How to write using the buddy system

I first learned the phrase “buddy system” in Boy Scouts as a safe way of learning to swim. If a buddy was nearby, he could help save you from drowning.

Drowning is not a bad metaphor for parts of the writing process. I’ve been drowning, at times, in information, in contradictory advice, even in language, wishing I had a writing buddy to save me.

Actually, I have used a buddy on occasion. His name is Thomas French, and he brings to the buddy system some great credentials: a strong career as a writer of narratives for newspapers, authorship of three books, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and recent experience as a teacher of young writers and reporters at his alma mater, Indiana University.

If we were swimming and not writing, I’d describe Tom as a lifeguard quality buddy. Think Maxwell Perkins channeling David Hasselhoff.

I’ll get to how Tom helped me when I was treading water on a book project, but since this was — to change the metaphor — a tag-team, I’ll start with how I helped him on the project that became the book “Zoo Story.”

At the time, Tom was in the draft stage of a newspaper series that would become the basis for his book. He was struggling with the architecture of Day One. His narrative goal was to get 11 elephants from Africa to a zoo in Tampa. He had dynamic stuff, including the extreme care taken with a group of super strong elephants tranquilized and then crowded in the hull of a cargo plane. The handler had a dark fantasy in which the unhappy herd busts through the bulkhead, through the cockpit, flying like Dumbos out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Should that scene come first, or should the story begin with the eccentric curator of the zoo back in Tampa, awaiting to escort the elephants to their new home? Tom had to create some movement back and forth between Africa and Florida, but wanted to get the sequence of the actions and points of view just right.

My role was to listen. We sat in a booth at a sports bar with his wife, Kelley Benham, a strong writer and editor in her own right. As Tom talked, I could hear him moving the chess pieces of his story around in his mind. At which point, one of us reached over and grabbed five packets from containers at the edge of the table. Three were white — Fresh Nap, moist towelettes. The other two were pink — Sweet’N Low. For the next half-hour or so, we moved the packets – each representing a major section of the story – across the table like two crazed three-card monte dealers.

  • Decision in Tampa to acquire the elephants
  • African handler determined to save the animals from execution
  • Preparations for arrival of elephants
  • Eleven elephants on a plane over the Atlantic
  • Pachyderms land in Tampa and take their first ride on an American Interstate highway

If I offered Tom some specific advice, it would have been framed as a question: “What if the story began with the elephants on the plane and the dream of the handler?” But I have no recollection of my writing buddy ever taking my advice.

My job is not to solve his problems. It is to give him the chance to think out loud and, as a result, gain momentum and confidence that he can escape the undertow of indecision and procrastination.

Oh, I still have those five packets as part of a little writing shrine in my office.

While Tom worked on the book version of “Zoo Story,” I sat in an office about 50 steps from his, working on the manuscript of what would become “The Glamour of Grammar.”

Now it was my turn to risk drowning, flailing away at tasks, without a clear purpose and direction. I missed my first deadline, a miss that felt like failure – even humiliation. I was granted an extension of four months, but now the digital clock was ticking like an episode of “24.”

My buddy came to the rescue, however indirectly. Picture us coming into the office in the morning and writing hard up until the lunch hour.  It’s not plumbing or construction work, I know, but it does build an appetite.

A drive to a favorite local eatery, The Banyan, sparked the conversation. We loved sitting in a favorite booth, which jokingly became known as Poets’ Corner, a perfect place for serious debriefing. We made no decision to do this, but usually one of us did most of the talking. Whoever felt like talking shared his enthusiasms, problem solving, and little epiphanies.

I remember one key period in which I confessed to Tom that the reason I had missed my deadline on “The Glamour of Grammar” was because “I didn’t follow the advice I offered everyone else in ‘Writing Tools.’ ” We both laughed at the “physician, heal thyself” moment.

Each day, I did something to build momentum: create a new set of files, with each file representing a potential chapter; consolidate the chapters I had already written; build a chapter by chapter story chart on a bulletin board, using index cards. By reporting these to Tom, I turned negative inertia into positive momentum, leading to the most furious weeks of writing I had ever experienced. There were no drugs involved – except caffeine – but I wrote so quickly and so much that there were moments I felt like Kerouac blasting out “On the Road” on a single long roll of teletype paper.

Tom’s responses to me became predictable and supportive: “You’re on a roll, buddy.” “Keep goin’, Go Go [my nickname at The Banyan].”

Here’s how Tom remembers it: “As panicked as you felt during that period when you asked for the deadline extension, I was probably twice as freaked out facing my own deadline. I do not know how I would have gotten through that terror and that pressure without you.  And that’s a fact.” Cue bromance music. (There’s some good karma in being able to get over your own panic by helping a friend get over his.)

I handed in a manuscript about a month ahead of the new deadline.  My reckless enthusiasm had created a new problem.

“You better go back and read your contract,” said my agent Jane Dystel. My publisher was expecting a manuscript of about 65,000 words. “You’ve turned in 130,000 words,” said my editor, Tracy Behar.  My adrenaline, enhanced by Tom’s unceasing encouragement, had fueled a manuscript that was twice the desired length.

Over the next three months, a 100-chapter book had to be cut to 50 chapters, but, oh, what joyous work that turned out to be. How much better to have the cupboard full of stuff – including things you don’t need or can throw away – than to open the door each day and stare at cobwebs on empty shelves.

What I am about to say next is crucial to the strength and durability of the buddy system. Most of the work (and play) that Tom and I do in support of each other does NOT involve the reading of texts. I may be wrong, but I can’t remember Tom reading a single chapter of “The Glamour of Grammar” in advance of publication.

That was not what I needed from him. There are folks called editors who read the chapters and guide textual revisions. We are in it for something bigger, a sustaining relationship – Hawkeye and Chingachgook – brothers in the word.

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  • ClaytonBurns

    Your method obviously worked for you, Roy. For journalism students I recommend Dialogue Notebooks. A Mead 5 subject 400 ruled pages is good. (It might be going too far to say that I always have three uni-ball micros, black, on hand.)

    The idea of the Dialogue Notebook is that it is meant to combine talk and written text, to concentrate your mind and strengthen the hand-eye-ear-tongue system. I write on my side, and the partner writes or sketches on the other. There seems to be a mystique to this physical way of doing it, and it does provide valuable evidence about how people think and express themselves in discourse. Questioning can be flipped back and forth. You can also have free journal entries.

    Older people may be quite reluctant at first, but younger people enjoy it, more than chatting online.

    It would be a good technique for TAs and students, as well as student-to-student.

    It is a warmer format than just listening to lectures. It builds a bond, if it works, that you cannot always get from just talking.

    I wish that this method had been in use to supplement my classes, many of which were cold format.