What Keeps My Writing Alive: The Long-Distance Free Write

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Belle Brett has just written a great blog post on what keeps her writing alive, and I wanted to add onto that idea. For me, it’s exchanging free writes with a friend in Virginia. Like the long-distance romance or long-distance marathons, exchanging free writes over a distance runs the risk of failure. Lovers without regular exchange fall apart, and long-distance runners require solo discipline.


My friend Cate and I have been doing long-distance free writes for over a decade. Wait. A decade and a half. We met at a writing workshop led by Abigail De Witt, formerly of Cambridge (Lili, Dogs), who taught us to respond to each other’s writing with kindness but also with attention to language and emotional context. After the workshop was over, Cate and I started our long-distance relationship. At a given time, say Mondays at 5:00 p.m., one of us called the other. The caller always had the responsibility of the prompt. We’d chat for a while then we’d get the prompt, hang up the phone, write for fifteen minutes, call back, and read to each other.

When Cate describes the hills of Charlottesville, the parlors of Virginia, and every porch she has ever had, I fall in love with her choice of words and the cadence of her prose. Some years ago, she gave me the prompt “train” and immediately I felt I was back on the bullet train from Leningrad to Moscow. She told me I should write a novel, and dear reader, I did.

Our prompts have varied. We use lines from prose and poetry, words heard on the street, historical events, and our own pasts. We’ve also sent each other prompts through the mail to be opened just before writing. We’ve taken breaks when one of us was overworked or went on vacation, but we’ve written through job changes, moves, and the death of both of our mothers.

How does this exchange help me aside from setting aside time every week? The mutual trust and admiration allows me to open up and make connections between my thoughts and emotions with words. Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist for the Guarneri quartet, wrote about how the presence of cellist Jacqueline du Pre´ allowed the quartet to enliven a recording session. It was the end of the day, and the quartet’s energy was flagging, when she dropped by and asked if she could just sit in and listen. In Indivisible by Four, Steinhardt writes that the quartet came to life, reinvigorated “by a listener with ears, a heart and a deep sensibility.”

Cate and I provide each other that kind of attentiveness, which enlivens our writing and our lives. We’ll go on writing until one of us writes the other’s epitaph. I hope that’s a long way away.

6 comments

  1. What a wonderful piece! In the world of dance, authentic movement in particular, I’ve learned the importance of a witness–someone who watches without judgement, and with a compassionate gaze. I’ve been amazed by how this motivates me–not to show off but to go deep into myself and be more fully myself. Pat has helped me realize how this same principle can work in writing. There’s pleasure in writing alone, but writing for one’s ideal reader–that sounds like pleasure doubled.

  2. Cynthia Johnson

    Pat, you describe the willingness to be available for another writer as paramount to the fidelity of friendship, but more importantly it’s required to become a better writer. I know the treasure Cate has in you because your generosity has also been the basis of our friendship. Thank you for the space in your life you’ve reserved for me, you know you have one with me.

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