writing buddy: a person with whom you exchange writing for the purpose of commenting, editing, commiseration, and cheerleading.
Let me cut to the chase here. My first writing buddy was……Shannon Marshall!! And look where we are now. Friends nearly twenty years later, co-editing a major literary journal (which just won an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation, ahem-ahem.)
So yes, one of the big reasons to have a writing buddy is the potential for a life-long friendship, and professional partnership. But the other reason, more pertinent to this column, is the positive effect it will have on you and your writing.
Unlike some of my other writing buddy relationships, the one with Shannon started as a friendship and ultimately included writing buddy sessions. Back in high school, we were “speechies,” which is to say we were on the speech and debate team. I did an event called “OPP,” Original Prose & Poetry, in which contestants wrote their own material and acted it out in front of judges. My senior year, I was stuck on a story I was writing, and I called Shannon up for a brainstorming hour that proved to be a breakthrough on the story, because of her thoughtful words of encouragement and insightful questions about the character and plot (and I was a senior, and she was a sophomore, sheesh!). At other times in the year, Shannon called me for brainstorming help on a history paper or two, so I could return the favor. Fast forward fifteen years: Shannon reads a draft of a novel I wrote, and I read a draft of her novel. We offer each other comments on the manuscripts and optimistic remarks on the books’ potential and our future Oprah interviews.
I can’t stress enough the dual roles of the writing buddy: On the one hand, your buddy is there to offer totally honest and sometimes difficult-to-deliver advice (like: Have you thought about lobotomizing this part of the book?). But the yin to that yang is that he or she also needs to offer the kind of cheerleading every writer needs. When you’re a writer, a lot of people are going to be mean to you in various forms: agents and editors are going to say no and often imply that your writing sucks, peers in creative writing classes are going to tell you point-blank that your writing sucks, and your mother/husband/bff might sometimes think you suck for spending so much of your “free” time alone in front of the computer.
Your writing buddy should provide a refuge from all that. Even if she’s telling you that, yes, well, part of your story does suck, she’s doing it in a positive, optimistic manner—Yes, you can do it! I believe in your talent! You ARE talented! You’re a hard worker, and you’ll figure out this mess of a book and get it all sorted out. Etc etc etc. This is a pointedly different task from that of an editor, or any other stranger who reads your work, and has no care for your mental health. Hence the term writing buddy.
I have had other writing buddies in my life—notably, a friend in my college thesis class with whom I shared several dinners as we talked over our papers (earning us both As!!), and I have a new one now, another recent mom with whom I share not only the writing itself but the difficult writing-life balance that comes with motherhood. But some writing buddies are forever—like Shannon, whose blog just the other week covers another side of the you’re-not-in-it-alone writing quagmire. (And on that note let me just say publicly: Sorry, girlfriend, that I couldn’t be a writing buddy for your script!)
So go out and get yourself a wb. You can find them in writing classes (in community centers, school, after-school programs, summer school programs), in your English and history classes, your extracurriculars like yearbook and newspaper, and a whole host of other writing-friendly places. Check out the bulletin boards at libraries, bookstores, and even grocery stores. There’s a writing buddy out there for you somewhere—and if you’re as lucky as I’ve been, more than one over the course of your writing years.