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.