Monday, October 17, 2016

On Cakes and Celebration and Community

Last week, as I was putting the final bloody touches on a severed finger cake, I started thinking about writing communities and how I would not be where I am today without mine.

I was making the cake as a centerpiece for my best friend Natalie's book launch party at the local bookstore Cover to Cover. Another writing friend and I drove over early to help the bookstore owner, our dear friend Sally, set up for the party and greet the guests at they arrived, local authors and librarians, friends and relatives, and fellow members of our children's writing group SCBWI. 

Not too long ago I didn't know any of these people.

I'd never heard of SCBWI, the international organization for writers and illustrators of children's books.

I knew approximately one writer, Marsha Thornton Jones, who was my boss when I was working as a teacher in Lexington Kentucky. Turned out she was the best-selling co-author of The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series. But we never talked about writing in the early years of our friendship.

I "knew" a couple of bookstore owners. But these were bosses too, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, the entrepreneurs who started the string of bookstores in Tennessee called Davis-Kidd Booksellers. I met them, briefly, at a company Christmas party when I was working at their Memphis store as a grad student.

The librarians I knew were co-workers, lovely people who talked books and reading with me, but who never knew that I dreamed of being a published writer.

Back then the dream wasn't something I told anyone. It was something I could barely acknowledge to myself. I mean, who the heck was I to imagine my name on a book?

But for years I wrote anyway-- dozens of stories, four novels-- always working on my own--  trying to puzzle out the impenetrable publishing industry, submitting and collecting a growing pile of rejections, celebrating my very few successes with family and close friends, and mourning the many more failures.


And then in 2005, I signed up to attend a Highlights Foundation writing retreat. I went because I'd gotten a brochure in the mail and it seemed like a cool idea to have some uninterrupted time to write. What I hadn't counted on was stumbling my way into my first writing community, meeting fellow writers all on various stages of the journey, from relative beginners like me to multiply published authors.

I was star-struck that first morning smearing cream cheese on my bagel as I chatted with one woman (I'd read her book!!) who had an agent and an editor and a looming deadline, but who also seemed like a ordinary car-pooling mom like me.

If this person could do it, why couldn't I?

The other writers were friendly and welcoming too. That week they shared success stories and failures. Book deals and rejection collections. Writing and revision tips and industry secrets. They inspired me to keep writing and to put myself out there. They made me believe that my dream was not some crazy thing but something entirely possible.

That one retreat led to other retreats. I heard about SCBWI from someone along the way. I started attending workshops and conferences. I made more writing friends. I found my long-time critique partner in a line for a port-o-potty at another Highlights retreat. I found my first mentor.

It took me eight years from that first retreat to see my first book on the library and bookstore shelves. And since then I've become a part of-- and a creator of -- more writing communities. I have mentors and mentees. Critique partners and too many writing friends to list here. I lead the Central and Southern Ohio chapter of SCBWI and speak at their conferences.

Sometimes I forget that I was once struggling along alone.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Every day it is just You, at your lap top or sitting with a notebook, facing a blinking cursor or a blank page. The publishing industry-- oh man-- it will eat you up alive and spit you out. The rejections never stop coming. The bad reviews can derail you. Book sale numbers, deadlines, marketing pressures....

Failure and success. Self-loathing and elation.

But I am not alone.

The other night I baked a bloody severed finger cake and brought it to my best friend's book launch party.

I took a seat surrounded by my friends and we all celebrated, together, the success of one of our own.


  1. I am in love with the first line of this post.
    "Last week, as I was putting the final bloody touches on a severed finger cake ..."
    And it has just the right touch of nonchalance. I dare anyone not to read on after that opening!
    (Also, my writing community is one of the best things about being a writer.)

    1. Thanks, Jenn! Seeing your comment reminded me that I didn't mention our group blog YA Outside the Lines. Such a creative, lovely, generous group of people.

  2. Oh God. Not another bloody-severed-finger-cake blog post!! Sorry, but it gets a little old... p.s. Lovely post, for real.

    1. I know, Susan. It's my default blog post. Must try to branch out and write about other things :)

  3. "Every day it is just You, at your lap top or sitting with a notebook, facing a blinking cursor or a blank page." So true. This post made me a little weepy, because I love my writer friends, most of whom I met through SCBWI. You've captured the community sentiment perfectly.

    PS -- Great cake, too! :)

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! Oh, I just read your new book! Loved it. Totally creeped me out. Thinking now there must be a cool creepy cake to go along with it. Black flowers. Cats. hmm...

  4. All so true! They say that writing for children is a bunny-eat-bunny world, but I always add that they're such nice bunnies. I never would be working on my 22nd book if it hadn't been for SCBWI, and my critique group. The support is so important.

    1. Thanks Tracy. And I must say you are one of the nicest bunnies around :)

  5. At the UA Library Write Stuff event, you encouraged use to "network" before you began, and I announced a writing group. We now have a new member because of it.

    1. Shari, that's awesome! So glad you made that connection in our workshop!