Thought-Partners in Prose
By: Kelly McDonald and Elizabeth Derrick Smith
“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
Stephen King, On Writing, p. 74
It didn’t take long for me to understand the stark reality of writing, as Stephen King succinctly stated. I had learned early in my first creative writing class that the feedback from a workshop was key to my writing successfully. When I realized this, I resolved to keep our class workshopping active by inviting a group of students to take part virtually when the class was over. We could continue to collaborate on our writing after the class ended. But writing workshops are hard to maintain, especially after classmates disappear at the end of a semester.
However, one has remained, Elizabeth, who reviews my rough ideas, sometimes just vague sketches, and gives me suggestions of where to go next. Once a week, going on three years now, Elizabeth and I video-conference, where we exercise the literary teamwork we have developed surrounding our writing. Slack and Google tools make it easy to collaborate over the distance between Utah and British Columbia. Our starting times are flexible. Her daughter’s afternoon nap time sometimes slips ahead or behind, depending on their daily family schedule. I simply wait for the triple clicks of the arriving Slack message, which reads, “I’ll be ready in 10.”
With only minutes left to turn in the final paper of my final semester in my undergrad, I sat at a Dell desktop in the humanities section of the campus library and frantically flipped the pages in the new edition of the MLA Handbook, which I had borrowed from the circulation desk. Suddenly, I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. To my surprise, it was Kelly, a classmate from the creative nonfiction course I had taken the semester prior. We had sat on opposite ends of the room and hardly interacted except as we workshopped our crappy first drafts. In a very library-appropriate whisper, Kelly asked if I would join a virtual writing workshop that he was starting with some of the other former classmates. The few seconds’ reminder of life beyond finals was refreshing. I nodded and gave him my email address.
Finals came and went, as did a well-earned graduation ceremony. After returning our rented caps and gowns, my husband and I packed up our belongings in a U-Haul and moved to Canada, near his folks, where he had a decent job as a programmer. As an immigrant, I was not allowed to work for several months, which was a let-down for the hard-working student in me. So I wrote a poem about it, one of my first creative outputs not required for school. Three weeks later, I sent it to Kelly’s workshop.
After a few months of continuing our class collaboration, all of my invited workshoppers stopped participating, except Elizabeth. She has continued to contribute to my literary education. At first it was simply giving each other feedback on how our writing could improve. Then we started assigning each other books and video lectures to read and watch. After a while, we started video chats, which became ‘class discussions’ on writing craft. Elizabeth, who was once simply a writing-workshop colleague, had now become a thought-partner in a journey toward improving our writing.
Our first thought-partnering happened while I was on vacation visiting my family in Utah. It was July, and I was six months pregnant. I had no car, so Kelly graciously offered to pick me up from the train station and escort me to a study room in the campus library, where we chatted about Francis Bacon. We had both read his little essay “Of Studies,” in which he asserted that “reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; writing an exact man.” We had both written our own little essays in response; Kelly’s, from his structured, scientific mind, included a flow chart diagramming Bacon’s learning process, and mine, from my mom-to-be mind, explored how gaining knowledge affects one’s character.
We must have discussed our ideas for over an hour—my hungry pregnant belly was my only timer—yet the morning passed like it was five minutes. We resolved to video chat the following week, after further reading and writing. Soon we were descending in the elevator back to the ground floor, and we went our separate ways.
Early on, because of our veneration of Francis Bacon’s advice on study, we named our workshopping group the Francis Bacon Academy. Now, Elizabeth and I have taken Bacon’s original charge for study and applied it to improve our literary art. We learn about the craft of writing through reading, video, or an audited class; we dialogue about what we have learned, then we attempt to write with more exactness, continually encouraging each other to improve along the way. The weekly conversations cover everything from our most recent readings about story craft, to discussions about the ideas we are each pursuing in our own writing. Most of the workshopping feedback we communicate on the other’s prose is provided through shared Google Docs. There is plenty of two-way encouragement to keep each of us moving toward publication of our work.
Recently, we spent some time pursuing poetry in our writing. While Elizabeth is accomplished in her poetic prose, I am a neophyte, having never seriously penned a single stanza. Yet with her encouragement, through many drafts and early stinkers, I finally created another form of literary art that I want to continue to pursue. Her patient suggestions have kept me experimenting with sound, alliteration, and rhyme.
Early in our exploration of poetry, Kelly and I audited an introductory course in which we each wrote and revised a single poem over three months. Since I was “accomplished” in my use of poetic devices, I decided to push myself; I wrote my first sonnet and, brimming with pride, submitted it to the class workshop.
The teacher hated it. The class hated it. Some even interpreted a line as racially insensitive when I had no such intentions. I’m pretty sure Kelly was the only person who gave me genuine encouragement during the workshop. His supportive smile on the video call kept me from crying.
Draft 2: I sacked the sonnet. The form had shackled the message in convoluted phrases. So I slowly rewrote it into free verse, incorporating the techniques we were learning together and sharing each new stanza with Kelly. And he sent me his revised quatrains as well. I submitted my poem to the workshop again.
The classmates consented that the poem was much improved. But the beginning was boring, they said. And so was the middle. Maybe the end too.
Draft 3: I brainstormed with Kelly and rearranged the literary furniture. I changed the indentations. I added a side character, a joke about the worldwide toilet paper shortage, and a killer metaphor including milk.
I was sure it was ready to “get out there” for someone besides Kelly, our classmates, and my family to enjoy. So I sent it to a literary magazine, but not the humble volunteer-run magazine that I usually send my stuff to. This magazine actually paid its writers.
A month passed—a blink in the publishing industry—and an editor emailed saying she would consider accepting my poem if I made substantial edits. I was thrilled that someone was willing to pay me for what I love to do.
Then she proceeded for six paragraphs, which thoroughly explained that my new, less boring parts were “overwritten” and that “the toilet paper line did not fit the poem at all,” among other critiques.
Although Elizabeth was moving forward with her poetic prose, I struggled with how to begin my journey in poetry. I eventually wrote a poem of free verse, extracted from a short essay on running that I had recently written. Class feedback was brutal and disheartening. However, Elizabeth patiently gave me some suggestions, encouraging me to add some rhyme and meter to the lines of prose. Each draft got a little better. Eventually, even the instructor praised me for my progress, though I still had a long way to go.
And though I knew nothing about sonnets and stanzas, I gave Elizabeth my honest feedback about what sounded good, and where she might experiment a bit more with her lines and rhythm. This poetry class had become the true measure of the value of our thought-partnership in helping to improve each other’s craft of writing. It was also comforting to know that our writing interchange wouldn’t end just because the class was over.
Draft 4: Back to rearranging. I deleted the side character and the joke about the worldwide toilet paper shortage. I smoothed the transitions. I double-checked my usage and punctuation, and I triple-checked that there was nothing racially insensitive.
This was it. I could sit back, and happily hear that the poem would be included in the forthcoming issue. Maybe there would be minor copy edits, but I would be in the clear. I sent the poem to the editor.
A week later, on a Thursday that was, in fact, last Thursday, she emailed me again. “Before we finally accept it, though,” she wrote, “the senior editor didn't ‘get’ your poem, which makes me worry that other readers also might not.”
She then listed four minor edits and a rewrite of my precious milk metaphor.
Draft 5: To use a word I learned from Kelly, I “tinkered” with the poem. The small edits fit into place rather nicely. But I suppose Kelly has more to teach me in the art of tinkering, because the more I tinkered with my prized metaphor, the worse it became. My poetic creativity was exhausted. My earlier lists of possible metaphors were exhausted. And I was exhausted too.
On Saturday, my husband and I stared at the poem on our family computer for an hour.
“What if you delete the whole stanza?” he suggested.
“What?” I hoped he was kidding. Asking me to delete not only the metaphor but the entire stanza was like asking a hairdresser for a trim, but instead she shaves all off all your glorious locks.
Oh, dear. Maybe metaphors really aren’t my thing after all.
I deleted the stanza and rewrote a new, metaphorless one, which I immediately sent to Kelly, along with an abbreviated diatribe about my creative fatigue. I expected him to be on my side about the milk metaphor issue. But, to my surprise, he responded: “I really like this new stanza, and it seems to fit into the theme of your poem better. . . . If you were to ask me for my vote, I like this ending stanza the best.”
Today, I sent the Kelly-approved draft to the editor.
As I get ready for our next weekly discussion, I make myself a list of the items we need to cover, as well as review the assignments that we gave each other in last week’s conference. There’s always plenty to read and study to get me ready for our upcoming literary dialogue. Whether we’re revising our existing writing or drafting anew, we’re working toward more of Bacon’s exactness in our prose. And partnering our thoughts about how we can become better at that prose shows a belief in each other, and takes the solitary edge off of a lonely job.
My toddler rubs her eyes as she plays with her blocks—the sign that I must lay her in her crib within the next half-hour or else she may risk a tantrum. I tell her she can play until I have finished warming her bottle of milk. As the bottle turns in the microwave, I pull out my phone and send a Slack message to Kelly.
“Ready in 10.”