Writ­ing Part­ners

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By steph au­teri

Work­ing to­gether through writ­ing and life.

ABOUT seven years ago I wrote an ad and posted it to the free­lance writ­ing blog I main­tained. Wanted: A writ­ing part­ner who can kick my lazy, pro­cras­ti­nat­ing writer’s ass. Must: Thrive on dead­lines and be will­ing to of­fer up hon­est and con­struc­tive crit­i­cism while still be­ing mind­ful of my mul­ti­tudi­nous neu­roses, my over­wrought sen­si­tiv­ity, and my blind, code­pen­dent love affair with my own words. Should en­joy: Caf­feine ad­dic­tion, cats, se­rial com­mas, fuzzy pants, Slan­kets, and dance breaks. In­ter­ested? For the love of god, please e-mail me.

At the time I had re­cently re­signed from a part-time permalance edit­ing job at a lifestyle web­site that re­quired me to com­mute from my home in New Jer­sey into Man­hat­tan. I had been at the job for a year and a half, and while it had yanked me out of an in­come rut pre­cip­i­tated by the eco­nomic crash of 2008, I was ex­hausted by the daily bus ride, the forced hu­man in­ter­ac­tions, the ef­fort of putting on pants.

But af­ter leav­ing my job I re­al­ized that work­ing from home was iso­lat­ing. I could go days with­out leav­ing my house, with­out see­ing an­other per­son. I had fallen back into the habit of talk­ing to my cats or, worse, talk­ing to my­self when I ac­tu­ally emerged from my house. I had fond mem­o­ries of a writ­ing group I’d once been a part of and wanted to re-cre­ate that sense of ca­ma­raderie and shared cre­ative en­ergy, even if I had no in­ten­tion of get­ting out of my pj’s.

Soon af­ter the ad went up I reached out to Lyz, a for­mer col­league of mine.

“I posted this want ad,” I wrote, pro­vid­ing a link, “but I think you’re the one who’s des­tined to be my pla­tonic life writ­ing part­ner.”

“YES,” she re­sponded in all caps, “LET’S DO THIS.” She then fol­lowed up to set our first Skype date. We were both writ­ing our first books, both of which were me­moirs. We agreed to swap ex­cerpts of our work ev­ery other week, then meet up via Skype to give each other feed­back. It was an ideal setup. We would be able to get a feel for each other’s voices, sto­ries, strengths, weak­nesses, and quirks, and we’d be in it for the long haul:

work­ing to­gether through man­u­script drafts, re­vi­sions, agent queries, and end­less waiting. We could pro­vide each other with re­as­sur­ance when our fears threat­ened to over­whelm us. We could threaten each other with re­lent­less sham­ing if the other was feel­ing hope­less or stuck or un­mo­ti­vated.

Be­cause we had both been work­ing in on­line pub­lish­ing for sev­eral years and were both full-time, free­lance, work-at-home writ­ers, we could also sup­port each other in our pro­fes­sional en­deav­ors. We could swap con­tacts, share leads, brain­storm ideas, and strate­gize about the best ways to build up our plat­forms. We could pro­vide each other with accountability, some­thing that’s hard to find when your days are self-di­rected. Most im­por­tant, we could of­fer each other a sense of un­der­stand­ing. Even with Lyz in Iowa and me in New Jer­sey, we could give each other a life­line.

We soon fell into a rhythm. Lyz sent me drafts of her lat­est chap­ters, and I turned on Track Changes. I slashed and burned and in­serted com­ments in the mar­gins. I made line ed­its and high­lighted pas­sages that left me with more ques­tions than an­swers. I wrote long e-mails about what I saw as the in­tended take­away and the com­pet­ing themes. Lyz, mean­while, sent me a marked-up doc­u­ment high­light­ing my propen­sity to un­der­ex­plain, the way I leaned into glib­ness to avoid shar­ing too much.

“But how did this make you feel?” she wrote in the mar­gins, and, “Can you give more de­tails about what brought you here?” Or, “I like this end­ing, but I’m not sure you earned it. Here’s where I think you could build in what’s miss­ing.”

Al­ways she was prompt­ing me to write more. Lyz was adept at find­ing the places that re­quired ex­pan­sion and deeper think­ing. She told me to dig. It was a process not un­like ther­apy.

There were times, of course, when one of us would slip up and go weeks or even months with­out pro­duc­ing new work. When it was me, I wor­ried I wasn’t hold­ing up my end of the bar­gain. When it was Lyz, I wor­ried I had proved my­self to be no longer use­ful.

It turns out that within just a few months of our part­ner­ship, I had come to de­pend on Lyz. I re­quired her in­put not only on our cre­ative trade, but on ev­ery as­sign­ment I turned in for work.

“I think this is ter­ri­ble and I hate ev­ery­thing and no one will ever give me an as­sign­ment ever again,” I wrote.

“You are ridicu­lous and they’re go­ing to love it and they can suck it if they don’t,” she wrote back. Mean­while she sent me query let­ters and asked for ad­vice in re­spond­ing to ed­i­tors, and we talked through par­tic­u­larly con­found­ing e-mails from clients. It felt good to know that she de­pended on me for work-life things, too. But most im­por­tant, I think, we had found in each other our ideal reader.

In a per­fect world most of us will find some­one with whom we can share our words, whether through a men­tor­ship, a work­shop, or a reg­u­lar writ­ing group. As for me, I’ve had all of those other ver­sions of writ­ing re­la­tion­ships over the years. But

We talked about our

re­la­tion­ships, our frus­tra­tions,

and our fears. Even though our

sit­u­a­tions of­ten looked vastly

dif­fer­ent, we were both slog­ging

our way through the muck of

be­ing women writ­ers. And we

were do­ing it to­gether.

none of those other re­la­tion­ships has ever lasted. When it comes to peo­ple who know ev­ery piece of me, the list is short. There are my par­ents. There is my hus­band. There is Lyz.

MY WRIT­ING of­ten mir­rors my life. As a non­fic­tion writer I tend to write about things when I am still in the midst of them, when I am too close to the sub­ject mat­ter and there is no pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion to the thing I am writ­ing about. And that’s okay. It just means I end up writ­ing and rewrit­ing the same piece of my life over and over again, some­times over the course of many years, un­til it feels like I ac­tu­ally have some­thing to say be­yond just a des­per­ate un­bur­den­ing.

This is what even­tu­ally hap­pened with my book. When an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship at the age of twenty left me feel­ing lost and bro­ken, I be­gan to hash out the reper­cus­sions of that re­la­tion­ship in college po­etry work­shops and in short story work­shops, where my truth was thinly veiled as fic­tion. It led to a ca­reer as a sex writer. It led to nu­mer­ous by­lines. Eigh­teen years later, and af­ter many work­shops and Skype calls with Lyz, that un­healthy re­la­tion­ship fi­nally led to a book. A Dirty Word, my mem­oir about re­claim­ing my sex­u­al­ity, was pub­lished in Oc­to­ber by Cleis Press, and I still can’t quite be­lieve I made it here.

But seven years ago, when Lyz and I first started work­ing to­gether, I was writ­ing this par­tic­u­lar story for the umpteenth time. I was also strug­gling with in­fer­til­ity—an ex­pe­ri­ence that al­most led to a sep­a­ra­tion with my hus­band. In be­tween shar­ing chap­ter snip­pets from the be­gin­nings of my book, writ­ing per­sonal es­says about baby­mak­ing sex and ter­ri­ble phle­botomists, and sob­bing into my pil­low while the space next to me in bed re­mained cold and empty, bi­weekly Skype calls with Lyz were a re­prieve. In ad­di­tion to work­shop­ping, we found re­lease in bitch­ing about the state of the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

“No one values writ­ers any­more!” I said.

“No one wants to pay for con­tent when they can get ev­ery damn thing for free!”

We’d dis­cuss who was still pay­ing de­cent rates and get fired up about de­vel­op­ing pitches or writ­ing pieces for those mar­kets. When the con­fes­sional es­say seemed to su­per­sede all other types of writ­ing, we’d de­bate what made an es­say ex­ploita­tive and what made it some­thing more. Our own work was con­fes­sional, in a way, but we were also work­ing to­gether to make it some­thing more. What form did our books have to take to el­e­vate them into some­thing that would get at a deeper truth? We’d end our Skype calls with a game plan and with the re­newed en­ergy to keep go­ing.

But we didn’t just talk about work. As Lyz ran from the com­puter to pull her wail­ing new­born from the crib, grap­pling with poop-splo­sions and spit-up and her child’s des­per­ate grasp­ing to­ward her breast—and even while I en­vied that poop-cov­ered new­born and sta­ble mar­riage—we didn’t shy away from the prover­bial shit in our lives. We talked about our re­la­tion­ships, our frus­tra­tions, and our fears. Even though our sit­u­a­tions of­ten looked vastly dif­fer­ent, we were both slog­ging our way through the muck of be­ing women writ­ers. And we were do­ing it to­gether.

As my hus­band and I worked to put our mar­riage back to­gether, Lyz helped me re­work the first few chap­ters of my book. She gave me valu­able feed­back on my pro­posal. And af­ter just two months of query­ing agents, I signed with some­one who was rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral im­pres­sively big-name au­thors.

Of course life does not move in a straight line. Af­ter work­ing with my agent to strengthen my pro­posal, she be­gan send­ing it out to pub­lish­ers. Much of the feed­back was pos­i­tive, but most ed­i­tors felt the book wasn’t quite right. I for­warded ev­ery kind re­jec­tion

to Lyz (who, in top Lyz form, in­sisted they were all delu­sional), and when my agent sug­gested we re­cast the book, I ran all of her ideas—and all of my own ideas—past Lyz. Still, my agent and I couldn’t come up with a con­cept we both loved, and as we con­tin­ued try­ing, I felt as if we were get­ting fur­ther away from the book I wanted to write. My agent be­came less re­spon­sive to my e-mails. Plagued by im­pos­tor syn­drome, I sent text tirades to Lyz. Per­haps I wasn’t good enough. Per­haps my story wasn’t worth telling.

As I be­gan los­ing hope about my book, my mar­riage re­turned to solid ground. And af­ter an­other year and a half of try­ing, I fi­nally got preg­nant. Ever since

I was a young girl, I’d wanted two things: to be a mother and to be a pub­lished au­thor. In the ex­cite­ment of fi­nally see­ing one dream come true, I let the other one slip away.

I still brain­stormed story pitches with Lyz and work­shopped the oc­ca­sional es­say, but the only book we worked on was hers, a dy­namic that Lyz later ad­mit­ted was frus­trat­ing. The bal­ance be­came even more un­even when I gave birth to my daugh­ter. Drown­ing in the con­stant want of oth­ers—the clus­ter feed­ing, the pump­ing bra, the dirty dishes, the de­mands of my free­lance clients—I was too over­whelmed to write any­thing. For those first few months, jug­gling my love for a child I had tried to have for years with the sud­den on­set of post­par­tum de­pres­sion, I thought I might never write again.

“I guess this is just who I am now,” I told Lyz. “I can no longer call my­self a writer.”

“That’s bull­shit,” she said. By this point she was wran­gling a tod­dler, an­other new­born, and an ex­plod­ing writ­ing ca­reer. “This is tem­po­rary,” she as­sured me. But ev­ery time we ended our call, I found my­self won­der­ing why I didn’t feel as ca­pa­ble as Lyz.

When peo­ple talk about what mo­ti­vates them to write, they of­ten men­tion the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of writ­ing it­self. They talk of the op­por­tu­nity for connection with their read­ers and of the recog­ni­tion they might gain. All of which is valid and all of which also drives my own writ­ing. But it would be a lie to not also ad­mit to my two less at­trac­tive mo­ti­va­tors: des­per­a­tion— to meet dead­lines, to not be a crappy writ­ing part­ner, to pay the bills—and jeal­ousy.

Six months into new mother­hood, I had ten­ta­tively be­gun to write again and stum­bled upon a re­cent book that seemed to have a premise sim­i­lar to my own. I im­me­di­ately felt a sick twist in my stom­ach. I e-mailed the link to Lyz, wail­ing about my missed op­por­tu­nity. I wrote this de­spite know­ing, log­i­cally, that no story is new and that ev­ery piece of work is made dis­tinct by its au­thor’s own voice and per­spec­tive. And then I pur­chased a copy of that book.

Af­ter read­ing the first chap­ter, I e-mailed Lyz again.

“I can do bet­ter than this,” I wrote. I ap­plied to an up­com­ing writ­ing re­treat, the Cam­bridge Writ­ers’ Work­shop, where I fo­cused on re­viv­ing my book. Then I spent a year writ­ing a book that con­tained the spirit of the first it­er­a­tion, but which also sought to be some­thing more.

When the book was nearly done, Lyz came up with my ti­tle. I e-mailed

the agent, with whom I hadn’t been in con­tact in what seemed like an eter­nity, gave her a short pitch, and asked if she was still in­ter­ested or if she wanted to part ways. We had an am­i­ca­ble breakup, and af­ter an­other year of query­ing agents, I found the one who was able to sell my book. Bless Sharon Pel­letier of Dys­tel, Goderich & Bour­ret, who was able to get me across that fin­ish line. But would I have ever got­ten close if, seven years ear­lier, I hadn’t part­nered with Lyz?

WHEN we first joined forces, Lyz and I were both flail­ing as writ­ers. Now we are both sup­port­ing our­selves as jour­nal­ists and ed­i­tors, and we both have books coming out. In fact, Lyz has two. (She was al­ways cooler than me.) Look­ing back, I think we’ve al­ways worked so well to­gether be­cause we have been at sim­i­lar points in our ca­reers, writ­ing sim­i­lar things for sim­i­lar au­di­ences, nur­tur­ing sim­i­lar goals. We’ve al­ways trusted each other and un­der­stood what the other was try­ing to do. That trust and mu­tual re­spect pro­vided the foun­da­tion for a re­la­tion­ship in which we were able to help each other move forward.

And even as we took turns melt­ing down—los­ing faith in our work, los­ing faith in the in­dus­try, los­ing faith in the lives and the fam­i­lies we had built for our­selves—we were able to re­main steady for each other. When my mar­riage was in jeop­ardy and I be­gan to be­lieve I would never have chil­dren, when Lyz strug­gled to find an agent, when I be­came a mother and was sure my writ­ing ca­reer was over, when Lyz’s mar­riage was end­ing, we saw each other through. When one of us threat­ened to dis­ap­pear com­pletely, the other would drag her back. And then we’d talk it out. The writ­ing and the liv­ing, it turned out, were part of the same process.

Last month Lyz and I had a Skype call for the first time in far too long. We had both been jug­gling per­sonal hard­ships and book dead­lines, and it had been dif­fi­cult to pin down a time that worked, let alone to gen­er­ate work for the other to read. The fact that ei­ther of us was able to man­age mother­hood and a writ­ing ca­reer seemed like a mir­a­cle.

But we quickly fell back into our old rhythm, catch­ing each other up on our books, lay­ing out our short-term free­lance goals, talk­ing through the projects we were work­ing on, bitch­ing about the end­less minu­tiae of the life of a free­lance work-at-home mom. By the end of the call, we had given each other small as­sign­ments. We set dead­lines and com­mit­ted to writ­ing new work.

“I want to send you a new part of this man­u­script ev­ery other week,” Lyz said, know­ing the added accountability would help keep her on track.

“If you don’t, I can be­rate you,” I said.

And then we logged off.

STEPH AU­TERI is a writer and editor who has writ­ten about women’s health and sex­u­al­ity for the At­lantic, VICE, Pa­cificStandard, Rewire.News, the Es­tab­lish­ment, and other pub­li­ca­tions. She is the au­thor of A Dirty Word, pub­lished by Cleis Press in Oc­to­ber.

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