My first experience with companionable writing happened at Clarion in Michigan in 1982, where there were twenty-four of us crammed into a dorm (with assorted foreign exchange summer students), sharing a few communal spaces, encountering each other in the cafeteria at ungodly early hours before heading over to Van Hoosen to critique each other, or running into each other pacing the hallways after midnight, searching for inspiration or endings. Most of us were still working on typewriters then (laptops hadn’t been invented yet!), and we could hear each other pounding keys through the doors.
Not too long afterward, our writing group in Eugene started writing away and writing together. We would reserve the Oregon Writers Colony House on the coast for a weekend, drive four hours to get there, and live crammed in bedrooms that slept two to five, writing at whatever tables we could find in the living room and occasionally the basement. Initially, we had no phones, no television, no wifi. Separation from our normal lives gave us freedom and focus. Most of us produced stories by Sunday evening.
Another experience I had with group writing was Elizabeth Engstrom Cratty’s “Ghost Story Weekend” classes. Twelve or thirteen writers and our teacher would stay in student housing on a lake near the Oregon Coast. We’d arrive Friday evening, write that night and the next day, mostly in a communal setting, finish the stories by suppertime, and then read them to each other by candle light and screen light Saturday night. Everyone wrote a story, every time, though we often despaired in the mid-afternoon.
We were each in our own worlds, laptops and head phones (or, back at the start — more than twenty years ago — typewriters and mental blocking of nearby noise), but we could look up and see other people creating, and that often spurred us on.
Mostly, though, I wrote at home, in the wee hours from the time the talk shows ended until 6 AM. Nobody was going to call me then, and I didn’t have all those extra channels to surf, or On Demand. I live alone, which allowed me to set my own schedule, off kilter with most of the rest of the world.
This system stopped working for me when I got sick.
In the summer of 2007, I discovered I had cancer. Surgery and treatment followed, and during the time I was going through chemo, I let all my writing responsibilities drop. I had just mostly completed two recalcitrant novel projects. It felt good to let go of everything — one of the only things that did feel good during that period.
When I started to recover, something had changed. I could no longer write in my home. My office had been filling up with stacks of unruly things since I moved into my house sixteen years before, and finally my creative process choked off there. Nor could I find the motivation to clear the office out.
I tried setting up writing stations elsewhere in the house, but couldn’t get myself to write there, either.
I think the real problem was some unconscious block I haven’t dissected and dispersed yet, though not from lack of trying. I hope I find the key.
While I’m searching for that key, I Write Out.
I write at friends’ houses, and in coffee shops and food courts. (I’m writing in a food court right now.)
One thing that keeps me going is writing dates. When I’m sitting across the table from a friend or three, and we’re focused on writing, I can get momentum, especially if we’re working in a way my friend Eric M. Witchey calls “Parallel Play.”
Parallel Play is a process Eric developed after reading some studies on the way people work. Those of us who grew up in school systems where classes lasted fifty minutes became accustomed to fifty minutes as a unit of work time. The way Eric organizes time, we work for forty-five minutes, thus stopping a little before we’re conditioned to end, maybe getting us to pause while in the middle of something, so it’s easy to return to the project interrupted and get going again. We break for fifteen minutes of talk, play, refreshment, or just rest, then start again with another forty-five minute session.
When Eric has a Parallel Play Day at his house, he often goes from eight in the morning until five at night, with a break for lunch in the middle. We play a Steve Jackson game called Zombie Dice during the breaks, since it’s a simple, fast game that yields immediate results — and takes us out of our writing process for a few minutes.
I’ve had many productive days writing at Eric’s. I don’t usually start until after lunch, since I’m not an early riser and I have to drive more than an hour to get to his house. But I sometimes work past Eric’s endpoint, and then we go out for pizza.
On days when I don’t drive to Eric’s for Parallel Play, I go on writing dates closer to home. I have a circle of friends who also like writing away from home, and I email them and set up dates. Sometimes these are for two hours, sometimes four. Sometimes we start in one place and move to another. We all have laptops, although some friends write with pen and notebook. Sometimes we follow Parallel Play rules, and sometimes we just write.
This process works for me. I’ve learned which locations have outlets and free wifi, which have reasonably priced food and good coffee drinks, and don’t mind people hanging out. Eugene has several places like this, and when I travel, I’ve found them in other towns as well.
The public library is often a good place to write. I’ve gone to several libraries in different towns; many have free wifi.
Barnes & Noble and Borders also have free wifi, and they’re open until 10 PM here in Eugene.
I polled the two people I was writing with for their take on Writing Out and Writing Together.
Christina Lay, a veteran of Liz Cratty’s weekend classes, said, “Feeding off each other’s energy, being around people who enjoy doing what I do, it’s a way to share the love.”
Matt Lowes, another veteran of Liz Cratty’s classes, says, “I find [writing together] really exciting. It’s kind of a rush…. It’s nice to write with other people who write, because you spend so much time writing by yourself, sometimes you have more confidence when you’re with other people and everyone’s doing it all together. Get out of your own headspace a bit and share space with other people.”
I feel like I’m still working my way back to writing at home, or maybe working my way forward, since there doesn’t seem to be a way back. I’m working with a home organizer to clear out my office and move it into a different room, but this protracted process takes time and effort, so for now, I’m writing away from home, and treasuring the company of other writers.