By MELISSA D. SULLIVAN
For Montclair Local
“All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Melissa D. Sullivan is an attorney by day, writer by night, mother of two and a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. Melissa’s writing has appeared in
Hippocampus Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, Sum Journal and elsewhere. She splits her time between Montclair and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Learn more at melissadsullivan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @MelDSullivan.
A few weeks ago, I made my first nervous appearance at a new writing group. The format was different than I was used to – instead of meeting at a coffee shop or a diner, we met virtually, in a chat room with the level of sophistication of an AOL instant messenger conversation. As I sat at my desk, trying to ignore the chaos of my husband refereeing bath time for my two toddlers, I was apprehensive. Sharing criticism of someone’s work can be a tricky thing, and a sympathetic tone can go a long way to defusing a tough point. But with chat, all tone (save the occasional emoji) would be lost. Would this become too impersonal?
The writing group turned out to be awesome. It was jokey and quick and within a few minutes, my shoulders relaxed. We spent a short hour on the chat board, providing feedback on a new urban fantasy and joking about whiskey and feminist wrath.
Then, came the dreaded interrogation.
“Mel — why don’t you tell us what you’re working on?”
For me, this question is the worst. While I adore talking about writing in general and receiving feedback on my completed and semi-edited drafts, I am superstitious when it comes to discussing my works-in-progress (or WIP, for those in the know). If I am in the middle of a new story, I refuse to talk about specifics — not the subject, the plot or any details — with anyone, including my sainted husband. I need to hold all of it my head, without any escape, allowing the pressure of the story to build like gases in a volcano about to erupt. If I talk about it — discuss a nuance of research or a character issue — then the pressure diminishes and the idea shrinks, losing some of its power.
But what about the theory of accountability? From financial advisers to fitness experts to corporate thought leaders, we are urged to speak our goals out loud to friends, family and the mailperson, so that they can encourage us, assist us and, ultimately, hold us accountable to what we said we would do.
So why do I detest it when someone asks, “So how is that novel coming?” And why does answering the question make me worry that I will never actually finish the dang book?
Luckily, a study from 2009 offers an explanation. According to some highly intelligent psychologists, when an intention is linked to an “identity goal” — meaning activities that affect a person’s sense of identity as an artist, parent, circus clown, etc. — telling others about the behavior and receiving attention for that behavior made subjects less likely to attain the goal. So, for example, if your goal is to be a wealthy, acclaimed and attractive writer, telling everyone about it makes you less likely to attain universal fame. Why? The theory goes that just by telling someone about your goal to be a writer who’s thin and rolling in it, you have already received some attention for it, which was sort of the point anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I love hearing about what others are working on. I will brainstorm plot ideas with you until the cows come home. But for me, I know that as soon as I open my mouth or type on the chat room board, some of the drive and the strange magic that makes me come back to my keyboard night after night will be lost.
So, on my very first night, I shared this with the new writing group. They started asking some follow-up questions. Can you share some general plot? Nope. The subject? Nope? The time period or theme? Nope and nope.
The typing stopped and, for an electronic eternity, the chat room went silent.
Then, a comment popped up from one of the other writers:
“I do that, too,” she typed, and someone else starting writing about their WIP.
Before the chat session was done, the group invited me to bring one of my short stories of feminist wrath for feedback in a couple of weeks, which I am unabashedly excited to do. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on my super secret not-to-be-named project and hope I don’t implode from the pressure.