The Finishing Party: ZZ Packer's Writing Group
I needed a group that was both less formal and more communal—less product, more process. I needed a group as willing to help me with my writerly angst as to help fix my manuscript's flaws. I needed the observational and diagnostic abilities of a top-notch shrink, the warmth, affection, and patience of a skilled nanny, and the take-no-prisoners attitude of a drill sergeant. A tall order, but I was certain that the right bunch of people could fill it. .
After a few false starts, two writer friends and I laid out our plan. Instead of accepting anyone who was interested, we'd invite only writers we already knew or respected. And they would be black women writers. We had discovered that we'd shared similar woes dealing with the publishing industry: attempts to pigeonhole our fiction in terms of previous commercial successes (she's the next Terry McMillan!) or literary successes (she's the next Toni Morrison!). We'd all had the experience of being the only black person in the room, and we wanted the freedom of being in a group in which we wouldn't bear the responsibility—inferred or implied—of representing "all black people." We wanted to support each other to be ourselves, to tell our stories without being second-guessed.
Lists were drawn up, phone calls made, e-mails sent. During our first meeting, someone noted that everyone seemed to want to finish her novel by the end of summer, and she suggested that we call ourselves the Finish Party. Once we finished, we'd have a blowout bash to celebrate. And so our group was born.
We're discussing two manuscripts this month: Renée Swindle's and Jackie's. Renée, who writes the kind of literary fiction that takes its characters seriously yet manages to deliver a fun ride, had no trouble finding a publisher for her first book, Please Please Please. But when she joined the group, she was recovering from the heartache of shelving her second novel—the daunting and dreaded sophomore novel—and declared that what she really needed from the rest of us was "free therapy." To supplement her teaching income, she was working as a nanny, waking up at 4 A.M. to write in the hopes that her third novel—which she'd just begun—would see the light of day.
Lita taps her watch, our signal to begin. A former vice president at Sun Microsystems, she hasn't lost her ability to corral any group of more than three people into an action committee complete with a mission statement and schedule, and has thus become our unofficial timekeeper. We all settle down; for a minute there is silence as we flip through Renée's pages, rereading choice sections or scanning our notes and printed-out critiques.
The new novel, Tell Me Something Good, is about Abbey, a woman with a penchant for boho street fashion, expensive vodka, and soul-destroying men. The day she's fired from her publishing job for making an offhand remark about a meditation guru, she discovers that her boyfriend has gone AWOL, taking everything in the apartment with him.
Alyss tells Renée, "I love the ease of your writing. It's so evocative, so relatable, so immediately engaging."