Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ivey: A Partnership, with rules

When I first began work on my debut novel, The Snow Child, I knew I could work fast because the idea was so clear in my mind. But I wanted structure for my writing time, and as a former adrenalin-junky journalist, I needed deadlines.

In the meantime, my mom, Julie LeMay, was recommitting to writing poetry. So we hatched a plan -- each week we would swap a chapter for a poem. They would obviously be rough drafts, but we wouldn’t get hung up on that. We would just keep going, week to week. I’d read her poem, she’d read my chapter. On to the next.

At the end of a year, I had a nearly completed manuscript and, against all odds, a terrific New York literary agent had offered to represent me. In the meantime, my mom had more than a dozen polished poems, and she began submitting them to literary publications.

Now, a couple of years later, my book has sold to a dream publisher -- Little, Brown, & Co. Several of the poems my mom wrote that year have been published in national literary magazines, including Karamu and Pilgrimage, and she is applying to graduate school for her MFA. Not too shabby, if we may say so ourselves.

Looking back, I’m still impressed with what we got done. We both had to be in the right mind set. And we had to follow the rules.

Commit to the plan. In the face of all life’s upheavals and pressures, we would make every effort to give new work to each other weekly.

Make feedback specific and generous. We could only say what we liked about rough draft chapters and poems. If one of us revised our work and asked for a tougher critique, then we would give it.

Put it in writing. We both took the time to comment in writing on each other’s manuscripts, and write a few sentences, sometimes more, about our overall impressions.

A quick turn-around. We gave comments to each other before the next week’s work was due. The thoughtful encouragement helped feed the process.

There were some downsides. My mom is a poet, I’m a novelist. Our difference in forms sometimes made detailed critiquing difficult. At the same time, it eliminated any threat of envy or conflict over how a poem, or a novel, should be written. Instead, we each tried to react as a grateful, intelligent reader.

Most writers are capable of that at least– of being there with a kind eye. That’s why I think this could work for other people as well. And while it helps that my mom and I live in the same town, I actually think it could succeed long-distance through email or even snail mail.

From my experience, it isn’t the same as being a member of a writing group or hiring a professional editor. It’s not about revision and fine-tuning. It’s about committing to writing. It’s very similar to having a running partner. You don’t have to be the fastest or the most competitive. You’re not looking for someone to blow a whistle at you or holler for you to get your knees up higher. You just have to show up each morning with your running shoes tied and, if you can manage, a tired smile. It’s about commitment and companionship. And it’s just the first step toward running a marathon or getting published.

I’m curious if anyone else has developed a similar partnership, and what rewards and pitfalls came along with it.

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.

2 comments:

Vivian said...

Eowyn,

My husband, Howie Martindale, and I are both poets in the same MFA program at UAA. But even though we are poets, it doesn't always make for helpful critiquing. I'm more sensitive to critiques than he is. In fact, when we first met in college in an undergraduate creative writing class, he critiqued one of my poems saying it was, "dripping with sarcasm." I thought he was insulting me so I didn't like him much. I guess something must have changed because years later I married him. I think I started to like him when he took me to the library and showed me how many books he'd read.

My husband and I are very different poets. Sometimes I find myself channeling his voice, what he would say in a poem; but I don't think he ever does that with me. Funny, though, he hasn't read my completed MFA thesis and I haven't read his yet. Sometimes, he doesn't read one of my poems until it's published in a journal.

However, I read my short story collection it to him while he did the dishes. Each night, I would stand by the stove and read a story or two while he had his hands in the dish water (a captive audience). By listening, he caught the places I needed to edit. He said that he liked it better when I read the stories to him rather than having him read it on paper.

Really, I'm my husband's first reader and I feel comfortable giving him constructive criticism. In turn, I trust him to give me feedback on my poems and stories. And if he doesn't like my work, he can always sleep on the couch.

Eowyn said...

Thank you for your comments, Vivian. It is an interesting process, sharing your work with someone you love. My husband is also one of my first readers, in addition to my mom. I don't know what I would do without the two of them. I know it isn't easy, being supportive and yet honest. There are times when one of them will say "Yeah. It's good," but I can hear this hesitation in their voice and I immediately grab on to that and worry over it. But it also motivates me to improve my work.

Your last line made me laugh out loud. The I read it to my husband. He didn't seem to find it as funny.