because laughter is part of that love. Finally, first readers must be trustworthy and committed and razor-sharp, and as the women in my writing group are all of these – how lucky am I? – this is a paean to them.
Sorry if I’ve gone touchy-feely. Last month everyone was fired up by the VIDA study and while there is no need to rehash it all, Tin House’s Rob Spillman hit home:
When I solicit male authors, the only ones who do not submit are those contractually bound by other magazines. For female authors it is closer to 50% submit after being asked. Male authors, in the face of rejection, are much more likely to submit more work, (and sooner) than their female peers. This is true even when the female author is explicitly requested to send more work. Similarly, men whose work we accept are more likely to follow up publication with more submissions.
Part of what we do – what we’ve always done – is push each other to get our stories out in the world. As the industry changes and confuses and becomes increasingly labyrinthine it is easy to feel lost or get trapped in a mind fuck. Navigating the submissions process together in a thoughtful, measured way has proved a little less overwhelming. We commiserate over rejection. We celebrate publication.
Initially, I guess, I assumed the role of group cheerleader. Because I lack discipline, because I have whittled away years of not writing and find it tough to produce period let alone in a reader-less vacuum, I formed the group for the ruthless kick I evidently need to get anything done. Group delivered deadlines and community. It churned the passions. We were all writing regularly! Talking about stuff other than BPA free sippy cups! Sending out work! Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah.
Then, like the seasons that changed. This winter I’ve been grumbly and blah and wanting to burrow in bed until May. My writing group has been there to tear off calendar pages and hasten the months and drag me out from the covers. To meet me on the corner when I could use a good walk. To rally me for coffee and to eke out a laugh because it IS hilarious, this Sisyphean thing we do and can’t help but keep doing. They have not ditched the Toad I’ve become – because friends are like that – and so we go on, plodding through the path in the woods, looking for a clearing, waiting on the shadows of spring.