Two (or More) of Us: How Writing Communities Shaped the Authors We’ve Become by Jennifer Ziegler and Chris Barton

JENNIFER: Long before Chris and I got married, I used to double-date the Beatles.

Well, not all the Beatles — only Paul and John.

And they weren’t technically Beatles anymore, the band having broken up many years earlier.

And these dates, if you must know, occurred only on paper — in sketch comedies that my friend Christy and I co-wrote when we were 12 years old.

I can still remember that slaphappy fervor as we set down our imagined evenings out on the town with the cheeky composers of our favorite songs.

As we fantasized what romance might be like, I ended up learning something else that would prove to be important in my life: the power of a writing community.

CHRIS: My earliest writing communities owed more to sportscaster Howard Cosell and Garfield creator Jim Davis than they did to the Fab Four.

Around third grade, I began teaming up with one friend or another on a skit about sportscaster Howard Bosell interviewing a racecar driver and a short-lived comic strip about our respective pets.

These literary creations may not have endured, but they established a pattern that continues to serve me well to this day: Engaging with other writers inspires me to write more and write better, and it has a lot to do with what makes writing so satisfying.

JENNIFER: Writing communities can be small — even just a couple of friends.

CHRIS: Or spouses.

JENNIFER: Or siblings or pen pals. Or they can be much larger.

Whatever their size, and however they’ve come together, there are three big ways that writing communities have shaped the authors that Chris and I have become.

CHRIS: First, there’s the sort of collaborating that we just described. My teaming up with friends to write continued all the way through high school.

In junior high, one of my friends and I spent an entire year writing and drawing character sketches for a superhero parody called The Purple Fink Vs. Evil Man. We spent another year working on a spoof of Dallas, with J.R. Ewing replaced by Bobby Don Vecko.

In our senior English class, that same friend and I did a mashup of Sophocles’ Greek chorus and the roommates from Three’s Company. We called it Janetigone.

I cherish those memories, and I cherish those stories — all of which are stored not 20 feet away from where I sit as I write this post.

JENNIFER: That sounds a lot like the Beatle-dating narratives that Christy and I wrote, and also the correspondence — anecdotes, doodles, random musings — that we traded after she moved away.

We did all that writing together not because anyone assigned it. Nor did we intend for anyone else to ever read it. We wrote because it made us happy. And we trusted each other enough to be our silly, unguarded selves.

The joy of creating is magnified when you find those who can share in it — people who truly get you and appreciate your vision.

CHRIS: Another way that writing communities shaped both of us was through our experiences in high school journalism, as we worked side-by-side with others toward a common goal.

Trust was just as important on those student newspaper staffs as it had been in our recreational writing. There weren’t many articles that we co-wrote with other staffers, but we did share a mission with them.

For both Jennifer and me, that continued right through college. We worked hard on our contributions to those publications, knowing that we had close friends who were also giving it their all, and we didn’t want to let them down.

JENNIFER: I also find that shared sense of purpose — to improve our own writing while elevating the quality of children’s literature in general — in the various kidlit communities we’re part of.

There’s a sort of positive peer pressure that keeps us in check. I’ve been to many a “writing day” in which several of us authors sit around a single table and actually write.

None of us wants to be the one goofing off or perusing Facebook when we’re supposed to be writing. Without ever saying as much, we help hold each other accountable.

CHRIS: That brings us to the third major benefit of writing communities: They encourage us to keep challenging ourselves.

In college, my favorite class was an intensive writing course for which we never set foot inside a classroom but which involved many, many hours elsewhere reading, critiquing, and discussing each other’s work.

That class spurred me forward. When it comes to writing, nothing motivates me more than the knowledge that someone else is looking forward to reading something I’m working on.

JENNIFER: I think that’s true for so many writers. Having a waiting audience — even if it’s just a best friend — inspires us to get our writing finished and make sure it’s as good as possible.

If we’re trying to write something funny, we want to make it funny enough to get our friend to laugh. If we’re writing something scary, we know who it is that we want to freak out. There’s something specific to strive for.

CHRIS: And if we’re in a critique group or workshop setting, where we’re providing each other feedback, that’s even better. By helping fellow writers improve their manuscripts, we learn how to improve our own.

We can perceive strengths and weaknesses in others’ writing that they’re too close to see. They, in turn, can let us know what’s working in our stories and what’s not.

And through this, we become better self-critics. The advice I come up with to help a member of my community solve a storytelling problem today may be exactly the advice that I can put to good use in my own work tomorrow.

JENNIFER: Having a supportive writing group also frees me up to take chances. Before my editor or agent has a look at that new thing I’m trying, I can share a draft that only my writer friends will see and weigh in on.

Sometimes, though, what you need from your writing community isn’t feedback or advice. You might need just a nudge — “Hey, how’s that story coming along?” — or validation, or affirmation.

You may need nothing more than considerate listeners as you read your story aloud, so that a once-private draft can become more tangible, more real through the simple act of being heard.

I had that experience just a couple of months ago, at a gathering of writers. A willing, nonjudgmental audience for a two-year-old draft I hadn’t shown anyone yet, not even Chris —

CHRIS: Well, not until the day before.

JENNIFER: — provided just the boost in bravery I needed. I shared my first pages with my fellow writers and their appreciation assured me that this story is worth continuing to work on.

CHRIS: Sometimes a writing community pulls the work out of us, in just that way. Sometimes it pushes us to get better than we ever thought we could be. And sometimes — lots of times — it’s just for fun.

JENNIFER: Which doesn’t detract from the benefits or make it less important.

In fact, the friendship and fun make having a writing community — finding one, creating one, fostering or facilitating one — even more worthwhile. It’s made a big difference for Chris and me.

CHRIS: And I’m guessing the Beatles would have said something similar.

JENNIFER: We can all do better with a little help from our friends.

Jennifer Ziegler (@zieglerjennifer) is the author of YA and middle-grade novels including How Not to Be Popular and Revenge of the Flower Girls. Chris Barton (@Bartography) is the author of picture books including Shark Vs. Train and Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. They live in Austin, Texas, with their family.

Both Chris and Jennifer will appear on panels this weekend at the International Literacy Association conference in Orlando. Please see the ILA 2017 app for details. 
In addition, Jennifer will be signing Revenge of the Happy Campers at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Scholastic booth, and Chris will be signing Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at the Lerner booth.