In a tall wooden room in the Purcellville, Va., train station, 10 writers sit at a table. One, named Jerry, wears an earring and has veins running through his hands like rivers. He uses those hands in big gestures as he tells us he’s writing a novel set on Mars where the repressive government prevents the sale of sushi and milk chocolate. Another writer, Val, has started coming because she’d like to quit teaching English and write. As Val taps her pen against the table, a piece of plastic breaks off, flies at me, and hits me in the forehead.
But as introductions continue around the table, we pretend it didn’t happen. The introductions reveal more surprises: a former policeman who makes a point of veiling life thinly in fiction for the purpose of slaying his enemies, and a writer of children’s books who looks like my lovely Aunt Sally.
I’ve heard people call writing “lonely work.” But here in the train station, lo and behold, hides a refuge for word-people. A place where writers can confess that they “have characters talking to them,” and that since childhood they have cherished in their hearts a passion for order that surges up and puts print to paper.
But what does it all mean, this writing in community? It has never occurred to me to seek out people I could write with. It always occurred to me to seek out people I could write about. I write like an extravert—because it’s like I’m talking to someone, even though they’re not there.
I’m always poking for relationship.
“Tell us about yourself and writing,” one woman invites me. This is, after all, my inaugural visit.
I would like to confess that as a writer my dearest dream is to write whatsoever I choose with a guarantee that I would never offend anyone I mentioned. But I don’t. I tell them instead that I love to write, that I do it too much, that I’m supposed to do my homework instead. While talking about writing I can’t keep excitement out of my voice, any more than the other writers can.
It makes me remember a conversation I had with Dr. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, one afternoon over lunch. He and other similar dignitaries often circulate among us in our college cafeteria.
He told me a story.
“So I was sitting on this bench in Boston eating a bagel,” he said, “thinking of an idea for a novel.”
He continued for several minutes. His novel idea boasted the usual furniture: a setting, conflict, social evil to address, a boy and girl who fall in love.
We had nearly finished our meal and sat in leisure among our own crumbs. I observed his ballooning, big-eyed enthusiasm with interest.
At last he concluded with the happy ending. I puzzled all over again at the weird vision that makes ordinary people write books. I puzzled that oracles from other worlds visit lawyers sitting on benches in Boston. And more, that ordinary girls at cafeteria tables are supposed to interpret their messages.
“My goodness, Dr. Farris,” I said, at a loss. “That must have been an enormous bagel.”
I don’t know what to make of writers, those strange beasts with big eyes. They’re mortal enough to eat bagels, get hit in the forehead by pens, and seek revenge. Despite our hallowed writing groups—where we perhaps look too much at our own navels—the point of writers is that they see the world outside themselves and find it interesting enough to write down. Writers don’t need each other as much as they need everybody else.