Thursday, December 6, 2007

Work In Progress: Anna Leahy

Anna Leahy previously offered her suggestions for students in the writing workshop here, and I’m pleased to have convinced her to expand into a broader suggestion-giving role with this interesting piece about her writing group, and the process of tackling the writing of that first novel. I am especially taken with one of her ideas and may surprise my own writing group by suggesting that we, too, all kill off some characters as a group. (Yes, of course I gravitate immediately to the most dramatic idea!)

I first met Anna at the AWP Conference in New Orleans—introduced to her because she is the dear friend of a dear friend of mine. I love how that works out—when you enjoy talking to someone so much that you are certain you will like the people they enjoy talking to as well and then you do. She’s smart and fun and highly impressive: Not only did her lovely first book of poetry come out this fall, but she’s also in the homestretch of completing the first draft of her first novel.

I hope you enjoy Anna's thoughts on the benefits of and ways to use writing groups:

In October, Leslie wrote here about her fabulous writing group and iterated many of my own attitudes toward and guidelines for the writing group I started a couple of years ago, when I (a poet) wanted to tackle writing a novel. For poetry, I’ve shared work with poet-friends now and then to good ends, but I recognized that, if I were to have any chance at completing a draft of a novel, I need a writing group.

My fabulous writing group meets once a month and includes four people, though we had five for a while. Because there are just four of us, we are under pressure to produce pages (usually 8-15, occasionally more) and show up for every gathering. That pressure has been great for me. I need the monthly deadlines, heartfelt encouragement, and tough criticism.

It seems important that we are all at relatively the same stage of our novels. No one has a complete draft, though some of us have left a couple of chapters for later and are revising because things—characters’ ages, orders of events, etc.—changed as we’ve moved from chapter to chapter. All of us have chapter outlines and strong writing skills, too, so it doesn’t seem to matter that three of us are writing historical novels, one of which is a spy novel, and the fourth is writing what might be so-called chick lit. We know where we’re going, and we know where we’ve been.

What I want to suggest here is the possibility that writing groups can assign themselves tasks, even do exercises, though the most important and ongoing effort remains producing pages that will become the novel.

Early on in my writing group, we were all skirting around some big events in our novels, patting ourselves on our aching backs for the beautiful sentences and three-dimensional characters we’d created. So, we decided to each kill someone off in the next month’s pages. I had a grandfather who was going to die tragically. Another member had a mother who needed to die before the main character could deal with her dysfunctional upbringing. Having a common task that was adaptable to each novel provided motivation and focus, taught some of us how to draft out of sequence, and, unexpectedly, gave us a differently informed way to talk about each other’s pages.

Last summer, I attended a weekend workshop on novel synopses at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and, afterwards, shared handouts and notes with my writing group. I suggested that we draft synopses and pitches. We all found this assignment harder than we’d expected. How different the synopsis seemed from a chapter outline! Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook was a good guide for this and some other writing group assignments. Writing a synopsis forced each of us to pin things down, prioritize, and see causality (or lack of it) in our stories.

We adapted another exercise from Brian Kitely’s The 3A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction. While we were away from home on our summer vacations (and ambitiously doubling our page production for the next gathering because our vacations interrupted our regular schedule), each of us sent a postcard to another group member. The postcard contained a brief scene, drafted in pen spontaneously and not revised. I typed mine up before I sent it off and later used a revised version in an actual chapter. Another member used the exercise to imagine an event in a character’s childhood that would likely never appear in the novel but that helped her understand that character’s motivations. We all found it helpful to think about one small snippet for a change and to see exactly what just a few minutes could muster.

I also have a weekly writing date, when two of us go to the same restaurant (I even order the same meal, most times). We talk, eat, and then write for at least an hour, until the staff is sweeping up. Before we go, we read aloud what we’ve written, making quick edits and talking briefly about the writing. We’ve both found that, as we type up and revise these handwritten drafts, we end up with 8 or 10 pages. When I first turned in pages from these writing dates, one of my group’s members noted that something had changed, asked what I was doing differently. I credited the pint of Dogfish Head IPA, though it’s the regularity and community that I crave as a writer. This fall has been so busy (my poetry book was published, I must keep writing poems) that it’s interrupted my regular fiction writing date—I’m anxious to get back to it, for my novel lags (and lagging can be contagious in a small group!).

I’m not suggesting that writing groups gather to write together. Certainly, too, any tasks and exercises for the group should move the novels forward. Exercises are not necessary, especially for groups composed of serious and skilled writers, so I imagine that many writing groups will feel above or beyond such tasks. Yet, my fabulous writing group has found that occasional (maybe once or twice a year) group assignments make us feel connections among our disparate fiction projects and also challenge some of our habits (dare I say, ruts) in our writing and discussions. For myself, a certain level of structure is incredibly helpful, perhaps even necessary in sticking with a daunting project of the sort I’ve never before (and not yet) accomplished.
~~ Anna Leahy

About: Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize and was published by Kent State University Press this fall. In the past year, her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Nimrod, and the Spoon River Poetry Review, and she is guest poetry editor for the next issue of Fifth Wednesday. Her work (with art historian Deborah Rindge) about the ekphrastic poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey was published in English Language Notes and is forthcoming in an edited collection. Leahy is also the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, published by Multilingual Matters.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.