Recently, I ducked into a Starbuck’s Cafè to kill some time while my teenage son and his friend saw the new Mission Impossible movie.
The café was tucked inside a Barnes & Noble, which was tucked inside a suburban shopping mall.
As I stepped inside, the scent of books (and coffee!) hit me, and I smiled.
Then I walked directly to a corner table where I used to sit every other week with a critique group I’d been part of years ago.
I laid my hands upon the green formica tabletop, thinking fondly of the bond we’d formed. I longed for those days when we’d all drive ourselves — literally and figuratively — to spend 3 hours being completely open and vulnerable with each other.
We all happened to be parents who wrote for young readers, but what kept things most interesting was how different we all were.
We were musicians, teachers, journalists, photographers, stay at home parents and business owners.
We were tall, short, male, female, urban and decidedly suburban.
We wrote picture books, middle grade novels, chapter books and young adult stories.
We were published and unpublished.
New writers and seasoned authors.
Mentors and mentees.
We were confident and yet sometimes scared about the rapidly-evolving publishing industry.
Every other week, we gathered with our work, eager to share and collect feedback from each other. Over the years, we often met at different coffee shops (and, as a result, dubbed ourselves “The Roving Writers”), but we most often landed here, in this particular cafè, because it was the best, most equidistant option for everyone.
Upon this tabletop, we’d rest our pages and our pens and our hopes and our dreams, sharing words we’d wrestled over in the preceding weeks.
Taking turns, we listened to each other’s stories, always read aloud by someone other than the author so he or she might hear their own words with a fresh ear. Then, we’d offer each writer our honest feedback and encouragement.
But honestly, I so looked forward to our critique group for reasons far beyond the writing.
I loved that we shared a mutual passion.
I loved that we wrote for kids.
I loved that we spoke a similar language (publishing), and that we were each at different levels of the craft.
I loved that we struggled with and acknowledged the challenges of something we were all, somehow, drawn to: the written word.
I loved that we carved time out of our schedules, rain or shine — arranging babysitters and meals, rearranging work and life – so we might share a few hours in this suburban mall, drinking coffee, eating chocolate, discussing our dreams of becoming published authors.
I loved that we always got here, no matter what — through traffic jams and snowstorms and the last minute chaos at home — just to spend a few hours together, working on our craft.
I loved that we cheered each other on.
I loved that we shed tears for passages that moved us deeply.
I loved that we remembered what it was like to be young and in love with the books and stories that mirrored exactly what we were feeling as young people: the angst, the happiness, the questions, the fears.
I loved feeling proud of what I was doing, and that I knew it had the potential to be noble, memorable work.
I loved that we always closed the cafè down — hurriedly adding our last thoughts about a plot advancement or a few more questions about where a page-turn might go — as cafè employees washed the floors and set chairs on all the tabletops around ours.
I loved how we’d continue our conversations in the parking lot, and that some of our best exchanges happened there — standing in the cold, in the rain, in the heat, in the darkness — talking about how to make our work better.
I loved that we unstuck each other from the muck, and that we helped each other find solutions — to sharpen wonky scenes and to expand protagonists’ narrow perspectives and to raise the stakes and to create more tension and to remind each other this work is not a Mission Impossible.
“You want to know the difference between a writer and a published author?” someone once asked, rhetorically. “Authors are the writers who keep going until they’re published.”
The thing is, we talked about so much more than our works-in-progress — like jobs and families and admiration for each other, about shortcomings and interests beyond our writing lives.
And really, isn’t life a work-in-progress?
Yes, it was writing that initially brought us together, but it was sharing that always kept us coming back.
Sharing was a thing we did best. We had a thing.
And what we were doing — writing for young people — felt important.
As time went on, our circumstances evolved. Our schedules became more and more stretched, and our meetings became harder and harder to keep. And so, we had to stop meeting.
In short order, two of us moved out of state.
One member switched focus to photography, telling stories through pictures. One member went back to business writing.
One member pursued music, sharing stories through tunes.
One member signed the first (of many) picture book deals (squeeee!).
One member devoted time exclusively to a nonprofit for the disabled.
One member became a newspaper columnist and signed a book deal as a biographer (that’s me).
But so often, I think back to where it all began for me…and it was here…with them. They believed in my writing … and in my voice. I’ve never forgotten that.
And thank goodness for social media. Despite the distance, it’s kept us connected.
Though some of us are now published, others still work toward that goal, while others have shelved their writing projects for now. And yet, I’ve never forgotten that a manuscript in the metaphorical drawer is really just marinating, now, isn’t it? It’s not completely dead. It’s just waiting for its author to gain a deeper perspective.
After all: a writer is a writer, and that’s forever.
When we decided to end our kid lit group, I was already a member of another critique group, The Wesley Writers, closer to my home. Its founders, Steve Fiffer and Sharon Fiffer — and so many writers in the group, like Francie Aronson Dickman — inspired me to expand my writing beyond the children’s market. The group also confirmed my long-held belief that I’m at my best when I connect with others who share a passion, a drive, and an unquenchable thirst for words.
I’ve been a fortunate member of two wonderful “critique” groups, though there are much better words than “critique” to describe what these groups have been for me. They’ve been “support” groups and “possibilities” groups and nothing short of magic.