At first glance, writing might seem a solitary endeavor–the author alone in a room surrounded by papers and books, pecking away at the keyboard, dictating, or writing by hand. And there is that aspect of it. But that’s not all it is.
An author who wants to capture life’s nuances, create realistic settings and dialogue, or enrapture a reader with a descriptive scene … well, where does all that come from?
Granted, we make up a lot of it. But where does even that come from? Our imagination can take us to many magical places and stimulate engaging stories. Behind the story, though, must be substance.
The sit your butt in the chair and write aspect of being an author may be solitary (or not), but without memories, interactions, and observations to draw upon, our writing would have no substance. People who have been imprisoned or otherwise isolated from others have written some incredibly moving letters, poems, stories, and novels. To do so, they had to reach deep within themselves and pull out memories and emotions that may have been difficult and painful. For examples, see this article: 30 Literary Works Written in Prison.
I think of Thoreau, writing from his isolation in the woods. He was not alone, though. Nature was one companion, books another. His 26 months of semi-isolation to contemplate what he wanted to do with his life produced the masterpiece, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Literary or writer groups have been around for many years–authors discussing their works, arguing over the philosophy behind the story, even establishing rules in some genres. Inked Voices put together a compilation of famous writing groups in history.
That compilation does not include the Detection Club, established as a secret society during the Golden Age of Mysteries (in 1930) and still surviving today. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, and Freeman Wills Croft were founding members. The Detection Club established the mystery rule of fair play, which says that the reader should know everything about the crime or mystery that the point of view (POV) character knows.
C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had a well-known friendship, were members of the same literary group, and argued famously, especially with regard to theology.
I said in my opening that the author may or may not write in a solitary manner. Author friends of mine regularly go on group writing retreats, sometimes with a master writer who works with the group between solo writing sessions and sometimes just as a group that gathers at the end of the day or over lunch. Discussions, questions, requests for help with or a writing prompt to get over a particular stumbling block in a scene … these are not solitary writing endeavors. And each author gains from what everyone shares.
Then there are critique groups and critique partners. I’ve met weekly for almost two years (thank you, Zoom) with a critique partner. Chapter by chapter, I’ve critiqued her 12 mystery novellas and she’s done the same for half a dozen of my short stories and my suspense fantasy novel in progress. Also during this time, I’ve met twice monthly with a 5-6 person critique group that grew out of a fiction course. We all write different things: poetry, fantasy, mystery, flash fiction, you name it. What I’ve gained from these is the reader’s perspective on my work-in-progress (WIP).
I’m writing a suspense fantasy. Some in the critique group have never read fantasy–at least as adults. Their questions help me dive deeper into my choice of words and how I describe this created world. They tell me where they connect emotionally with the main character, what slows them down–either in a bad way (“that made me want to skip to the next scene”) or a good way (“whew, I needed a break from the tension”)–and what helped them understand the choices she makes and actions she undertakes. Were I to write in total isolation, my novel would likely not connect with some readers who now might pick it up, read a little, and decide this is worth reading further.
Write-ins are another group endeavor that makes writing a less solitary process. We meet at a set time, chat for a few minutes, share what we’re working on for this session, then go silent and write. When the timer ends, we can share progress, ask for help with something, or admit we didn’t get very far. It’s like the group writer retreat but online and more frequently. I’m in a daily one (sometimes 2) plus I host two weekly, longer sessions.
What’s been the result? A sense of accountability–I should be writing, the dishes can wait; consistent writing or research on my writing; new friends I’ve made through these sessions. And believe me, despite moving across the country mid-pandemic to a place I’d never been, I’ve made quite a few friends and brought some of my already-friends into my orbit here.
The solitary time when we focus on getting words on the page benefits from our interaction with others, with nature, and, yes, with ourselves. That time when we are alone–not writing, just thinking or blanking out–whether we’re doing the dishes, cooking dinner, or watching a bird flit about the trees, that’s when everything we absorbed when not alone can simmer and turn into the stew we call our manuscript.