Writing Groups

by Ann Napolitano

I recently listened to an interview with Ann Patchett, and she was asked about her editing process. She said, “My editing process is named Elizabeth McCracken.” I thought that was pretty funny, and right on. My editing process, in large part, is named Hannah Tinti and Helen Ellis.
I met Hannah and Helen sixteen years ago in Dani Shapiro’s creative writing workshop at New York University; we were in our early twenties, and unpublished. We were drawn together at first because we recognized in each other a similar drive. We each have a parent who’s a lawyer—we come from goal-oriented, rather than artistic, backgrounds.  We actually took notes during class, while other students listened with arms folded across their chests, eyelids heavy, either profoundly stoned or giving a good approximation of it. 
In part due to our shared temperament—Don’t waste time! Work as hard as possible!—Hannah, Helen and I decided to exchange pages that first summer. I don’t think any of us thought the union had long-term potential. Our writing styles and interests were—and are—quite different. We are quite different—Helen is our beautifully poised southern belle, Hannah is cerebral and hip, and I am shy and reserved. As it turned out, it is precisely our differences that have allowed us to function so well, without competition or jealousy, as each other’s first, and most valued, readers. 
We meet once a week at one of our apartments, and have done since 1995. In the first years following graduate school we came straight from our secretarial jobs, wearing uncomfortable heels and blouses. Hannah lived on the sixth floor of a walk-up in the East Village; Helen’s crazy roommate insisted we eat dinner in her bedroom and not venture into the rest of the apartment, and if my bosses were in town, I often spent a portion of the evening on my cell phone, negotiating with drivers, butlers and nannies. These days, our circumstances are less stressful: we each live in our own space, we take elevators and wear jeans. We eat homemade food, drink wine and discuss whoever’s work needs discussing. 
When we were younger, each critique began with lavish compliments—we quite simply needed the encouragement. Now, the praise is mostly unspoken—after all, we wouldn’t still be here if the writing wasn’t excellent—and we focus on what doesn’t work in the piece. We read for each other at short notice, hundreds of pages at a time. We offer phone counsel in moments of crisis, and show up anywhere, anytime, for moral support. We joyfully attend each other’s book parties and readings. 
Helen’s novel Eating the Cheshire Cat was published first. Hannah co-founded the literary magazine One Story, and her story collection Animal Crackers came out the same year as my first novel, Within Arm’s Reach. Helen followed up with a young adult novel, The Turning, and Hannah’s novel The Good Thief was published to great acclaim. This year they will hold my purse and whisper encouragement at readings for my new novel, A Good Hard Look. And if necessary (since I am the shy one) they will push me onto the stage.
I realize how lucky I am to have these two women in my life. Post-MFA, it is almost impossible to find pure, honest, serious feedback of your work. If you’re lucky, you have an agent, or even an editor, but they can’t help reading with their own agenda. And this is as it should be. Agents and editors have the business of the business on their minds. My “writing group” reads ands thinks and talks about my work with only one desire: to make it the best it can be. They push me to take risks, to open up the narrative I’ve been working on, to explore the character I’ve buried in the shadows, to re-write that irritating paragraph for the umpteenth time, simply because it could be better. Hannah and Helen tell me the truth about my writing, even when I don’t want to hear it.
Flannery O’Connor’s appearance as a character in my novel, A Good Hard Look, was unplanned. I had no intention of writing historical fiction, much less a book about a revered literary icon. Her presence both excited and terrified me. When I wrote about Flannery initially, it was from a distance. She appeared in scenes, but I never went inside her head. This was deliberate—after all, the less I assumed about her, the less I would screw her up, right?
Helen and Hannah read the first hundred pages of the novel and told me that I had a choice—either cut Flannery from the book, or commit to her truly inhabiting the story. It was impossible to cut her; it would take a few more years for me to understand why Flannery needed to be in the story, but I already knew her presence was essential. So, with my friends’ hands on my back I dove in, deep. 
Would I have gotten to that point on my own? I don’t know, but it certainly would have taken a lot longer. As it was, this novel took seven years to write, and I’m not sure I could have borne much more. So, at the very least, they saved me time. (At most, they saved the novel from being utterly terrible and an insult to Flannery O’Connor.) 
And time is relevant; after all, Hannah and Helen graciously, and with what had to be occasionally feigned eagerness, read draft after draft of the same story for seven long years. I might have suffered with this book (and I did), but they did too. I wasn’t surprised by their commitment, though; it’s part of our covenant. I jump on whatever ride their writing takes—no questions asked, no qualifications added—and they do the same for me. Writing is a famously solitary business; we make it a little less lonely for each other.
I have read about authors who work alone; years at their desk culminate with an editor nodding in admiration, saying, This is pure brilliance. It’s not that I don’t believe those writers, but I have a hard time understanding how they do it. Writing a novel is like being caught by a powerful current—your feet rarely touch the ground. You’re following the story; you are inside it. There’s great joy to be found in floating down that stream. It’s why most of us write—you have the opportunity to live inside a world while you create it. What could be more gratifying than that?
But during the journey, it’s not uncommon to notice an interesting rock, turn your head to admire it, and miss the huge fork in the river up ahead. A novelist has very little perspective on his or her own work. Helen and Hannah allow me to see the view from the riverbank.
Here’s how that works in practical terms: I hand them a draft I have labored over for months, thinking it finally works, I hit this one out of the park. They duly read said draft, and then point out four or five gaping holes I need to fill.
Each writer finds the reader, and arrangement, that works best for him or her. J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the bestselling novel Commencement, and this year’s Maine, has an amusingly complicated inventory of readers. She explains, “I have two friends who read almost every bit of nonfiction I write, short of my grocery list. One is a writer/editor himself, and the other is a college friend who works as an attorney for the Department of Justice. My best friend from high school, also a lawyer, is usually the first to read my fiction. Another friend, who was my editor at a magazine years ago, has read lousy first drafts of both my novels and given me the most incredible, detailed edits.” 
She shakes her head and smiles. “I have no idea why these people are so generous with their time. I’ve been ridiculously lucky over the years. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I make a really mean roast chicken and chocolate cake.” 
Courtney’s experience shows that there are no rules to this game—a “writing group” needn’t be composed of people your age and gender, with whom you meet once a week.  If your town butcher has a keen eye, ask him to read your work. If your mother gives insightful advice, hit her up. It’s preferable if your readers complement each other, so that everyone brings something different to the table.
When I submit a manuscript, Helen addresses the details—she rearranges paragraphs and re-writes sentences in the margin. Hannah barely leaves any ink on the page—her comments address big picture plot and character issues. Their feedback rarely overlaps (although when it does, I make that change immediately). Courtney simply uses a larger pool of readers to achieve the same thing I do: a comprehensive critique of her work.
Rae Meadows, author of the novel Mothers and Daughters, changes up her readers from book to book. She says, “I always have my core readers: my husband, who is a tough critic, my sister-in-law who is a softie, and my younger sister who is somewhere in between. But for this latest novel, I also found great help and camaraderie in a writing group in Madison, where I lived up until the fall. The four other women in the group, all novelists, were honest, critical, and supportive, with a keen understanding of craft, which made their comments incisive and insightful during the revision process. I miss being a part of that group.”
Writers rarely take their readers for granted—the presence of those special people who are able to tear a work apart, and yet somehow add to it—is difficult to replicate. There is magic in that relationship. Rae notes that “sharing one’s work is an intimate thing, and it can be difficult to find others whose points of view you respect, who get your writing, who will tell you what's not working in a way that’s not mean or irritating, and who you want to actually hang out with over coffee.”
A reader must be a friend, a kindred spirit, and so much more. When a writer trades work with someone, she chooses to lay herself bare; she chooses to listen and to trust. So, when a writer does find the right reader, she had better grab hold of them with both hands. The process is not unlike falling in love. The arc is similar: butterflies, exhilaration, the realization that you are better off inside this union than out, and then commitment.
According to this metaphor, Hannah, Helen and I are married. It’s true that, like a marriage, our relationship requires a lot of nurturing and attention—we never forget a birthday, and we try not to cause accidental offense. We are careful with each other; we speak gently, with thought. Over the years, we have each had successes, and we have each suffered through low periods. When one person is discouraged, we both want and need to boost them up. After all, we know that a lingering resentment or bad mood could bleed into the criticism of our own writing.
Our relationship is one of mutual support; in order to stay healthy, every link in our chain needs to be strong. Maintaining our friendship is work, but in the best, most valued sense of the word. After all, Helen and Hannah are among my favorite living writers—it is a joy and a privilege to read their work before anyone else. It is truly thrilling to see what they’re going to come up with next.
I am not a crier—after all, I am the shy, reserved one—but get me talking about my relationship with these two women, and I will be moved to tears. I look back on the sixteen years we’ve shared—at the failed books and the successful ones and the hard work and the crushing disappointments and the fact that no matter what happened we clung, relentlessly, to the belief that we could do this, we could be real writers—and I am proud of us. 
We met last night at Hannah’s Brooklyn apartment, where her dog Canada offered her usual enthusiastic greeting by planting two paws on my chest. We sat around Hannah’s table and drank wine and talked about what we’re working on, about social media, about an upcoming One Story party and about my children. We ate Thai food while Helen told us about her next poker trip to Vegas, and after dinner Hannah played a Radiohead song she’d just learned on the ukelele. 
I left them at the end of the night feeling refreshed, like I always do. Our meetings recharge my battery, refocus my mind, and calm my soul. The three of us, when we were too young to know better, chose to be writers, and we chose to be partners on this crazy journey. We’re in the relationship for the long haul, and for that I am deeply grateful.

This article originally appeared in Poets & Writers magazine.