A huddle of heads, silently bobbing against the black background of zoom’s gallery view, women scratch away at book manuscripts, essays, dissertations, and query letters. The meow of a small cat—Pomodoro Kitty—interrupts the silence. Microphones unmute and we give updates on word counts, page numbers, the status of troublesome footnotes, and other measures of slow progress. Someone suggests we take a yoga break and we all agree. After ten minutes of shoulder circling, quad stretching, and forward folding along to a screen shared video, the kitty timer is re-set and we squeeze in one final work session before afternoon meetings, child pick-ups, and dinner making call.
A few times per week, my writing group witnesses one another’s work as it unfolds a few hours at a time (sometimes with additional supervisors: a pair of fluffy black cats, a plump white-and-black shorthair, a four-year-old home from school). To begin each session, we shared updates on our projects and small goals for the afternoon. Between private to do lists and the public spaces of submissions, pitches, and publication, our meetings create a third space where our writing practices are visible to one another and the act writing itself is what matters.
Our initial writing group began a few years ago, on Thursday mornings in a small conference room with large windows and a fancy espresso maker. We were four women—graduate students and postdoctoral researchers—who decided to write together. By showing up once a week, announcing our writing plans for the morning and offering updates on longer term projects, we witnessed one another’s writing lives and writing personalities. Unlike a writing workshop, we didn’t exchange drafts. Instead, we offered one another the affirmation of community. Sometimes that affirmation was in the camaraderie of showing up and getting to work. Other times, it looked like advice on navigating thorny reviewer’s comments or unpacking a troubling conversation with a supervisor. Writing implies an audience, but sometimes preparing to face that audience needs a bit of coaching from your friends (and the affirmation that it’s not just you—that prof is indeed an asshole).
Eventually, life intervened with our writing together. Our fellowships at the research institute where we had been working ended, scattering us to new positions in new cities and we began meeting on zoom. By reconvening online, we were able to include members spread further across the country. We doubled to eight women spread across four time zones, each working in ad hoc home offices (sometimes kitchens, sometimes bedrooms, sometimes balconies), each lacking in fancy espresso makers.
Writing advice has a lot to say about the need to carve out time and commit to the craft. Show up and be consistent, the books and blogs tell us. Our group has taught me that showing up is less about where I write and more about who I do it alongside. Creating sentences, cobbling together shitty first drafts, and polishing up passable submissions is solitary work. When it comes down to it, I am the one who needs to step up and finish my book. Deanna, Brigidda, Renée, and Laurence will need to finish their dissertations on their own steam. Marta will have to come up with the structure for her next article; Kate and Sarah will create plans for their next books. There are audiences waiting for each of these projects. But between publication and now, there is a community of pixelated faces awaiting updates: sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph.
To show up for each other in this way gives a concrete sense of writing in and for community and offers a particular kind of material support: by showing up, we validate the work of our words and the thinking space they require. For a few hours, twice each week, a group of women creates the encouragement that writing is worthwhile and the expectation that we will show up to do it—alone, but not lonely.
Pomodoro Kitty meows again and we say good-bye. I find the same question that I’ve had on the tip of my tongue for weeks: Can we still write together when this is over?
Danielle Taschereau Mamers is a postdoctoral fellow and writes about art, documents, and visual politics.