A Writing Group’s Writer

On August 3rd at 6pm, Buffalo Street Books hosted Leslie Daniels for a discussion of her critically acclaimed novel/fictional memoir, Cleaning Nabokov’s House. (For a review of the book on our blog, follow this link. Or, watch the book trailer here.)The discussion was open to the public, and followed suit with the bookstore’s ongoing commitment to Ithaca’s literary community with their “Local Authors” reading and discussion series.

Leslie Daniels is as charming, cynical, and hilarious in person as she is in Cleaning Nabokov’s House. As jittery and strong-minded as a modern-day Katharine Hepburn (who is, in fact, a distant cousin), Daniels leaned forward eagerly for most of the discussion, elbows on knees, as if she were reassuring the audience that she’d meet us halfway. After each question, Daniels raked her fingers through her hair, and answered with an endearing mix of flightiness and conviction.

The questions were what one might expect at a discussion with other writers, amateur and professional, in attendance. Where do you get your ideas? Do you write every day? Are you in a writing group? Would you advise it? How did you decide what parts of Ithaca to fictionalize? And the question perhaps most eagerly listened to – why the whorehouse? To all of these, Daniels responded thoughtfully and openly. But the question and answer to which she kept returning was that of the writing group. Yes, Daniels is in a writing group – and it is to that which she ascribes much of the book’s vitality and ultimate success.

She described how her writing group was more invested in the novel and its characters than even she was. In fact, she couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with their appetite for the story. Speaking as a writer, a main fear when embarking on a new idea or project is that your brainchild won’t matter to anyone but you – like an ugly baby, it will remain forever howling in its crib. To have others more excited about your work-in-progress than you are seems a great and rare gift. So should all writers join a writing group? Like practicing an instrument, writing is an essentially solitary act, and sometimes a lonely one. Presenting a manuscript in its developing stages to a group of other writers, even those whom you (hopefully) trust and respect, can be intimidating. For the benefits to outweigh the fear factor, it seems necessary to examine what writing groups actually do for writers.

First of all, they provide deadlines. It’s difficult to push yourself to write if you know that you’ll be the only one judging yourself in the end for slacking off or being defeatist. If you have six or eight other pairs of eyes looking at you – suddenly the deadline seems much more than just a half-hearted attempt to excel. Second, writing groups provide an invaluable opportunity to revise and edit and revise again, under the direction of others who are working just as hard as you to produce a work they’re proud of. Not only that, but it allows you to see how other writers work – which may provide you with a method that actually suits you much better than what you’d previously used.

Writing groups also provide a safety net. They give you a community of other authors with whom to bat ideas back and forth. This in turn provides the encouragement to improve the good ideas, and the clarity (and honesty) to toss out the bad ones. And finally, presenting your novel to a writing group is great preparation for presenting your novel to the wider publishing industry. It forces you to communicate your ideas for the book in a lucid and compelling fashion – a necessary skill if you are writing a proposal, and a skill that is hard to practice if your novel spends most of its time inside your head.

Whether it’s the writing group’s doing or Daniels’ own knack for storytelling, she has certainly mastered the art of gleaning material from her own life and making it appealing to others. But this gathering is far from orderly. In an interview with Ron Hogan, Leslie Daniels explains that “I write in a very unruly way, like digging holes in the backyard, looking for dinosaur bones or gold.” Given this clip from “Bringing Up Baby,” it seems Daniels’ family ties have served her well.

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