This post was my second guest blog for the Jewish Book Council and appeared on The Forward.
It all started back in March 1999. We'd just got our very first home Internet connection and I was setting off to navigate cyberspace and figure out what exactly was out there in that World Wide Web thing that everyone was going on about. These were the days of the Netscape browser and dial-up internet, which hogged the phone line and meant that you could either surf or make a phone call but not at the same time. My husband had assured me that the Internet would help my writing. I was about to discover he was right.
I'd been trying my hand at writing, but what to do with my efforts? Were they any good? How bad were they really? And how would I know? Perhaps I ought to take up flower arranging instead? I should probably have someone read my work, but who? I knew no other writers, neither pre- nor post-published. On the other hand, perhaps it was all for the best as who wants to be sitting face to face with a person as they tell you, as we say in cockney, that your work is, a load of codswallop. So, the path of least resistance looked very inviting and I tucked those manuscripts away in my filing cabinet and the dust began to settle.
But now there was this thing called the Internet. It seemed quite clear that Arthur Clarke had been right after all and advanced technology was most certainly indistinguishable from magic. A click of the mouse and everything I wanted to know was now at the tips of my fingers, email lists, writer's boards and forums, ask any question and it shall be answered instantly. Magic, definitely.
One day I saw an email on a writers list that a new critique group was starting up and open to new members. Time to fish out those old manuscripts. I sent off an email saying I would like to join. I was accepted. It was December 1999. One of our members was a published writer, there to point us in the right direction and the rest of us were just beginning to feel our way in the world of books and writing.
We introduced ourselves and began to share our writings. The last person who'd looked at my creative writing had been my high school English teacher. And I'd never ever given anyone writing advice. I learned on the job. Gently we encouraged each other to kill our darlings, cut the verbiage, rethink the story arc. And thankfully no mention of cobblers. Most importantly we encouraged each other to never ever to give up. Soon we were sharing much more than writing. Grumbles and gripes, joys and giggles. Some weeks none of us submitted a thing but still we talked and laughed. Babies were born, marriages celebrated, jobs lost and gained, the grumbles and gripes shared many words written and lots of laughs. We had no rules, none whatsoever. Anyone could submit anything at any time. When one of us was on a roll we all helped. Whatever was needed. As Verlie says, "I always love those on a roll times when the whole group lights up to celebrate one writing obsessed mind on fire."
My friends helped me in other ways. These days I have a Kindle and so many books can be accessed on the internet. But in those earlier days, living in Israel, an English reading addict and writer could have gone nuts with trying to get their book fix. I did. My friends knew this and came to my rescue. I never asked, but, it happened that I would come home to an email, saying, "We had a bit of a clear-out, went to a garage sale. Just got back from the post office. There's a box of books on their way to you." Or, "just got this year's Writers Market. I'm putting last year's in the mail."
I had joked that one day we would have our very own bookshelf. It was just a joke. But then our first member had her book published, then another and another. Today we have over two dozen books to our name. That shelf is starting to fill up. I even dedicated my first book to the group, along with my mother and my husband. Twelve years later and it's a very different writing life.
Oh, and just one thing. Did I mention I've never actually met any of my friends face to face? Or even spoken on the phone: A pretty old-fashioned way of communicating when you think of it. Sometimes I think we're not unlike Helene Hanff, Frank Doel and the staff of, 84 Charing Cross Road. Thomas Lask, writing in The New York Times about Hanff's book, said, "Here is a charmer: a 19th-century book in a 20th-century world." Perhaps one day, we'll be a 20th-century book in a 21st-century world. It is all down to the written word and that Internet thing.