It is early on a Sunday morning. I’m sitting in the empty lobby bar at the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, the splashy sound of a large indoor fountain echoing in the nearby atrium. Sunday morning diners drift in; departing travelers thread their way past enormous potted trees, the wheels of their carry-ons whirring rhythmically.
This past weekend Queens MFA grads and some current students gathered for a reunion as we brought work samples – our essays or short stories, our novel or memoir excerpts, our poems or screenplays – and received feedback from editors, agents, instructors, and peers. We also heard from fellow writers who’ve been published and listened as they read from their lovely finished works. They are like beacons of hope.
Bars and writers seem to go together. Last night the place was hopping. As I meandered into, through, and around the gathered groups, I heard updates on novel submissions, listened as writers offered and received advice about agents, nodded in agreement hearing familiar notes of frustration with the writing process, a woman stuck here, a man flummoxed there.
Stopping, starting, stopping. It’s an odd kind of momentum that from close up looks – and, trust me, feels – as if you aren’t getting anywhere at all, unless you remind yourself you are in this for the long haul.
Many of us have projects we’ve been working on for a decade, sometimes longer. It’s all part of the writing landscape, these seemingly endless roads that wind and twine through thick woods, tangled terrain, leading toward a horizon we cannot yet see. Persistence is definitely an essential part of the game.
The bar is where we congregate after seminars and panels and following our workshops, which one fellow writer aptly describes as like being totally naked in front of everyone else, which it totally is. We bring our hard, sad, exhausting stories and try to share that hard, sad, exhausting-ness, and in the process we figure out how to tell the story better, and how to keep reaching for that healing or resolution or revelation, or all three, in our stories, and in our lives, too, since the two are interwoven.
Even when writing fiction, we are still puzzling ourselves out on the page, our lives informing the characters and scenes and tales that most surely arise from deep within us. Even in fiction, we are still asking the big questions of the Universe, seeking meaning, truth.
This draw to congregate, to me, is the real, the essential fabric of the entire weekend. Of course we are beyond jazzed to work with top tier editors and agents. Certainly we get fantastic feedback on our work and great industry tips. We brainstorm together about new paths to find our way into and through the material we’re working on. We practice different techniques and try to see our writing samples in new ways (re-vision). All of these things are so very important for us.
But writing by its very nature is profoundly interior work. Often what ends up on the page has been roiling around inside us like leftover shrapnel from long-ago battles. Like shrapnel, it works its way to the surface and emerges through the skin. It is often painful and always lonely.
Here, elbow to elbow, we commiserate about how our partners, patient as they are, sometimes fail to stifle that yawn when we talk about our main character for the umpty-hundredth time and how she is driving us crazy with her stubbornness on the page. We mention friends back home who, love us as they do, still wonder if it’s necessary to whine yet again about how hard writing is, or how stuck we are, and also they probably are never going to be as excited as we are about that paragraph that finally comes together or the ending that finally lives up to the label of “satisfying.” But here there is common joy in those small, agonizingly obtained victories.
Here – in the halls of the university where we have our classes during the day, or at a lunch or dinner table – you hear bits of conversation that leave you feeling a little giddy.
Because these are your people. This is your tribe. And it feels so good to be with your tribe that when it’s time to leave, more than a few of us get misty and sad. We hug for a long time, holding on to each other and to that feeling of being known, holding on to the feeling of being reminded we are not alone in our crazy obsession, our need to document, to say and to keep on saying. We hold on for a long time because we know Monday a lot of us will be feeling a little blue, missing this easy camaraderie.
Isn’t that the way, when we find our tribe? When we find where we belong and with whom? That sense of homecoming and ease? That way of relaxing into the circle where your weirdness and quirks are known and understood, because others have them, too?
While I am here in Charlotte, my sweet four-year-old boxer, Beasley, has been staying with my kids. My daughter and my son-in-law have Beasley’s littermate, Zeke, as well as a boxer-hound mix named Banjo. My son has an elderly dog named Combo.
Beasley loves to go there, and their dogs all adore it when he visits. When they first see each other, they snort and jump and wiggle. They sniff and grin and race around the yard. Later they snuggle into piles, snoring away in deep contentment.
In the middle of the weekend, my daughter sent me a video of Beasley with his tail (which was never docked) carried low and careful behind him. At one point he looks up at her with a pained expression.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He wagged so hard he sprained his tail,” she replied.
“That is one happy dog,” I said, and we both laughed.
And then I looked out across the small sea of well-loved fellow writers, treasures one and all, and smiled, thinking, “I know exactly how he feels.”