At first glance, writing and reading are inherently solitary acts, often as a way to escape the stress of social activity. I love the idea of curling up all by myself with a good book and a hot cup of tea on a rainy day. I don’t need anyone–just myself and the words on the page. There’s a similar romantic notion about writing: who doesn’t dream of moving to a cabin on the coast of Maine and disconnecting from all technology to write the next great American novel? Even if you’re not that specific, when most people imagine writing they imagine doing it alone. And for the most part, much of it is done alone–even if you’re part of a writing group, or in a public cafe surrounded by people, writing is your hands on your keyboard typing your words.
This is the way I’ve approached writing for most of my life: as something I have to do–to finish–before I can share it with the world. But recently my perceptions of the writing process have been changing. Over the past year and a half I’ve been meeting weekly with my local writer’s group. We’re lucky that we meld with each other so well. We have similar tastes and interests. We exist on the same wavelengths. And we get excited about each other’s work. Every Monday we get together and sit side by side at the community table in the local Panera bread and we put our heads down and we write.
But more than that: we make goals. We encourage each other. We challenge each other. At the beginning of last year we created a communal goal sheet, so we could set our own goals and then encourage each other to actually meet those goals. My goal last year was to read more books: done. Finish a manuscript: done. And to be honest, I only accomplished those goals because of the pressing guilt that I was letting my friends down, not for a deep down desire to finish. Some nights I dragged myself to my keyboard even though I was tired, grumpy, and didn’t want to write–but my group’s encouragement made me continue ever on, and once I got on a roll I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t stop writing. I took their book suggestions and devoured them and suddenly reading wasn’t so solitary: I was talking to people in real life about books that we both loved and didn’t have to read for school. It was–and continues to be–intoxicating.
Writing developed a similar feeling. The more comfortable I got with my writer’s group, the more I opened up about what I was working on. I always had a fear (still do) that saying what I’m writing doesn’t convey what I’m actually writing. That it will sound stupid and clunky on my lips compared to my (obviously beautiful, perfect, poetic) words. But I was met only with encouragement! And genuine excitement! And people asking me, nearly every week, “So how is your gryffin story going?” or “I can’t wait to beta read your novel when it’s done.” Writing left the realm of the solitary. I wasn’t writing just for me anymore. I wasn’t writing for money or fame or any of those things you dream up late at night as you roll around in your bed, not actually writing, but dreaming about once your book is released (and of course it’s always the next Harry Potter). I was writing for all of us.
And then something amazing happened: my writing got better. Whenever I was stuck or needed an idea, I had a group of willing and excited people there ready to banter back and forth about what would work best. Whenever I was feeling discouraged, I had friends who could share their dirty tips and tricks on how to keep going even when the going gets rough (i.e., reading something in a different genre, reading a bad, bad book, or eating a pound of chocolate to keep your spirits up). Beta reading for my friends in my writer’s group has been extremely rewarding, because I help them accomplish their goals while learning a lot about my own writing and style through the critique process. And once I was comfortable enough to talk about my writing to people I could trust, I became less afraid of talking about it with others. With my school friends, with my family, with my professors. And even though I feel like there’s a stigma around aspiring writers, you’d be surprised how supportive and interested people actually are when they realize you’re actively working on writing, not just saying that one day you will.
So when I say collaborative writing, I don’t mean tag-teaming chapters or making a group story. Although that would probably be awesome. I mean finding a community, in person or even online, that you can trust to be excited about your ideas, to encourage you through the tough times, and to hold you accountable for what you want to accomplish. People that are also toiling through their own work that you can encourage too. People that will trust you enough to share their work with you, and vice versa. Writing doesn’t have to be done alone–and who knows what friends you’ll make along the way.