By Linda Rohrbough
I’ve never heard this put the way I’m about to put it, but I think writers have a relationship with their work. And I think writers worry about that relationship. I know I do.
Experienced writers know they have a relationship with their work and they cultivate it. If you listen, you can hear them talk about the life the work takes on and how it affects them.
New writers don’t really understand this, which is one of the reasons it’s hard to get a new writer to be quiet in a critique group. They want to jump up and defend their work against what they see as attack. They don’t realize they have a golden opportunity. A critique is a way to see their work through fresh eyes – and learn what their strengths are as well as how to improve.
I don’t see experienced writers defend their work. They listen carefully, taking in every word. Sometimes I can’t get them to even comment on what I’ve said. If we’re alone and I’m talking about something of theirs I read or about an idea they’ve presented to me, they go deep into themselves, taking that information with them and digesting it in great detail. Sometimes they lock down so tight that I realize I’m alone and I have to wait for them to come back. And that can take awhile. So I just shut up and wait.
Earlier this year, I was on a road trip, driving across Florida with a writer friend. We were talking about a novel I’m plotting, and I closed up like that. I realized that what I had done was move inside the book. I was no longer in the car driving past the Everglades on the way to a small town cameo shop my friend wanted to visit. I was on the runway at Denver International Airport, the wind blowing my hair, the jet fuel making my nostrils tingle, the hard pavement under my feet, my ears ringing from the sounds. I was my main character now, reliving her memories of Afghanistan, the goose bumps on her arms, the press of a jacket rearranging itself as the cool prairie wind folds and unfolds it against her arms. I felt her dread of sand in her teeth from the last explosion because everything was the same, except the wind then was hot, like when you open an oven. She dreaded the ear blasting sounds of mortar rounds, and the sand that would pelt her cheeks and leave small red marks she’d have to scrub off later along with the coppery smell of blood that wouldn’t leave.
It took me a while to come out of it. And my writer friend, knowing where I was, patiently waited as I’ve learned to do.
In thinking about relationship with the work, I remembered one of the things that helped me a great deal when I first started writing was my friend, Doris, who lived up the street. She doesn’t know it, but I screwed up the courage to write some days, most days actually, by pretending I was writing to her.
This was back when I’d just started writing for pay and I was a PTA president in Los Angeles. Doris was treasurer and I often thought our roles should be reversed, that Doris was the one who should be leading and I should be doing the arithmetic. Because Doris had a brand of self-respect that rubbed off on others. She was brilliant, pitched in to help at the slightest provocation, never criticized, and she was a listener. I still remember the small comments she made that encouraged me, usually just a single sentence. Like one day I was telling her about an editor I was working with and she said, “Your business is really starting to take off.”
When I wrote, I tried to talk to her to drown out the negative voices in my head. I’d forget about the editor and the pressure to write, and with my imagined Doris standing behind me nodding her approval, I would thrash the piece around into something I hoped we’d both like.
That was more than twenty years ago, and Doris and I are still friends. I never told her. But I went out of my way to do things to help her, like putting together small wrapped gifts for her kids to open each day on their road trip from Los Angeles to their new home in Atlanta when her husband got transferred. She thought I was just being way too nice. But for me, it was payback, a small gesture of gratitude to someone who’d done so much to help me overcome almost insurmountable fear. Part of the reason I never told her is I’m not sure she’d understand. But I know you, fellow writer, get it.
I heard from a corporate executive that large companies are using a similar technique to serve customers. They build a typical customer, give them a name and a story, and then work to build products and services for that customer. Not some faceless crowd, but Paul who has three kids under the age of seven, a mother in a nursing home, and he and his wife just started shopping for a new family car. What would Paul be looking for from the company’s new product?
There are a number of relationships in publishing, or any other business. The relationship with the work is the one I care about the most. What is your relationship with your work like? Do you have a Doris? If not, are you thinking of getting one?
About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com.