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Column of Twos, Holding Hands: A Writer’s Buddy System

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LJ-Cohen-holding-hands-pic-860.jpg?resizI still vividly remember how we moved through the halls of our Elementary School for fire drills. In the back of my mind, I can hear the teachers reminding us: “Column of twos, holding hands,” as we marched outside to our class muster stations to wait for the all clear.

Because of the pandemic and the distance it placed between us, I needed to find a way to create a new kind of buddy system. One that was more personal than the larger writer gatherings that were happening on social media and video chat. One that would provide emotional support and motivation without guilt. One that was built on mutuality and trust.

I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing when a few of my writing friends organized a weekly meeting where we read and discussed writing craft books, sharing our responses to the books’ exercises when appropriate.

I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing when another group of writing friends – local in geography, but separated by circumstances – found a regular time online to share/grouse/emote about what was getting in the way of writing and recommending books to read.

I think I definitely understood what I was creating when I reached out to two different writer friends to organize separate weekly writing sprint times.

What I was weaving together was a safety net of sorts in the guise of a distributed accountability network. And even when I would show up to one of these meetings having not done my homework that week, my friends didn’t make me surrender my Writer Card.  Over the nearly two years of this process, each of us has had our moments of struggle and doubt. Moments when the story felt wrong or trite or weak or simply beyond our skillsets. Sharing and acknowledging those feelings without value judgment allowed each of us to be honest with self and others to move forward.

I also learned a lot (and continue to learn) from the half-dozen or so craft books we have studied so far. No mater how long someone has been plying the writing craft, there is always something new to discover or something old to discover in a new way.  Or sometimes, something to disagree with that offers fresh insight. And in discussing how a particular exercise either did or didn’t relate to my current novel in progress often led to significant breakthroughs. As did discussions of my fellow writers’ stories and story problems.

But I think I’ve made the most forward progress on the novel during the one on one writing sprint times. I’m extremely skilled at finding excuses to not write. Or quick to give up when the writing feels difficult. But when I know that a friend has arranged their day to set aside an hour to write with me, I’m not going to let them down. They have shown up for me, so I will show up, both for them and for myself.

We typically meet for a little over an hour, which gives a few minutes to chat and catch up and then time for several 20-30 minute writing sessions. At the end of the session, we cheer one another’s word counts. Sometimes even share a bit of the new work.

Before these virtual meetings began (and even partway through them), I was seriously considering abandoning the manuscript that had been such a difficult slog. If I’m being honest with myself, it had not simply stalled, but had gone backwards several times as I would reach the 20-30K mark, realize something wasn’t working, and delete more than half of it. My efforts felt disorganized and scattershot, much like my thinking, and with nothing but my own frustration and confusion to keep me company, finding my way to creativity seemed impossible.

There’s a persistent and pervasive myth of the solitary artist. But it’s easy to get lost inside your own head and believe the stories you tell yourself when there’s no one else to challenge those assumptions. I believed that I was failing. That the novel was too much or not enough. That I wasn’t a good enough writer to tackle the big themes and ideas that had initially captivated me.

Once I gave myself permission to admit to my fears and insecurities and focus on simply working through some basic exercises with a close knit group of writers, something inside me eased. Because I wasn’t forcing the novel forward, my freed subconscious started to inhabit the story again. And then the words started flowing. Slowly and not without difficulty, but with a solid sense of satisfaction.

The novel I nearly abandoned is now comfortably at the 75% mark and I’m making steady progress with it. My intention is to have a first draft completed by summer’s end.

I know this wouldn’t have been possible without these groups and these sessions: my column of two, holding hands times.  And this is my heartfelt thank you to Elaine, Brent, Jill, Christine, Jo, Sarah, and Marianna. I am beyond grateful that we are navigating these corridors together.

What about you, WU? Has the buddy system ever saved you from floundering? Who’s held your hand along the way? Have you thanked them? 


About Lisa Janice Cohen

LJ Cohen is a Boston area novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. Her most recent book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space) represents her sixth published novel. Derelict, the first novel in the series, was chosen as a Library Journal Self-e Select title and book of the year in 2016.  LJ is active in IPNE (The Independent Publishers of New England), SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America),  and Broad Universe and blogs about publishing, general geekery, and other ephemera on her website.

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