Paula’s Post #47 – When I was in the tenth grade, my friend Nichola became the proud owner of Carole King’s album, Tapestry, one of the best-selling record albums of all time.
I remember this because by then, my family had moved to Canada and I was spending much of my summer vacation back down in Oregon, visiting Nichola and her family.
I remember the album because that summer, the summer between my 9th and 10th grades, we played that record all the time.
Every single day.
Okay, I admit it. We played it multiple times a day. We played it in the morning when we got up (invariably late). We played it before we went out to hit tennis balls. We played it after we came home from bike riding over to the Dairy Queen on Broadway to get Peanut Buster Parfaits. We played it late into the evening. As late as we could get away with, before her Mom and Dad shut us down.
I remember we played all the songs on that album. But, with scant apology to the lacklustre ‘Smackwater Jack‘ and a more heartfelt one to ‘I feel the Earth Move‘ the one song I loved playing over and over again, ad nauseum? You guessed it – ‘You’ve Got a Friend.‘
We played that song soooo many times, we almost drove Nichola’s Mom crazy. Okay, maybe we played I Feel the Earth Move a few too many times, too. Looking back, I’m sure her Mom lived only for the day when she could put me on that Greyhound Bus back to Canada.
After we graduated from high school, Nichola went east to university, while I went south
She went to journalism school. I went to law school.
She got married. I got married.
For years we didn’t see much of each other. Until we were about forty, we were way too busy just trying to get somewhere in this world to keep up our cross-border friendship.
Then, about a zillion years later, at the turn of the millennium, I took a sabbatical from my career as a prosecutor. My secretly harboured hope was that during this long year ‘off’, I’d finally get the chance to write a novel. One of the many ‘goals’ I set for my sabbatical year, A year that, at least back then, seemed a wickedly exorbitant block of free time. TIme that required ‘filling’ with worthy and justifiable projects. Time not to be squandered.
Fortunately, I considered writing a novel a worthy and justifiable project.
I remembered my friend Nicola was a ‘real writer’.( In addition to her career as a journalist, she’d even written a novel or two). So I headed to Oregon for a visit with my writer friend in the hopes of maybe getting a little advice on where to start. Advice Nichola generously and willingly gave.
“Start right in the middle of the action”, she told me. “Don’t use a lot of backstory…”
(not that i really knew what that was anyway)
“…don’t have too much build up to the inciting event…”
(I didn’t know what that was either)….
.”Make the story as cinematic as possible.”
I remember Nichola also told me that the very best advice she could give me, starting out, was to pay attention to lessons from the screenwriting community. She told me they really get dialogue and dramatic ‘beats’ and the three act structure.”
Nichola talked. I scribbled. Furiously, on a piece of notebook paper, while she rolled out unfamiliar words and phrases and letters like “POV”. (Didn’t have a clue what that was, either). At the end, her parting advice was to try to find a good critique group to join, warning me that writing could be a lonely life.
Grateful that I had a friend to set me out on the ‘write track’, I headed back to Canada, realizing that what my friend Nichola really taught me was that I didn’t know diddly squat and I’d better learn it. Fast. She didn’t say that in so many words. What she did tell me was that writing was both an art and a craft, the first something that could be practiced, the latter something that could be studied and learned.
Nichola and and her Mom and Dad remain amongst my closest friends. When I last visited them in Oregon, in June, Nichola and I had a great time, catching up, chatting about writing and dogs and kids and husbands and that summer, way back when, when we were her daughter’s age and played that old Carole King album, night and day.
Even her Mom, (now in her late 80’s), remembered that. Oh, and so did Nichola’s Dad. I couldn’t write about ‘writing friends’ without mentioning Nichola’s Dad. He’s 88 now and writing a novel. He’s an amazing literary talent. As a young man, he gave up ‘a writing life’ after taking a good long crack at it in post-war New York City. Eventually, he put writing aside for kids and a career as an engineer with the Oregon power authority. But he never stopped reading. Even today he’s in two different book clubs… and he reads The New York Times Review of Books, from cover to cover. And even now, at 88, he’s never given up the dream of writing that novel. Nichola says it is absolutely brilliant. As soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to send her an email and remind her to send it to me, like she promised.
Anyway, thanks to that initial encouragement from my friend Nichola, I did indeed produce my own rather dreadful first novel during my sabbatical year. So dreadful, even I can’t remember the title. But that same sabbatical year led me to another wonderful friendship, that with my 5writer colleague, Helga.
Because you see, during my sabbatical, I didn’t just write that dreadful first novel, we also travelled. My husband and I spent two months in Europe, hopping on and off trains, mimicking the kind of holiday most people experience when they’re twenty. (Only with marginally, and sometimes extraordinarily better hotels). One such hotel was glorious Villa Delia, a romantic cooking school in Tuscany.
When I got back to Canada, later that fall, I knew I wanted to write a novel set in an Italian villa, even had a dozen or so characters, sketched out on index cards.
But somehow, I just couldn’t seem to get started.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall a post I wrote back in February of this year, describing how I first met my 5writer colleague, Helga:
About this same time, Helga and I were introduced by a mutual friend. Within an hour of meeting, we decided to write a novel together.
Ya think? I mean we barely knew each other. And, at the time, my idea for this novel was still little more than a small flame, burning not-so-very-brightly.
But Helga, who’d just returned from cooking school in France, helped fan that flame with her enthusiasm, talent and culinary expertise. With the “power of two” on our side, we fleshed out the setting and acquired a full cast of quirky characters. All from our imagination.
Are you starting to sense a theme here?
Writers need friends. Sometimes they provide advice. Sometimes moral support, sometimes creative input… if you’re a writer, you’ll know it is one of the most solitary professions imaginable. You need your friends, baby.
After I met my good friend Helga, things only got better. I shared with her what my friend Nicola had said about writing being a craft that could be learned and how Nicola suggested attending some writers’ conferences. So we signed up for the Surrey International Writers Conference, and after a year or so met Sean Sommerville, a police officer I knew casually from my work at the courthouse, and his friend Joe.
Yes, our own 5writer colleague Joe.
And that’s how our critique group was born. Within just a few years, Sean was published (now internationally renowned thriller writer ‘Sean Slater‘). Check out the link from Sean’s Amazon UK page and you’ll see why the demands of his dual careers as police officer and novelist precluded further full-time participation with our group. After Sean bowed out, we held ‘auditions’ for the vacant slot and were soon joined by 5writers Silk and Karalee, both of whom we’d also met at the Surrey International Writers Conference.
And so it goes.
It’s raining in Vancouver now. In a few weeks, like those ubiquitous Canadian geese, I’ll be heading south again for the winter. I’ll be sorry to leave Helga and the rest of my 5writer critique group friends behind, but hopefully at least a few may be tempted to come visit me over the winter.
We plan to stop in Oregon along the way for a visit with my fabulous son and daughter-in-law and my adorable three year old grand-daughter. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to visit with my friend Nichola and her parents and catch up on their writing lives. And once I get to California, one of my friends has said she wants to start on a novel of her own. We’re going to meet at least once a week and hang out together and write. Oh, and another tennis buddy from the desert wants to start a book club.
I don’t want to miss the chance to make some new friends.
I don’t know where your ‘writing life’ started. It doesn’t really matter. But I bet that you’ve made a friend or two over the years, a friend who has proved instrumental in helping you on your way. Today, I want to thank Nichola and all my other writing friends for their help and support along the way.
If you’re a writer, trying to write alone in your room, without any ‘writing friends’ you may want to rethink that.
Honestly? It’s good to know, you’ve got a friend or two.