Besides our darling daughter Sarah, my ex and I created a writing group in Henniker, New Hampshire, that’s still meeting 25 years later, every Wednesday at the library.
I’ve had several writing groups like this, all free of course, and they have all added in great measure to my own aspirations as an author, because I have been privileged to hear some truly amazing works of genius.
The late Johnny Sipple sent me a manusript which I labored over for days and days, because it was so beautiful and true and just needed a little tinkering. The good time Charlie college buddy calls the married with kids buddy and asks him if he can come chill out.
I told him to focus on the four AM phone call that starts it all, and make that the focus. The old buddy is literally disrupting the household and that sets the stage for what happens next.
I sent Johnny an annotated manuscript, and the next time I saw him he said, “I’m going to do everything you said.”
I’ve taken polls in these writing groups about which stages of writing each author finds most difficult, and the results surprised me.
If you chop the process of writing up into, say, four parts — there could be more — but let’s say four: getting an idea, creating an outline, writing, and editing.
When I asked which part was most difficult, the results were equally split among the four stages. Most writers said three out of four stages were easy, but they had difficulty with the fourth.
The classic case, of course, is my friend Roger, who has twenty books that are finished except for the last chapter.
And everyone picks a different stage as the hard part. What that suggests to me — and this is born out by literary history — is that a single pair of collaborators could generate an astonishing body of work in a comparatively short amount of time.
Like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan, they could astound the world without breaking a sweat.
For me what’s missing is the outline. I have great ideas, and I have no trouble writing and editing, but I need someone to create a list of scenes and give them to me as homework assignments.
Let me give just one example, the reign of Commodus. Historians all agree — as they very rarely do — that this marked the end of the Era of the Good Emperors.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, writing in 1776, says:
“Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by the restraints which the necessary, but unequal, laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many.
Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.
In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity. The ardour of contention, the pride of victory, the despair of success, the memory of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity.
From such motives almost every page of history has been stained with civil blood; but these motives will not account for the unprovoked cruelties of Commodus, who had nothing to wish and everything to enjoy.
Commodus was not, as he has been represented, a tiger born with an insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the most inhuman actions. Nature had formed him of a weak, rather than a wicked, disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind.
His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.”
Does anyone out there see an opera here?