A long time ago, I was a graduate student in a university Creative Writing program. I was 26 and desperately wanted to become a writer. On the first day that the Poetry Workshop met, I arrived early and found myself alone in the room with the Famous Poet teacher. I sat down and tried to think of what to say. Here was my chance to have a minute’s private audience with the Famous Poet about my work. I knew my poem would be discussed by the class that day — “workshopped” — and I vacillated between a trembling fear that my poem (and I) would be judged stupid, and an exalted hope that it (and I) would be deemed brilliant.
The Famous Poet fastened his electric blue eyes on mine. “About your poem —”
I leaned forward to glean every pearly drop of wisdom.
“You can’t use that word in a poem,” he said.
“Vagina.” He said it quickly and with some distaste. For emphasis, he raised a long, tapered palm in the air, and let it fall — slap — on the desk at which he sat.
I felt scared and shattered, but summoned up a rather smug retort. “I didn’t use that word.”
The Famous Poet looked momentarily stunned. I could see the wheels turn in his head. Had he read it wrong? Did he have me confused with another student?
“The word I used,” I said, “was ‘ovaries’.”
“Oh. Well — not that word either.” He shook his head as if trying to rid his mind of these strictly female, verboten words.
I sank into my chair. The other students filed in. I no longer remember what else was said about my poem that day. It wouldn’t matter. The Famous Poet had already pronounced it wrong. What took root in me was the knowledge that the Famous Poet (and his male writer peers) ruled what language was and was not permissible for me to use. There were other rules, too. While a piece was being workshopped the writer had to remain silent. We students competed to deliver the sharpest, most cutting criticism. Whatever you had tried to say or do in a particular piece was irrelevant. If you wanted to become a writer you had to learn that the only thing that mattered was what was on the page.
I excelled in my writing program. This had a lot to do with my ability to discern what would please the Famous Poet. It was only after I graduated that my writing problems began. Without the Famous Poet’s judgments and opinions I no longer knew what I wanted to say or how I should say it. I drifted. I doubted. I despaired.
And then, by chance and good fortune, I found myself in a writers’ group. We were four or five or six women from our mid-20s to our late-40s. We met every Thursday night in one another’s homes. Creative Writing program survivors all, we consciously sculpted our group against the critical norms under which we’d come of age as writers. We were supportive first, critical second. If someone was experiencing a life crisis, that person got the floor. We talked about obstacles to writing (time; money; fear; depression) as much as we talked about writing. The rule was you could talk about any topic as long as it held strong feelings for you. Fun and interesting were other prerequisites. In a single evening, we might cover one writer’s gynecological visit, another writer’s job offer, terrorism, a tantrum-ing child, bio-diesel fuel, a local alderman’s race, kitchen linoleum, weight loss or gain, a new or old love interest, psychiatric medications — the free-ranging, ribald, and honest conversation in which women have always engaged in spaces where they feel safe.
Although our group tended to be comprised of mostly Jewish women, we were not ostensibly a Jewish women’s writers’ group. Yet you could say it displayed Jewish characteristics: uninhibited display of neurotic tendencies; well-honed analytic and storytelling skills; vigorous debate; abundant food; preoccupations with family relationships. And an intangible quality that seems the provenance of both Jews and writers: the sense that something is not entirely real until it’s down on paper.
What about standards, excellence and hard work? How does a gal gaggle turn out published, award-winning work? Here’s what I did not learn in graduate school. Stuff that’s not on the page — writer talk — really matters. That’s the arena where a writer hashes out her passions, discovers her voice, learns to fight for her subject. Men have always known this. Historically, they’ve found safe, public places in which to relax, like the British pub or the Viennese café, where they can discuss, debate, and joke. Women historically have had the kitchen, a place where conversation must compete with cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Writers’ groups, comprising several hours uninterrupted time, are a contemporary invention, akin to the kaffee klatch, slumber party, and ladies’ night out.
In a writers’ group, a person can find profoundly essential mirrors, and if the writer happens to be a Jewish woman, it’s perhaps easier (though not necessary) to see herself in another Jewish woman. In my strong-bonded, long-term group, we all learn from and are shaped by the others. Writing styles and topics may coincide in the natural cross-fertilization that occurs, but much more important is to see how another writer handles the challenges of a writer’s life. Seeing a friend continue to believe in her work after 18 publishers’ rejections is heartening. Watching another friend churn out 300 pages is a challenge worth taking up. Hearing that a third friend has rented a room in which to write is inspiring. Always the refrain is: If she can do it, I can do ittoo.
Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs and the co-editor of Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. Her writing group meets in Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts.