In Praise of Writing Friends  

 

The email pings into my inbox and I can’t help smiling. It’s from my writing friend: in the subject line, ‘Work for next week’. At the end of her email, where she’s attached her work for me to read, are the magic words: ‘Looking forward to reading whatever you want to send.’ In other words, get a move on and send me some new stuff.

Writing is such a lonely business. There’s nothing like the feeling that someone is waiting to read my work to get me motivated. Competition deadlines are great for finishing a piece – but like every writer I know, I crave feedback. My regular deadline with my writing friend isn’t just motivating – it’s encouraging too. And her thoughtful comments give me plenty to work on.

There are other benefits too. Reading her work sharpens my eye for my own – although why is it so much easier to spot the unnecessary word or clunky sentence in her prose, than in mine?

We remind each other of competition deadlines – and are genuinely pleased to hear of each other’s success. It’s not just writerly generosity; if we’ve worked on a story together, it’s a testament to both our writing and editing skills. As well as the hits, it’s great to have someone to share the misses; and to commiserate on yet another ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. I’ve read of published writers who still share their work with their writing group. Interestingly, I only have experience of working with women in this way. Arrangements with men seem to peter out – my fault or theirs?

It doesn’t always work, of course. I’ve been in groups where writers, instead of critiquing constructively, have dumped their prejudices on others; confused the work with the writer, and allowed criticism to become personal. But that’s thankfully rare. Another problem can be competitiveness. I once met a writer on a course who had left a high-profile City job to write. He wanted to share work, but only on his terms; and he was unwilling to spend time on anyone else’s writing. He was confusing his high-powered, competitive career with the collaboration and trust needed for successful workshopping. We weren’t colleagues, we were the competition.

It sounds precious but here goes: only another writer really understands this mad obsession. It’s great if family show an interest, but they can be unsettled by the result: who is this stranger? Is that how you really feel? The effect must be even odder, I can see, when they recognise a setting, or snippets of conversation. Do we all, deep down, possess Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice in the heart’?

My writing friends aren’t icy: we’re just dedicated. And we trust each other – because good writing is revealing, of oneself – and, as a tutor advised me once, when you give your writing to someone else they will always see something different in it; something you didn’t intend at all, which will surprise you. You have to put treasured images aside; kill your darlings. And who better to tell you that than your writing friend?

 

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