A Ritual of Writing Together July 14, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
For the last four years, at least one night a week, sometimes twice, we’ve traipsed to a favorite local watering hole for dinner and drinks and to produce pages for our novels-in-progress. Most of our writing is done in isolation, but this night out is a chance to work side by side as well. By following this ritual, we each have completed a first draft of a novel and are well into revision. What at first seemed an excuse for a nerds’ date night has arguably turned into our most effective means for keeping our novels on track and ourselves on task as writers.
A happy concurrence is that the weekly outing has also embedded us in the lives of our communities in a particular way. We’re regulars. Instead of the cheery Hi, Norm, Hi, Cliff, our favorite server greets us every Sunday night with her friendly British hi, guys. Sit anywhere. Waitstaff in earlier days shared personal philosophy (every individual has an emotional gas tank), future plans, and insight on the news of the day (one was a student at Northern Illinois University when six people were shot there). After the waitstaff got to know us as writers (at first, we hesitated to tell anyone we were working on novels), they would let us stay until our last words were completed, sometimes closing up around us.
This writing ritual began at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we kick-started our novels in 2006. Kelly Dwyer had given Doug an assignment to listen to and write down real-life dialogue. He knew, from his bartending years, that a corner bar in a university town was a good place to do just that, so we planted ourselves at a sidewalk table, ordered a couple of beers, and Doug jotted down snippets of conversation uttered by people walking by and sitting around us. Surprisingly, some of this dialogue found its way into the first draft of Doug’s novel, The Chief and the Gadget. The actors changed from college students discussing politics to a priest and an old woman having the same conversation more than sixty years earlier, at the time the atomic bomb was being developed.
Upon returning to our suburban Illinois home, we sought out a place to recreate the success of that summer experience. We quickly rejected places with unsuitable acoustics and favorites of young colleagues and students. We chose instead Charlie’s Ale House, which had a dining area separate from the bar, a good menu, and a wide-ranging selection of beers. There, we honed our ritual. Anna would order the Greek salad, with blackened salmon substituted for chicken, and a pint of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA. For Doug, it didn’t matter what he ate or drank, as long as he had a meal and a beer. In honing our writing-night ritual, the details were more important to one of us, but the experience worked for both of us.
Before and during the meal, we talked about our projects at work and other distractions of the day. This quickly became both a debriefing and warm-up to the writing, not directly part of the process, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, we discussed issues in our novels; bandying about titles led Anna to The Undone Years, drawn from a Wilfred Owen poem. Once the dishes were cleared and the table wiped down, we each began writing in our own Miquelrius notebook. We would write and write, stopping only briefly to sip from our beer and ponder a phrase. Usually, we wrote for more than an hour, until we felt for a natural stopping point, a pleasant form of exhaustion. Then, we each read to the other those pages that we had written, in part to hear it aloud and catch mistakes and opportunities, in part to have brief, immediate response. We depended so much on our weekly habit that when we had a visitor—Anna’s sister, a writer friend—we hauled that person along and hardly deviated from the process. This pattern, repeated hundreds of times, guided us all the way through our novel drafts.
And then we moved to California in August of 2008. We were unsettled and inundated with sunshine. We didn’t know where to go to recapture the previously engrained experience. We didn’t know how to adapt the process—eat, write, read aloud—to the revision process, when we were working from printed pages. We even discovered that, after we moved, our branch of Charlie’s closed its doors. The ritual as we had known it—as we had made it—ended. The ritual fell away completely.
But only for a short while. We had come to depend upon our ritual to produce pages and to think of ourselves and each other as practicing writers. We missed it when it disappeared. Our writing time felt more sporadic, less dependable. So we recreated a new version, this time at the Olde Ship in Santa Ana (a colleague recommended it) and Haven Gastropub in Orange, the latter of which is a short walk that became part of the new pattern. We share our meals now: a salad and a salmon appetizer or veggie burger (great fries!) at Olde Ship, a salad and flatbread or a spaghetti squash and ceviche at Haven. And that’s become part of the ritual, too. For now, we don’t read aloud, but we miss that part and will figure out how to make that useful again in the coming months.
We are busy people. At times, one or the other of us has been too busy to write at any other time during the week. We each used to be excellent at procrastination and could be tempted by its allure. It would be easy not to keep carving out this regular writing time together, especially when we’re tired or our schedules change. Sometimes, one of us travels, or after settling into Wednesday writing nights last fall, Anna was scheduled for a class that met on Wednesday night in the spring. In fact, part of the reason that we now have two nights and two places is because we sometimes have to skip a week, but having two nights makes it harder to skip the next time. Maybe a break from this recurring activity is refreshing and offers perspective on the work, but time away from this nerds’ date is time away from writing.
We’ve formed a habit, not an obligation so much as a commitment to each other, a writers’ allegiance. We’ve been surprised that environment almost always overrides exhaustion and renews focus. Without our ritual, each of us might have given up on the novel at some point in the last four years. A lot of novelists-in-the-making have great ideas and talent, but lose the struggle to keep the bum in the chair. Because of this ritual, we don’t give up on each other, so we can’t give up on our novels. If you want to find us tonight, we’ll be at Haven!