A little while ago I started thinking of literary friendships between women, and I turned naturally enough, to Professor Google. Despite trying the words in different combinations, the Professor thought I was enquiring about Elena Ferrante and the Neapolitan novels, which celebrate female friendship. I persisted and found a few blogs and articles that explored the power of literary friendships between women. I read that Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were friends even though Mansfield’s friendship with D.H. Lawrence is more widely acknowledged. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton shared troubled love, poetry and tragic deaths while Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell were reportedly fond of each other despite the severe reclusiveness of the Bronte sisters, who, I imagine, supported each others’ attempts at writing. I wondered what my women friends thought about literary friendships and how these help the solitary profession we call writing. Here, then, is the first writing duo, Liana Joy Christensen and Karen McCrea, who are not only good friends but in whose company I sometimes write too. Their responses are delightful and insightful. Enjoy.
When did you two meet and what were your first impressions of each other?
Liana: We met in the mid-90s at a meeting held at Murdoch University for student support staff. Karen was with the Counselling Service and I was an Academic Skills Advisor. My first impression was that she was a stunningly beautiful person from a very privileged background. I found her a bit daunting, in fact. The truth of the first observation is self-evident; but I was very wrong about the second. Before too long we developed some highly successful courses together and found a deep compatibility in our team teaching.
Karen: Ah yes – we met a thousand years ago in a former lifetime. My overriding recollection of meeting Liana was relief – at last, here was a person who could get things done, was easy to be around and who had the capacity to think outside the institutional bunkers we happened to be allocated to – and as well as relief, there was quite a bit of delight. Working together never felt much like work, more like fun, a dance, and we worked so well together we wanted to keep on doing it, and have in different ways and in different mediums. That impression of privilege and daunting-ness was such a good con – the advantage of an accent and a long nose – that covered up a huge deficit in self-confidence in anything but the work itself. I could relax in Liana’s warm and kindly ambit, and then we started cracking jokes.
Liana: In short order we found that we were that rare combination of two people who can team teach really well. Our skill sets were complementary; we can both think on our feet; and we are skilled at sharing power. I’m really proud of the work we did together in those early years. I know many students benefitted . . . and so did we. We gained a lifelong friendship that has allowed us to explore many creative endeavours.
How long did it take you to become writing buddies? How often do you write together?
Liana: At the time we first formed a friendship, I was only writing part-time, and Karen not at all, other than professional writing. Fast forward a few years, and I was ready to begin making the commitment to full time writing. As part of this process, I did the Artist’s Way’s course with Karen, and her husband Michael, a songwriter. Within an extremely short time, Karen began penning a marvellous novel, with the title Rosalie’s House, which instantly captured our imaginations. (I’m still waiting for that book!)
Karen: That’s right – I left the university to take up full-time private practice and spent a few years developing that. Then Liana came up with the idea of doing The Artist’s Way together, and I thought why not? Besides, if I did it, then Michael definitely would too and I thought it might be fun. So we three did it, my friend the writer, my husband the songwriter, and me, the imposter. I had no idea what creative medium to pick up, but words seemed the obvious one, so I started with them. And discovered an essential bit of myself I’d never paid the slightest heed to, but which now would not be ignored. Talk about starting a riot! It set in motion an internal process that has actually changed my life completely. In terms of writing together, we’ve done a few different things – writing in cafes, writing with others, taking classes together, particularly the very marvellous Writers Passage with the very marvellous Horst Kornberger. Then, I moved to Victoria in 2014. Now we have writing dates and the occasional writing marathon via Skype – as many days as time differences and schedules allow, which varies, but is a consistent and important part of each of our writing practices.
What is the process you follow when you read each other’s work? Do you comment, edit, offer feedback, or are simply present while new work is born?
Karen: We have been each others cheer team, grammar police (for me, Liana doesn’t need it), critique master, well-filler, spirit nurse, and often we just work together and fly off to the next needful thing in the day. We also have been each other’s first readers and first commentators on works in progress; we trust each other very deeply, so it’s ok to share the embryonic, wonky, nascent stuff as well as the more fully realised work – and that’s a precious, precious thing. If Liana should tell me something needs more thinking through or more work of whatever kind, then I would believe her. And ask why, and she would tell me – I can agree or disagree and both responses are ok. Very often we are a vital source of singing each other’s songs when we have forgotten the words, to paraphrase Arne Garnberg’s lovey quote, and that is also a precious part of working together.
Liana: Yes, everything that Karen says rings true for me. For the most part we are simply silent companions pursuing our own work in amiable solitude. Occasionally, during the process we may share a little or ask for specific feedback or assistance. It’s a particularly useful process for long-haul projects such as novels where the aim is simply to keep working until you produce a draft.
Does the act of writing with someone affect how you write? Is it possible that your own writing can change if you read or listen to another, in the process of creating?
Karen: Well, writing together doesn’t really work like that for either of us, I think. I write my stuff, Liana hers, and Liana may hear or read mine, and I will take her responses into consideration, but the writing itself is its own fulsome, hairy, hot-breathed beast. When it’s not being a delicate, tender little blossom, that is. The gaze of another person does not change that. However, having said that, Liana and I have come to this place of freedom after years of writing together and developing our own, particular-to-us modus operandi within which we both feel deeply heard and respected, leaving us free to be our absolute writerly selves – that bit is essential and comes first.
Liana: It’s certainly a possibility in theory. However, our writing is quite different and remains quite distinctly so despite the close process of writing together. I suspect that high levels of trust allow us both the freedom to be fully ourselves in our writing, which, in turn, leads us to grow stranger and more individual fruit in our gardens. It may be that in a less secure dyad convergence or conformity might result in the writing being unduly influenced by the other.
How honest can you be with someone who is also your friend? If feedback is meant to feed the writing rather than kill it, how much do you hold back when offering feedback?
Liana: Seeking feedback is a secondary part of the process for me. Even without that aspect, the benefits of being writing companions are immense. Having said that, though, there are times we have been able to offer each other sustained feedback on completed drafts, which can be really useful. I feel we have a definite advantage in this process, as we both have high levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills – as well as the benefits of well–established communication to help us navigate any tricky or sensitive areas. We are also sensible in outlying what kind of feedback would be helpful at a particular stage. Before any creative work is exposed to the rough and tumble of the outer world, it’s lovely to be able to share it in a delicate, newborn state with someone who has been there through the labour pains, and stands in relation to the work as a caring sister or aunt.
Karen: What she said! We have built enough trust into our relationship that should anything need to be said we think the other person might find difficult to hear, we can do it in the safety and containment of that understanding. We are both sensitive to the other and we are both pretty resilient. We know where each other’s tender spots are, and know not to tromp in there with our Big Critic boots on. Not that we would anyway!
Thoughts on writers’ groups? Do you think writing with one or two other people is better than writing with several? What makes your literary friendship work?
Karen: There are two questions in that – first, writers groups. Writers groups are a bit of a crap shoot I think, depending on how they get formed, who forms them, what for, and who ends up in them. I’ve been lucky – I’ve been in very small writers groups – with Liana – and now in Victoria I’m in two fairly big writers groups. It depends so very heavily on who is in the group – even in the bigger group I’m lucky; the writers are all lovely people and serious writers. We took some time to work out how we wanted to use the group and how we would actually attend to the work given we consist of very different writers that cover the whole gamut – novelists, short story writers, screenplay writers, children writers, YA, poets and a playwright. Broadly speaking, we send work out by email to critique by a certain date and then bring those critiques to the next meeting. The upside is getting a lot of feedback, and if everyone loves or hates a particular thing you know how you’re going with it. The challenge (I have learned) is to not send stuff out too early, because opinions can be so diverse (everyone loving or hating the same thing is pretty rare) it ends up killing off your little bud of an idea. Conversely, I’ve had the group really encourage me to develop a story that I might otherwise have dismissed too soon. And, the company of fellow writers is worth its weight in gold in what can be a terribly isolating endeavour. That’s important to me in and of itself.
The second question – what makes our literary friendship work – gives me pause, since I haven’t really considered that question until now. Off the top of my head, I think it works for a few reasons; we like a lot of the same books and ideas, certainly enough to share a literary universe, but also enough different things that we aren’t just clones of each other; we understand the demands and delights of creative living in many dimensions; we have similar values about what’s important both in the literary sense and in general life, and we both have a bit of grit in us that keeps us going despite lack of fame or fortune! We have some things in common in terms of what made us who we are as most friends do, and we have history. We’re important to each other and we know it. That, I think is as good as it gets!
Liana: I believe it’s an individual matter whether writers groups are useful. They certainly can be, but you have to find one with aims and methods that are productive and safe for you. Less is more, for me personally. I have great enrichment from a couple of writing groups I belong to which encourage the members to live a writing life, provide a forum for sharing work, and just a very occasional opportunity for critique. That’s the balance I find works best for me. (I am wary of writing poetry-by-committee, and acutely aware of the damaging effects of feedback that is too much, too diverse, and too early). I would much prefer to work with just a few people, whose work and views I regard highly.
As to the second question Karen teased out above, I cannot add anything but wholehearted agreement to her answer.
Can you give us a brief description of your current writing project? Also a brief bio, along with links to blogs, writings, website or anything you find interesting, really!
Karen: My current project is a novel; actually my fourth attempt. The first three are learner novels and each is parked with its nose against the back of a cyber-drawer, awaiting surgery and resuscitation. Each one, however, has taught me something about writing, and given I knew absolutely nothing about it when I boldly set fingers to keyboard that first time, that is a very good thing. I’ve completed a first draft and now that I see what it’s actually about, I’m rewriting, and contemplating the virtues of plotting before pantsing. I have a relatively new discipline of logging my reading on Goodreads, and I do have a reading blog created specifically for the Australian Women Writers Challenge where I review books written by Australian women. I had no idea how many fantastic women writers there are in Australia until I stumbled over this challenge and went looking for them. I called this blog Karen Has Things To Say (https://khtts.wordpress.com) — after thirty odd years of listening to people in the role of Clinical Psychologist, it was time for me to spout forth, hence the name. Now I wish I’d given it a something a whole lot shorter!
Liana: I am beginning a novel called Passing Strange. It is the second in a series of YA speculative novels with the collective title of The Cantor Quartet. My agent Clive Newman is currently seeking publication for the first of these novels, The Seeds of Revolution. Some of my very eclectic writing pursuits can be found at http://www.lianajoychristensen.com/, including an extremely intermittent blog.
Any closing comments?
Liana: My friendship with Karen, both literary and otherwise, is based on immense reservoirs of mutual respect, affection and trust. I consider it to be one of the great blessings of my life.
Karen: I can’t say it any better than that!