Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writing Groups Part II (Two days late)

Caught up in holiday madness. I knew I needed to post on Monday, to keep with my new goal, but I was occupied pretty much all day. I am home for the holidays (because I caught a flight early Saturday a.m. out of New York, thereby escaping the blizzard/travel insanity, thank heaven) but I spent Monday and Tuesday occupied with the nephew, who is almost two and can't be left alone for a second. Adorable, if exhausting. But, I owe you all a post this week, and a post you shall get.

I said in my earlier post that writing groups are a tremendously valuable part of the writing process, and I meant it. For my first book, Did I Expect Angels? I know I wouldn't have finished the book without the group. Around Christmas of 2001, I had a general idea and theme in my head, and over that Christmas break from work I sat down at the family computer and wrote about 15 pages. And then I left it. (This was my habit in those days: starting projects and never seeing them through, all the while thinking, "I want to be a writer." Of course, writers have to write--and more than that, they have to finish things. I knew this, but couldn't quite get over that hurdle.) So I had 15 pages and a vague sense of dissatisfaction with my life.

Fast forward to Memorial Day of 2002. I had lunch with a friend, who told me she was also working on some writing projects. We talked it over and agreed that we needed some extra help getting things done (in my case) and getting feedback (hers). So we each recruited a friend and set up an online writers' group. We set up a schedule where every Monday one of us would email the others a selection of pages, maybe 15 - 20 at a time, and the others would have a week to read and write a critique. We'd email our critiques to everyone the following Monday and the next person would email her pages.

Suddenly I had a deadline! I sent out my 15 pages the first week, and I had 3 weeks more to produce 15 pages. And I actually did. I got going and wrote pages! For the first time I had an actual direction and motivation to finish something, and it was wonderful. And I discovered that I was not a great writer. I remember being told that it read like a short story, because I *talked about* things happening, rather than putting the reader in the moment and showing what happened. "Everything just kind of zooms past," was what they said, as well as I can remember. This was a revelation. I had had writing classes in college, but we'd done short stories, where it's more acceptable to sum (some) things up just to conserve space; with a 4000k word limit in many magazines, you know, some summation is in order. But this doesn't apply nearly as much in novels, which I was trying to write.

Through this writers' group, I finished my book. I worked on it actively from that June through January of 2003. I am very grateful to this group.

I cannot say that we were free of drama. There was one member whom I inadvertently offended. Several times. Consistently, weeks on end, it turns out. I have no idea when it began, but apparently it grew and grew until we hit the boiling point, and she sent out comments about my latest installation that ... well, they weren't constructive, they weren't helpful; they were just angry. "I don't like this...I've already read this so many times I don't care..." (yes, she had, but part of the writing group experience is reading revisions) "... I don't agree with this sentiment and I don't care to read anything that says it" etc.

I was confused. My friend told me that this woman was incredibly angry with me because I hadn't begun my critiques with positive comments first. Apparently this is a rule of most writing groups; but I had no idea. And no one mentioned it to me after they noticed that I was ignoring/ignorant of the rule. Angry Woman had sent my friend a draft of an email that she wanted to send to me, telling me how rude I was and how I was affecting her mental health; she was agoraphobic and couldn't hold down a job and unhappy and I was making everything worse. My friend told her not to send the note, that I was just more blunt than other people. So she didn't send it; instead she got angrier and angrier every time I didn't start with the positives. Sigh.

Once I was aware this was a problem, I sent her a note. I apologized for having harmed her so grievously (though I didn't include the sarcasm, I promise I didn't), said I was unaware she'd been having these problems, and maybe she could let me know when I offended her, and we could just start again. Well, this made it worse. She emailed back a nasty note. I wish I remembered what it said! It would make this post a lot more amusing. But I don't remember, so I can only talk about it. (Writing lesson! Talking about things -- aka "telling" -- is not as interesting as showing them!) I do remember she said something like, "I was just being blunt. Maybe you can't handle bluntness." Angry Woman emailed us all and literally asked the other two to take sides, because she couldn't handle being in a group that tolerated my kind of behavior. Please let her know, she said, if we wanted her out of the group. She ended the note with, "I await your decision."

Of course my two other friends wouldn't kick her out. They told her the decision had to be hers, so she needed to let us know if she wanted to continue or not. Within a day there was an email labeled "resignation" in my inbox. (as I think about it, that's not terribly specific; she could have been announcing her resignation to the idea of remaining in the group that included such an ignorant boor as myself.) Consensus on the sane side was that she had some problems bigger than this, and had been looking for a reason/way to get out of the group.

We continued on for a while. It was a lot harder with only three members, however. Somehow, having two weeks in between submitting was quite a bit harder than having three. More than three would have been too long, but two was way too short. We soldiered on as best we could, but also found that only two outside opinions weren't as helpful as having three (even if one of them was angry).

A few months later we recruited another writer, who wrote restaurant reviews (my dream job!), and she was low-drama and low-key and gave helpful critiques. Unfortunately, soon after this, I started grad school. (Unfortunate for me being in the group; not unfortunate for me.) My writing in grad school was focused on stage and screen, and I simply didn't have time to continue writing prose. And if I sent the group my playwriting, by the time I got their comments back I had already submitted that piece of writing and gotten graded on it--the program moved fast. So I had to bow out, and I was sad to do it.

I have great memories of that group. We saw each other through some interesting times and crises and frustrations, buoyed each other through some things, and then I managed to ruin someone's life. I guess I still love them since it was not *my* life that was ruined.

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