August 1, 2012
For many years now, I’ve had the same writing partner, Edvige Giunta, whom we all call Edi. Edi and I have co-edited a book, The Milk of Almonds, and some of our best writing memories are when we sat in my sun-filled kitchen, drinking espresso and eating biscotti, as we first dreamed the book we would produce, refined our vision, solicited essays from women across the United States, edited first one essay and then another, and wrote and revised our Introduction. Some have called it a landmark work, this collection of essays by Italian American women about the connection between food and their lives, and to us it was. A landmark in our writing—we learned how to work collaboratively and we learned that our writing lives were infinitely more pleasurable and productive when we worked with and sought the advice of a like-minded writer.
Writing doesn’t have to be—I almost want to say shouldn’t be—solitary. I know that when I shrink from contact with Edi, when I go a few weeks without working with her, and, instead, work alone, I get weird. I second guess every judgment I make. I feel like I’ll never get my work done. I can’t figure out what to do first, second, and next. I doubt that the work I’m doing is worthwhile. And yet there are times when I get so caught up in my work that I don’t seek the counsel of Edi, my wisest writing friend. I forget that having a writing partner in my life is a blessing and a gift and that I should ask for help when I need it, which is often.
These days Edi and I are again working actively together. She is finishing editing a book with another collaborator and she is also working on a second draft of a memoir about her young adulthood in Gela, Sicily. I am finishing my book about writing. We’ve found a way of working together that suits us both at this stage of our lives, and I thought you might like to hear how we go about our work.
First, we decided that we’re not necessarily going to share our work, although we might at some point. Edi has said that she’ll read anything I want her to read; I’ve told her I’ll read anything she wants me to read. Still, we both believe that sharing work too early in the process is an invitation for disaster. What, after all, can someone say to a published writer about a work that’s not in its penultimate stage—the stage where it’s ready for someone to read but when it needs perhaps one more revision? Edi and I both work provisionally in a project’s early stages—I’d be giving her meanderings rather than lucid prose; Edi works organically and so what the manuscript looks like now is nothing like the book will be. We’ve both had the unwelcome experience of being asked to read a writer’s work-in-progress and comment upon it while the writing was in its initial stages; both of us have labored to come up with helpful comments; both of us have been told, upon sending off our suggestions, that it’s okay, the writer has already moved on to another draft. We’ve both wasted this kind of time. I don’t want to waste Edi’s time—she’s an enormously busy woman; and she doesn’t want to waste mine. And so we hold back our work from each other and we don’t share work until it’s ready. Sometimes we don’t share it at all, and the first time we see it is when it’s published. This might sound strange. But it’s worked very well for us.
For what we need from each other is something far different than an editor: we need a collaborator in the process of doing our work. We’ve learned that if we have ongoing conversations about the process—detailed ones—then we each can go about our work more confidently.
So, what do we do instead of critiquing our works-in-progress?
We talk about our works-in-progress. We’ve made a plan to have a telephone meeting once a week on Monday at 10AM to talk about our work. We’ve established a few ground rules. During that meeting, which usually lasts about three-quarters of an hour, we talk only about work. We don’t talk about our teaching, or about our families, or about whatever challenges we’re facing in the other areas of our lives. (We have those conversations at other times during the week.) We talk about our writing, only. During the rest of the week, we can check in with each other about our work, but briefly. I’ve called Edi and asked her if I can ask her a quick question, and she’s complied. But I respect that she has a very busy schedule and that we’ve set aside this other time, so I try to gather my questions together to discuss with her at this one time. Establishing these boundaries has made our partnership work.
On Mondays, when we check in with each other, Edi usually goes first. She tells me what she’s done during the past week on each of her projects. She then reports on whatever writing challenges she’s now facing. This past week, she’d established one chapter in a “Second Pass” folder and she’d brought that chapter up to the kind of polish she is looking for at this preliminary, but not early, stage. She’d looked at another chapter (that she’d heavily edited), which will soon be at the “Second Pass” stage and will become, she’s almost sure, the second chapter. As she reviewed that chapter, though, she realized that she had another document in which she established the geographical and historical background that was pertinent to understanding both the second chapter and the first. Should this be, she wondered, a kind of interchapter? Or should she take material from this chapter and insert it into the first and the second chapter. In passing, she remarked that she’d made the edits to the second document on the printed page of the chapter. What did I think, she wondered.
As we talk, I take notes on my computer so that Edi and I have a record of what we discuss. This is enormously useful because I tend to forget the extremely relevant advice that Edi gives me and it’s necessary for me to consult the précis of our notes throughout my writing week. Before I answered, I quickly reviewed the notes I’d taken from Edi’s report.
“Enter the handwritten edits in the second chapter into the computer and make a clean copy,” I suggested. “You’ll go crazy if you try to introduce new material from that interchapter unless you have a clean copy.” And she agreed. We also discussed that at some point she could reread the interchapter and intuitively decide what material could go there. I suggested that she make entirely new documents when she does this—to “play” with introducing the interchapter material into these two other chapters for awhile rather than committing to doing it right away and she thought this was a good idea.
I asked Edi how many hours she had in the coming week to devote to her writing. She’s completing another book, she runs workshops on memoir and yoga, she’s preparing to teach in the Autumn, in addition to living a rich and full family life. This is the stage of the conversation where Edi and I commit to a work schedule and a work plan for the week. We try to be realistic so that we don’t set ourselves up for feeling like we haven’t accomplished what we set out to do. We try not to anticipate having more time than we do.
Edi said that, realistically, she had four hours. I asked her whether she could enter all the changes in that time. She said she didn’t know; that it could take her a half an hour or it could take the week’s work time or more. She decided to begin with entering the changes and postpone deciding what to do about the interchapter material. In the meantime, she can reread that interchapter, and let the decision about what material to shift into which chapter percolate. In this way, when she moves to that moment in the revision, she’ll probably know what she needs to do.
I reported to Edi that I’d finished revising the writing book for the third time and that I’d started to establish the order of the first part of the book which will be quite different from the order of the Third Pass. This entailed rereading all the chapters in the new provisional order and deciding whether they worked in this order. This entailed, too, revising any material that was repetitive. I reported that as I began to reread, I realized I needed to revise the Introduction to the book, and I worked on that. I realized, too, that this is such a big book—it’s running over 50 chapters and 300 typescript pages—that I needed to begin an outline of what’s in each part so that I can readily see if any of the chapters repeat what’s been said before.
My question for Edi regarded how I should plan my work during the rest of the summer. Edi knows my work habits. She also knows how I can get myself into trouble when I try to do too much at a time. She reminded me that it’s the summer and that I’m still in recovery mode. She asked me how long it takes me, realistically, to revise a chapter—the chapters are short. I told her that it takes about an hour. She asked if the chapters will need another revision, and I said that, yes, they would, but that I would like to refine what I have one more time right now, so I decided to revise a chapter, and then print it out, and revise it again—a method I used when I was editing my husband’s chapter book which worked very well. The next revision, then, if I need one, won’t be so onerous.
Edi asked me how finished I wanted the manuscript to be. I realized, when she asked me this question, that I want it to be finished enough for an agent to decide whether she wants to work with me on the manuscript. Edi pointed out that though it has to be polished, that if I work beyond that, I’ll be too committed to what I’ve done and I won’t be open and flexible enough to take professional advice. I realized she’s right so that I decided to try to work towards a Fifth Pass draft and to assess, at that time, whether a Sixth Pass was necessary.
Edi asked me how much time I wanted to work every day this coming week. I told her that I wanted to work for two hours. She suggested that this was too much at this particular time. She suggested, instead, that I set a goal of revising seven to eight chapters during a five-day work week which would mean that I will have completed the revision of the first part of the book. If I continued with this schedule throughout the summer, it would mean that the book would be in its Fifth Pass stage in seven weeks, by the first week of September. But Edi reminded me that, when we worked on The Milk of Almonds together, I insisted that we added a year to our anticipated date of completion so that we didn’t feel pressured. “Add another week, at least,” she said. “Aim for the middle of September or late September.” And I agreed.
Talking specifically in this way about a work-in-progress is invaluable to me. I know it’s invaluable to Edi too. I come away from our meetings revitalized. I know that the work I’ve planned for the coming week is doable; I know the direction my work will take.
If you don’t already have a writing partner, try to find one. Set boundaries. Set meeting times. Commit to keeping your appointments. Commit to doing what you and your writing partner have outlined for the coming week. Edi and I have found that you don’t have to read work-in-progress. Having a fruitful conversation like the one I’ve outlined here has helped me much, much more than any critique of a work-in-progress could provide.