The Finishing Party: ZZ Packer's Writing Group
"I love the exquisite tone and pacing," says Farai. "You keep us totally on the journey." Farai published the first of her three nonfiction books (Don't Believe the Hype, The Color of Our Future, Trust) when she was only 25, and though her background is in journalism, she was drawn to write a novel—about a modernized Billie Holiday–esque singer whose dreams are as spectacular as her talent for self-destruction. She "banged out" a draft in one week, then spent six years, off and on, revising. And though her promotion to host of the NPR show News & Notes has essentially doubled her work schedule, she's determined to finish the novel in September.
"This is so wonderful and sharp and true to human nature," Deborah Santana tells Renée. Years of studying Eastern philosophy and meditation have made Deborah a master of giving feedback.
"Some of the passages are as spare and beautiful as haiku." Renée ducks her head at the compliment.
Nichelle Tramble mentions a part she loves from the latter half of the book, when Abbey's ex-husband explains why some women seem to inherit heartbreak. "Priceless!" Nichelle exclaims. "He's such a rogue, and yet Abbey is able to glean a real lesson from him."
I finally put in my two cents, saying that the novel shows a new type of black woman, a departure from 20-something video vixens on the arms of rap stars and the archetype of black woman as stoic matriarch. Here is a 30-something woman who is struggling to find her place in the world, whose lack of completion makes her vulnerable.
Renée is obviously relieved. She'd given us 40 pages nearly seven months ago but then asked if she could take a break from the group. We were shocked—and wondered if we'd been too harsh, but Renée assured us that she just wanted to concentrate on finishing her novel. After a discussion and vote, we decided that the most supportive relationships aren't the ones you never want to leave but the ones you keep returning to. We knew we would miss her, but we also believed she had to do whatever it took to finish writing. When she rejoined us with a completed draft, we rejoiced as if she'd given birth. And now we can see that Renée feels as exorcised of her insecurities as her protagonist, Abbey, does at the novel's end.
Renée's hiatus from our meetings came on the heels of Lita's confession that she had reservations about being in a writing group when she was all but finished with her novel. She didn't need people reading 30 pages at a time—she had a deadline to make in a matter of weeks. A group member who'd seen one of Oprah's "Wildest Dreams" shows suggested that things might work best if each of us told the others what they could do to satisfy her "wildest writing dreams."
Lita needed someone to read her manuscript—all 300-plus pages of it—within the space of a few weeks so she could send it to her editor on time. I needed a writing partner to meet with once a week to alleviate the loneliness of being inside my novel. And every once in a while, Farai needed someone to give her a "kick in the butt."