Written by A Guest Author

Writing Partnerships: When Two Heads are Better Than One

By John Dorroh  

In the spring of 2014 I found myself at the post-funeral party for a friend’s husband. He was a member of a local band, well loved, and had a great sense of humor. He told his wife to throw a party in his honor a week after he was buried.

I didn’t know everyone there, and I was sitting at the dining room table listening to the conversations.

“What do you do for a living?” asked one of the attendees.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

All of a sudden people stopped talking. I might as well have said, “I have leprosy.” The music continued. I think it was Martha and the Vandellas.

“I’m a writer, too,” said a tall lady who approached the kitchen table where I was sitting. “I overheard you. Hope you don’t mind me butting in.”

She sat down and we shared a bit of our writing histories. Beth had received an MFA in Creative Writing more years ago than she cared to talk about, writing poetry for classes mostly.

“But I’ve stopped writing,” she admitted. “I want to start again.”

I shared with her that I, too, had written a lot of cheesy poetry, and had had some luck with flash fiction and other genres.

“My poetry lacks substance,” I admitted. “We should meet up and write.”

The beginning of a journey together

That short exchange started a writing partnership that has lasted almost six years. Every Friday night Beth travels from St. Louis over the Mississippi River into Illinois to a small remodeled farm house that has a Magic Table in the kitchen.

I learned that her seven-month-old grand-daughter died of SIDS.

“We put her to bed one night a healthy baby girl, and in the morning she was gone.”

It was a horrible story, one that most parents tuck in the back of their minds: “…What if…”  In the course of about a year and a half, Beth went deep, pulling up feelings that came out in her poetry. She is able to crack a joke now about how my roommate and I bore witness to one “dead-baby” poem after another. But it was necessary for her to deal with these emotions head-on.

I watched Beth struggle with her feelings, expressing them in her poetry that can accurately be described as dark and depressing…but necessary. It was safe in our house for her to cry, do whatever she felt needed to be done.

It was clear that our writing relationship had become one of a mutual symbiosis. For instance, my poetry began to have a new depth; my voice had emerged and I felt confident. This was a result of tapping into the energy of Beth’s writing.

After reading one of my first published poems, “A Brief History of Sitting Down,” Beth shared with me that my imagination gave her just cause for being more creative in the topics and content that she chose. She was rounding the corner, moving away from grief, feeling her way into less-emotionally-draining topics.

Another writing literary device that I had used quite effectively was listing. She included some lists in appropriate places in a few poems, giving her work another layer of depth.

We both laugh about how she’s become my on-site editor. How many writers can say that their personal editor drives 35 miles every Friday to help them improve their work?

A typical Friday session…

By day Beth works as a recruiter and does so from her apartment. She can work anywhere there’s a Wi-fi signal. Usually she works enough during the week so that she can stop early on Friday and leave St. Louis before 4:00 in order to avoid the rush-hour. She arrives at the farmhouse about 5:00.

As far as sustenance goes, I provide the solids (hummus, olives, carrots, celery, crackers, etc.) and she brings the liquids (red wine, mainly).

We set up our computers across from one another at the Magic Table and catch up on our lives. And then she usually looks over the top of her monitor and says, “Okay, whatcha got?”

That is my cue to read any poem or other writing that I’ve done during the week. Since I don’t work full-time any longer, it’s normal for me to have more to read.

After I read my first poem, she comments. Suggestions such as “Have you thought about deleting that last stanza?” and “I didn’t hear any ‘bumps’ except for a few stray words.”  She might walk around to take a look at my screen to point out what she’s talking about.

I take her advice 90% of the time, because 90% of the time she’s right. This isn’t to say that she expects me to take her advice, nor does she intend to influence me or alter my voice. But Beth is a person who’s written some serious poetry and has the degree to prove it (not that having a degree is necessarily a prerequisite to good writing). I listen and learn.  I play with her suggestions to see how they fit. She’s usually spot on.

Conversely, when I listen to her read, I do the same thing for her. My ears are open to pick up “bumps” and “hiccups.” Over time I’ve come to realize that my feedback is more global whereas Beth’s feedback for me is specific. But it works for both of us, and that’s what counts.

   A note on reading poetry aloud…

Reading poetry aloud is important. We’ve met a few writers who assert that poetry is meant to be read silently, and although we respect that philosophy, we disagree wholeheartedly.

We read our poetry aloud in the farmhouse kitchen as well as at our bi-weekly writer’s meeting in Carlinville, IL. The Guild participants there volunteer to read their work – whatever it is –aloud and we are free to offer constructive criticism.

Poems have been a part of the oral tradition forever. They were used to pass on cultural beliefs, family stories and ideas. Poems are written with the ear in mind. For example, W.H. Auden, the British poet, once said, “No poem, which when mastered, is not better heard than read is good poetry.” In other words, poetry seems to work better through the ears than the eyes.

Poetry & Wine

In the fall of 2017 we befriended the owner and his right-hand manager of an eclectic wood shop in the small river city of Grafton, Illinois, about 30 minutes north of St. Louis. Drinking wine one evening around the fireplace in the funky shop, we asked Dan if he’d ever hosted a poetry reading, or any type of reading for that matter. No, he hadn’t but he was open to the idea.

   So Beth and I, not knowing if we’d have an audience, worked up a fairly short  program of poems with a fine array of cheeses and wines, which we brought with our own money. There was no admission, just an invitation to come and listen to us read. It was amazing! I think we had about 35 people show up at that first reading in October.

The program schedule went like this: I read about 4-6 poems, then Beth read the same number. We had an intermission and invited participants to mingle and refill their wine glasses and eat more cheese and snacks. Then we reversed the order and each of us read the same number. That was the birth of “Poetry & Wine,” a bi-monthly event that was always well-attended.

For the second installment we invited writers from our writing group to read short pieces of fiction, poems, whatever they wanted within a set time limit. Other poets began to hear about “Poetry & Wine” and asked if they could read. Our partnership seemed to be growing.

Beth and I realized that we needed to connect with other poets and support them however we could. We started attending readings in the St. Louis area and went to Portland, Oregon, in March, 2019, for the AWP (Association of Writers and Presses) convention where we were asked to participate. Beth had always bought poets’ books, and I followed suit. My collection currently fills three shelves in my bedroom.

Beth’s first book was released on May 1 (“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe,” Animal Heart Press) with her second one slated later in 2019. Although I have not had a book of poetry published (yet), I have had about 150 poems published since we started writing together. We both feel that submitting to literary journals is of utmost importance.

Each time I receive a rejection, I send the publisher a “Thank you for your time” sort of message and then forward Beth a copy. She does the same with me. These exchanges serve as reminders to brush off the dust, resubmit, and write new material. Without having formed this relationship with her, I believe that I would have thrown in my literary towel years ago.

We have learned in the last six years that both of us need each other for all of the reasons above. Accountability is of utmost importance. We need positive reinforcement, a critical eye, and someone with whom to grow in our literary trek. For us, two heads are definitely better than one.


Bio:  John Dorroh is a former secondary science teacher who used writing and reading strategies to help his students understand principles and concepts. He writes mainly poetry and short fiction and the occasional rant. Dorroh has one book of flash fiction to his credit with a sequel being considered. He also has about 150 published poems in both on-line and print journals. He splits his time between Illinois and Mississippi and travels as often to cool places such as Iceland, Ireland, and the New Orleans area.

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