Then there are writers.
On the whole, writers have a reputation for being awkward in social situations. After all, sitting at a desk all day creating alternate realities while wearing sweatpants and occasionally breaking to scrounge for non-molding leftovers in one’s refrigerator, doesn’t exactly build social skills.
So when writers get together, it’s a little like assembling an assortment of mismatched dolls at a tea party. Everyone sizes each other up, wondering what they could possibly have in common with the others. There is shy Barbie whose deeply rooted fantasies have been channeled into fabulous sci-fi novels with badass female main characters. Sitting next to her might be gentle Madame Alexander. She’s mined the landscape of her experience and memory to weave together prose so gorgeous it makes your teeth hurt to read it. Often, there will be a stuffed animal type. This writer/doll pours out the content of their heart with such skill that the reader can actually see their glistening guts and throbbing heart.
Also, sometimes there will be a guy at this tea party.
This is less common in groups of children’s book writers, but it does happen. The male doll might possess any of the aforementioned doll personalities or he might be rocking his own unique G.I. Nerd or Don’t Care Bear. But when these writer dolls sit down for imaginary tea and invisible crumpets served on plastic plates, the thing they all have in common is their predictable discomfort at being surrounded by strange dolls who they should “get to know.”
Two years ago, I went to one of those tea parties. It was a retreat of sorts – a few days of sharing work and participating in writing exercises. It turned out to be an altogether pleasant experience. I learned a few useful tips about craft, chatted awkwardly with a big New York editor and made polite small talk with the other writer/dolls.
So I was a little perplexed when one of them suggested an “alumni workshop.”
“Hey,” she grinned. “Let’s all get together and do this again!”
“Yes!” Another chimed in. “How about two years from now?”
I nodded agreement, thinking, I’m up for it, but more than likely I’ll never see these dolls again. I flew home from the tea party relieved to return to my messy desk and the half-eaten box of pop tarts hidden on a nearby shelf.
But it wasn’t too long before e-mails poured in from the other dolls. We swapped Christmas cards. I slept in one’s living room on an out-of-town trip and visited another just to see her new baby and eat a fabulous lunch at her favorite local restaurant. One of the dolls, whose writing makes me drool with joy, took me under her wing by critiquing my work and suggesting clever tips to improve it. Another joined my online critique group.
I learned things about the other writer/dolls that made it clear we did have things in common and even if we didn’t, I could appreciate the difference with respect and sometimes awe. I learned their stories.
Two years came and went and it was time for that “alumni workshop.” We crossed the country on planes and in cars to get back to the place where we’d originally met, under the careful nurturing of Kent Brown and the Highlights/Boyds Mills Press family.
And the magical thing about the second time around was that, after two years of building relationships, of shedding our uncertainties and tearing the plastic from our skins…we were no longer dolls.
Now we were ourselves, messy, imperfect and infinitely accessible. This time, we shared and wrote without fear. We laughed, cried, drank wine and leaned against one another, rejoicing in the small triumphs of words put together to form flawless images or evoke faultless emotions. A visiting editor remarked, “This is a really unique group! You guys seem to have such a lovely rapport!”
And we did--we do.
This is more than a pleasure. It’s a gift in a world where writing is solitary and sometimes competitive (even for those who write for children.) We need others to lift us out of the dark places and battle self-doubt. We need them to tell us when the work isn’t good enough and help us to make it better. We need their stories to assist us in shaping our own. True camaraderie is powerful in its ability to uplift and instill drive, but it’s often hard to come by.
I won’t stop donning my doll attire and attending tea parties. Networking is a necessary activity in publishing. But I’ll carry inside me the knowledge that, somewhere in the Pennsylvania hills, is a room of writers who have my heart and have my back. And that kind of knowledge can bring a writer the kind of confidence that just might help them to leave sunshine and echoes of theme songs in their wake.