The Book Under Her Bed refers to a manuscript that lived for ten years under the bed of a writer I now know well. It was a collection of short stories invented when Ali Morra-Pearlman was a young career woman, and it went into under-bed storage when her life changed so significantly that she had no time to do anything more with that stack of pages. But out of sight was not out of mind. Hold that thought.
In the autumn of 2010 Geralyn Lucas was ready to make a start on her second book. Her first book, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, had been satisfyingly successful, but it was a few years old and begging for a sequel. Ger knows herself well: to get the new book going and see it through to the finish, she needed a village, or at least a really supportive writers’ group. And not the usual kind of writers’ group, which commonly comprises seven or eight writers who meet once a month to read work aloud and critique each others’ progress.
Instead, she wanted to assemble a cohort of newish writers who had specific goals: meet often; work hard; learn to write better; learn to critique constructively; get their projects out into the world. And she wanted the workshop to have a leader to fulfill another set of goals: create structure; keep things organized; enforce a few rules; guide; inspire; suggest; nudge; motivate; and also teach writing.
I had published thirty-plus books and spent a couple of decades working intensively with writers, as a private editor. Private editing is a job that came into existence as the major publishers downsized and their shrinking editorial staffs were forced to take on more and more production and promotion work, leaving less and less time for working with authors.
That’s how I met Geralyn: she needed a private editor, and a pair of her friends matched us up. We were a good fit. My big-picture theory of private editing is this: You’ve done your job well if your writer leaves the editing session excited and eager to get back to work. You accomplish that with constructive critiquing, of course, but critique isn’t enough; teaching is just as important a part of an editor’s job with a writer. That’s the combination Geralyn wanted, and that’s why she asked me to lead her new writers’ group.
Now we return to Ali’s book-under-the-bed. She wasn’t alone: a lot of writers have manuscripts stuck under their beds, in desk drawers, on closet shelves, in attics. Unless they pull their manuscripts out of hiding and work on them, “stuck” is the operative word. How do you get unstuck? Being in a writers’ workshop is one option. Ali took it. So did Barbara Ginsberg, who was stuck at page 128 of a memoir.
The cast of our workshop has changed a few times, but of the original five members, three are still with us, and a couple have left; three new writers have joined. We’ve accumulated a lot of experience now and we find that six is a good number. We have some odd practices. For one thing, we meet in the Pembroke (tea) Room of the Lowell Hotel on Sixty-third Street in Manhattan. We’ve claimed our own large round corner table and we’re all in love with Steve, who brings us our tea and cappuccino, our fruit plates, tea sandwiches, scones, or whatever other sustenance we need to keep our energy levels high.
For most of our three-going-on-four years we met every week, from 3:00 p.m. to 5:30. That’s serious business. Each week two writers were “at bat,” e-mailing new or rewritten work to the entire group on Sunday night for discussion on Wednesday. Now we meet every other week for a slightly longer time, but all the other rules have stayed the same. More on that in another post; ditto for the topic of critiquing, an important subject for any writers’ workshop.
This blog will range over all sorts of writers and writing, but its genesis was the workshop. Without it I would never have stopped to think hard about so many writing-and-writers’ issues; without it I’d feel less like a full participant in the writing life.
So The Book Under Her Bed is dedicated to the members, past and present, of the Wednesday afternoon writers’ workshop, which I have always called–behind their backs–the Girl Group. I call it that not because these wonderful women are girlish, but because they always make me think of the Motown girl groups: they have style, courage, determination, and sass. Above all, they have voices.
Geralyn Lucas : Ali Morra-Pearlman : Barbara S. Ginsberg : Lynda Myles : Melissa Miles : Jennifer Christman : Ngan Nguyen Shulman : Robin Stratton Rivera