By Debbie Yoho
In the late '70s, I was lucky to participate in USC's First Draft of the Writing Project for teachers. The graduate course lasted only two weeks, but the Project met all day, every day. We learned by doing, striving to become better teachers by first developing our own writing skills, then stepping out of the process to track and discuss our personal journey. We learned how to transform writing instruction in our classrooms from a battlefield of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and bleeding red ink, to a nurturing laboratory for communication and self-expression.
Our work was noisy. When we weren't writing, we were paired up reading our stuff aloud to each other. We called this "conferencing."
Conferencing is the key! We learned that published authors always have at least one partner to reflect on the writing, so that the written word can coax two minds closer and closer together in the direction of an intimate, shared experience—writer and reader developing a mutual understanding of what the words mean.
Our Writing Workshop meetings offer one way for writers to conference with one another. However, I find that the bi-monthly meetings are not enough for me. So I have enlisted a friend. She reads my manuscript a few chapters at a time, and then meets with me once a week to talk about it.
We don’t discuss the challenges of point of view, continuity or the need for more dialog. Instead she re-tells the story back to me, reflecting what stands out to her, what conclusions she is drawing, what she "sees between the lines", what strikes her as unusual or confusing, contradictory or distracting.
I am free to ask questions to draw her out: "What picture do you have of the mother?" "How do you think the boyfriend felt?" "What do you think will happen next?" "Describe the interaction between these two characters."
If what she tells me matches what I meant to convey, I have crafted a piece of writing that achieves my purpose with at least one reader.
I chose my conferencing partner carefully. She is analytical, articulate, brutally honest but constructive, and she is interested in tracking and contributing to my growth as a writer. My friend functions as my writing teacher by communicating with me about her experience as a reader, a thrilling process.