Word came last Friday that an old friend had passed. Years ago Marilyn had left Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, to return to her native Canada. She was a phone person; I’m not. I’m an email person; she wasn’t. Communication between us was sporadic, but we did manage to touch base at least once a year.
Marilyn was a retired teacher, and if anyone ever had a richer, more adventurous retirement I can hardly imagine it. She was a master of the fiber arts, spinning and weaving. She loathed Canadian winters and would usually spend the winter months in a warmer place, often in Central or South America, or in Goa, on the west coast of India. She’d come back with fabric ideas and stories about the people she met.
Marilyn was multi-talented. Along with spinning and weaving, she wrote wonderfully, sang in the same chorus I did, and made the world’s best chocolate chip cookies. She also had a genius for bringing together people who wouldn’t have connected otherwise. I was lucky enough to be one of them. She roped me into a group of women who gathered, usually in Marilyn’s kitchen but occasionally elsewhere, to write and share our writing.
A fire might be burning in the fireplace. Coffee was ready on the counter, a plate of chocolate cookies on the table, and not infrequently we’d have a nip of Black Bush on the side. My half-malamute dog Rhodry sometimes came along. Once when he was a puppy I forgot to keep an eye on him while we were writing. A thump from the living room brought us all out of our seats: little Rhodry had managed to get himself tangled up in one of Marilyn’s looms. I almost panicked, but Marilyn didn’t: she methodically disentangled the puppy from the precious weaving. Nothing was damaged. Then she insisted on recreating the scene so we could get a picture.
I’m an editor by trade and a writer by avocation, but I was hooked on computers by then. I typed on a keyboard and my words appeared on a screen. In Marilyn’s kitchen we wrote in longhand, in pen or pencil on yellow pads of paper. One of us would choose a word or a key phrase, set the timer for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, and say “Go.” And we’d write write write till the timer went off.
Then we’d read what we’d written aloud to each other. No one had to read what she’d written, but we nearly always did. And what we wrote was amazing, sometimes startling, often beautiful or wry or laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes all of it at once.
No one was more amazed than I. I’d fallen into the common writerly trap of thinking that writing was synonymous with suffering and angst, and especially that it was inevitably solitary. In Marilyn’s kitchen I learned otherwise. I learned that if I let myself go, I could cover two pages with words in 15 minutes or less, and that there would always be images and insights and whole anecdotes that I could then build on.
While working on my first novel somewhat later, I discovered that the surefire cure for writer’s block was to take pen and paper in hand and leave the computer behind. Later still, with first novel mostly done and me sinking into the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression, I did Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook from beginning to end. Morning pages reminded me of the power of writing in longhand, and I’ve been doing most of my first-drafting that way ever since.
But the revelation first came in Marilyn’s kitchen, and another one too: that writing doesn’t always have to be a solitary struggle. Writing together can be exhilarating, and a reminder of what richness can pour from the pens of those who don’t consider themselves writers.