Back To The Writers’ Group

You may remember that a month ago I went to a meeting of the local writers’ group for the first time. It was interesting enough to warrant a second trip and for me to think that this time I should bite the bullet and take something of my own to read out. So yesterday evening, I didn’t let the rain and the dark and the freezing cold or even the threat of snow deter me, despite the huge temptation to stay warm indoors, cuddled up with a book. Instead I ventured out to yet another new location, this one on the far side of town near the hospital. Don’t you hate having to track down unfamiliar houses in the dark? I’d been told very firmly to approach the house from one direction, as it had a horseshoe-shaped drive that we were all to park along, facing forward. It was, apparently, number 300 in the road, and I drove along at five miles an hour, thankful the rain and the cold and the dark had kept everyone else sensibly indoors, peering at gateposts and house signs and the big wheelie bins that sometimes have the house number daubed in white paint on the side. In the end, running out of houses before the entrance to the hospital, I turned into a driveway, thinking I could always turn around and retrace my route, only to find I had arrived at my destination. But then I wasn’t so sure. The person who entered the house in front of me looked like he might have spent the previous week sleeping on one of the benches in front of the hospital. He was warmly greeted by our hostess, who then turned to look at me with some suspicion. Disconcerted, I blurted out some explanation about having contacted the group leader, wondering whether I had arrived by mistake at a gambler’s anonymous meeting.  ‘Have you wiped your feet properly?’ she asked.

Like the last time, I entered another sitting room full of unfamiliar faces. Only one person I recognized from the last meeting was there, and we smiled at each other with gratitude. I made a more careful choice of chair this time, on the grounds that anyone can make a mistake, but to make it twice is unreasonable. This one was a rocking chair, and it was comfy with cushions, but I later discovered that agitated rocking whilst nervously waiting for my turn made me feel seasick. Still, it was better than before. Our host for the evening was an elderly lady who had evidently lived in her house for many, many years. The room was choc-a-bloc full of furniture and ornaments that clearly had a history attached to each one, abstract brass plaques on the walls that must have come from foreign travel, black and white photographs of attractive young girls who were probably now bringing up children or grandchildren of their own. The fluted glass bowls on the coffee tables held twisted cheese straws that everyone was politely ignoring, and I thought of my son, who adores them, and who would have hoovered them up in about five seconds flat.

Then we got onto the reading. There were eight people to read and a quick calculation told me I’d be going 6th. The first man to read produced the introduction of a non-fiction book he was beginning to write on folk music, proposing that it was a way of uncovering a kind of hidden history of Britain. The next woman read a really excellent scene from a historical detective fiction novel, in which a retarded boy charged with carrying an important message was set upon by a gang of teenagers out to cause trouble. Then came the woman who I knew from last time, who read some more of her parallel world novel, which hadn’t improved much in the interim. It was the same set-up as before, ten minutes reading followed by five or so of questions and the most vociferous member of the group was turning out to be the homeless-looking type who’d preceded me through the doorway. He had an extraordinary style of giving critique, which consisted in rapping out a number questions to the person who had read, carefully avoiding any eye contact, picking up on tiny points of grammar as well as overarching issues of intention, genre and content. Then he would subside back in his seat with a hangdog look on his face that made it seem incredible to think he had spoken at all. If anyone attempted to interrupt him in full flow, he would sigh loudly with irritation and keep talking. If he didn’t like the passage being read he would slump back onto the sofa with exquisite boredom. So I couldn’t wait to hear what he was going to read. I wasn’t disappointed. He introduced it as surreal fantasy and handed us all copies of the typescript. The story concerned the adventures of Leonard the mutant lemon (one of a new superrace who had taken over the world, humans being consigned to theme parks) who in a series of brief vignettes, fell in love with a lime, fought off an attack of marmite soldiers, discovered existentialism, married, saved the earth from an alcoholic dragon, etc. It was extraordinary, and I had to applaud him silently for having produced a piece of writing that was destined to foreclose all possible questions while the audience sat in mild shock. I must also say that the way he read it, in a droll, dead-pan style, made it quite amusing at times, although the text didn’t quite stand up to the cold light of day when my son (who finds it hard to believe a grown-up would write such a thing) introduced it to his friends today.

There was only one more person to read before me and I was beginning to feel nervous. Why should it be that one gets an attack of anxiety before having to read a small passage of writing out loud? It makes no sense at all, really. Next up was an older man who read in a rich, rolling Dutch accent. By dint of keeping his head down and reading steadily and rhythmically, without notable paragraph breaks, he managed to read for much longer than anyone else. It was a family story, this part concerning a man whose unfaithful wife had died and a painting that he seemed to both loathe and hold very dear. It was very well written but the story was so smooth it made no impact on me at all. The only thought I had in my head was that it could do with a good edit. He was obviously well known to certain members of the group, who asked him where he was in the narrative. He was still in 1776, he said, where he had been all summer, apparently. But he hoped to make it to the present day by Christmas. When someone suggested that some of the phrasing sounded a little strange, he replied ‘Would you have felt that if you had not known I was Dutch? I don’t think so.’ Oh okay, I thought, someone who won’t change a comma in his precious work. It then transpired that he had written a whopping three hundred thousand words of this novel. But, he declared, he wrote in such a pared back to the bone way that any thought of an edit was out of the question. ‘I have been over and over this section,’ he said ‘and it would be impossible to take any single word out of it.’ Pass it over here, I thought to myself, but it did not seem worthwhile, or polite, to say so.

So, finally, my turn had come. I was just reaching for my pages when the young man in the leather jacket interrupted. He was so sorry but his wife had been away for a while and was expecting him home, and he was off on travels himself the following day, and in any case, he had to leave soon, so could he possibly read next? It wasn’t okay at all; I was longing to get it over with, but what can you say in such circumstances? I felt, as I usually feel, that he had considered it perfectly fine to jump the queue before a woman, whereas he would not have done so to a man. But I could be being unfair; none of us could have guessed that the Dutchman would read for so long. Anyway, we were then subjected to a strange and disturbing passage about a young man who seemed to be suffering from an unexplained plague of flying scarab beetles digging into his flesh, but who then ended up rollicking in the ocean with some nubile maidens. It made no sense, but guess what? He told us that in a few pages his narrator would wake up to find it had all been a dream. I have no patience with writers who insist that readers are happy to wait for chapter three to explain everything that’s happened so far. Waiting for the incomprehensible to fall into place is not a readerly delight, just a pain in the neck.

And so, finally, finally, I picked up my pages and shuffled them, only for the Dutchman, who was seeing the man in the leather jacket out, to reappear apologetically in the doorway. We had all parked in a neat row according to orders, but now we were going to have to shuffle cars so the young man could leave. Inevitably, I found myself back in the freezing cold, reversing my car into the narrow straits of an unfamiliar garden, trying to avoid a row of little white stones like shark’s teeth bordering the curved lawn, and a range of bicycles that were just longing to topple like a row of dominoes if I grazed one. By the time I returned, the party was warming up a bit and the other writers were laying waste to the cheese straws. ‘Do you mind if we munch while you read?’ our hostess asked. I wouldn’t have cared by that point if they’d done the can-can. I finally read my passage, had some interesting feedback, and was much entertained fending off the homeless man’s questions, which he hammered out as fast as I could answer them. I love answering questions. It’s a shame I can’t find a job that means I do it all the time. The last reader of the evening was another elderly lady who was writing a psychological thriller. Her passage saw her detective going undercover in a mental hospital. It was again quite accomplished, but hard to follow because she had a sort of unfortunate speech impediment. We were all rather pooped by that point anyway, so I felt a bit sorry and wished I could have read the typescript. But then we were shrugging on our coats and leaving with the ill-concealed haste that afflicts strangers cooped up together for a whole evening. I returned home and read the adventures of Leonard the lemon to my husband and son, who were amused and baffled in equal measure. Is there anything more extraordinary than the products of the human imagination when let loose? It’s a long, slightly nerve-wracking evening at the writers’ group, but never let it be said that it’s not an entertaining one.


23 thoughts on “Back To The Writers’ Group

  1. Litlove, you write such a delightful account of your evening, even though at times it was clearly agonising. I love how you answered those questions right back at him, and the comment about the can-can had me laughing aloud. Aren’t writers a funny lot?

  2. Oh, Lordy, I’m soooo glad I decided not to go to any more writers’ groups for the foreseeable future – I am traumatised even at one remove!!! Poor you! Though I’m rather taken with Leonard the Lemon. I think I might have met him.



  3. Charlotte, oh you are so very right – writers are just the strangest bunch, but they do make good copy. Like all ‘interesting’ experiences, I got through the evening by thinking how much fun I’d have turning it into a blog post. Am I sick, I wonder, when I only face going out into the world in order to have something new to write about? No, don’t answer that, purely rhetorical! 🙂 Ms Make Tea – yes, we were all pretty much speechless. The writer in question apologised for it being an old piece, but the hostess said, no, no, it had been most entertaining to listen to. Then the writer told her that she had in fact been present at its first airing, a couple of years back, but she must have been so traumatised by the event that she’d wiped it from her mind. That was a funny moment, too. Anne – Rofl! I’m taken with Leonard, too, but cannot, alas, claim acquaintance. 🙂 I think it’s good for me to practice being not so nervous in social situations, although of course that would mean being less nervous and I don’t think I’ve quite got there yet. Never mind! I live in hope! love and hugs!

  4. Litlove, it’s a small world. I was checking out a friend’s brand new shiny blog and clicked on a link to one of our other friends (in Oklahoma City). Both blogs are all about reading and writing and I was thinking, “Perhaps I’ll tell them about ‘Tales from the Reading Room,” and was of course happily surprised to scroll down her list of links and find yours already there. Clicking on the link to yours brought me to your writing group experience, which left me giggling and shaking my head. SO familiar, as I’ve been a member of a writing group since 1994 (we just this year shook hands and went our own ways.) But we didn’t have a 10 minute time limit so sat through chapters and chapters in some cases, and with one member suffering from dyslexia, hours and hours of painstaking editing. I can remember not getting back home until 3:00 AM at times. Aren’t they something! My group were all very religious women and a couple of men and I the lone aethiest writing about matriarchal societies. I received some looks suggesting I might be the antichrist. Ha!

    Thanks for the short break from endless politics. I think I know that homeless guy! And why do those who refuse to change a comma attend writer’s groups? Are you going back??

  5. Hi litlove,

    I enjoyed reading your dryly amusing account of this writing group. Now I’m going to make like that homeless guy… was this experience of value in writing anything (besides blogging which is valuable of course}? I’ve always been curious about such groups, but always felt too sensitive, or maybe too full of myself, to seek one out.

    You obviously feel that it is of value… is there something specific in the process that you find of most value?


  6. You are so brave! My husband and I started dating after he invited me into his writer’s group, so I count it as a success (!) However, I wasn’t able to share any work with the group until I’d already been attending for months!

  7. This is so well described that it is has restored my good humour after a tedious week away. I could read a whole book of these. Leonard the Mutant Lemon is brilliant. And that rude queue-jumper deserves some narrative punishment (as in being written out of the story in chapter 3). Thanks for enduring the anxiety for the sake of the blog 😉

  8. This is such good stuff, I kept thinking you must have made it up. But I guess ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, like most cliches, become one because it is so true. Not only very funny, but I have an absolutely vivid, detailed picture of the driveway, the room, the people sitting round, the cheese straws 🙂 (helped by knowing Cambridge and the typical kind of houses in that part of town, of course).

    Seriously, I too would like to know your conclusion in due course about whether this might be of any benefit to your writing. I have a feeling that a writing group is a wonderful thing if it ‘gels’. Have read some clearly heartfelt acknowledgements of same in the front of wonderful novels. But one that works, like any group relationship that works, is probably a rare and precious thing.

  9. I’m not sure I could have handled such a silly/agonizing situation with such calm. I probably would have snuck away and never come back when asked to moved my car 🙂 Writers groups can be such an insane bunch and I’m glad it at least gives you material. I hope at some point you will find a group that does more than this one…even if you were generous and said you did get some helpful comments.

  10. Reb – what a lovely story about coming across TFTRR! You made my day with that. But oh my dear, a group going on until three in the morning, now that indicates you have far, far more patience and forbearance than I could ever muster! And spirit too, to present your work to a less than receptive audience – I would love to have been a fly on the wall at one of those meetings 🙂 I have no idea at all why people are ever so precious about their work, and I went because I’m keen to change mine until it says something people want to hear, in a way they can hear it. For that reason, I might go again – but not for a little while! Thanks for a lovely comment. Bluestocking – thank you so much for the address – that explains why I have been having so much trouble leaving comments on your site! I’ll change that. And I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – I fear I may go to these meetings now just to blog about them 🙂 Openpalm – what a lovely, generous offer! Thank you so much. I’ll try not to open the floodgates, now you’ve said that…. Fencer – how happy your questions make me 🙂 The thing is, in the battle to move from academic writing to more commercial writing, I need all the feedback I can get. My husband reads my work, but he’s fond of me and biased. My best friend reads it, but she’s an academic and used to reading difficult, sophisticated writing (although her comments are always very helpful indeed). And sometimes I get blogging friends to read work here on the site, but bless them, they read me because they like what I do anyhow. So I’m always looking for people who don’t know me and might not think they are interested in what I do, to see whether I can win them over. There were useful comments in this respect from the group. I might well go back, but only once I’ve written something new that represents the next step along the way towards commercial writing for me, so I can test the work against a non-partisan, unprepared audience. So the fact people don’t know me is probably one of the most valuable parts of the experience – but alas it doesn’t make for the most comfortable evening! Gentle reader – what a great way to meet a husband! And I don’t blame you at all for taking your time to read. Listening to other people’s work is always interesting and quite informative in its own way. Good on you for plucking up courage in the end! Pete – what a lovely comment – thank you! Delighted to be able to give you a smile during the working day and I love the idea of narrative punishment for queue-jumpers. How just and fitting that would be! 🙂 Jean – honestly, I sat there thinking, you couldn’t make this up! I’m so pleased to know you could picture it. I must say that it’s a great writing exercise for me, having to recreate the evening in 1500 words. I am really wondering whether that isn’t the prime motivation for going! But I find it helpful to try my work out on people who have never read anything of mine before. I’m constantly worrying at the moment whether I can manage to put together whole chapters of non-fiction that sustain the reader’s interest and engagement and don’t shout out the fact I’m an ex-academic. And people who don’t know me will give me a very honest answer about that, too. So for those reasons, it was worth it. It would be lovely to meet someone at one of these evenings that I really click with, but it hasn’t happened yet. Verbivore – why didn’t I think of that! It never occurred to me to sneak away, but what a good idea. I must say, I have yet to gain a very favourable impression of writers from hanging out at these groups. I like the ones I’ve met via blogging much, much more! It’s a really big group of people who are subscribed to this particular writing group, so I still sort of hope I might meet someone I like and who I could really work with. But strangers do give you very truthful opinions of your work, and I need to know the first impression it makes on people. So for that reason, it was worth going.

  11. How could you listen to Leonard the Lemon and not laugh out loud or at the very least snicker behind your hand and then pretend like you had a cheese straw stuck in your throat? You have great self control. Is it bad of me to want you to keep attending this group so I can read your hilarious blog posts about it?

  12. I read this earlier today at work (during a slow moment on the help desk!) and it cracked me up! It was just what I needed-thanks! 🙂 Though I am sorry it was so stressful for you–I would have felt the same nervousness–it is hard to put yourself out there in front of everyone and share your work like that. Especially after so many interruptions. You were very generous to allow them to munch on cheese straws during your reading! Alas I will never know if Leonard the mutant lemon ever makes it into print as I don’t read surreal fantasy, but your excellent rendition was highly entertaining to me and no doubt many, many other readers!

  13. I often find myself composing blog posts as I’m experiencing something, so (thinking about your earlier comment) I don’t think it’s at all unusual to be willing to venture out into the world for the sake of something to blog about! Why else bother to have an experience? 🙂 This group sounds wonderful — I mean, wonderfully strange and interesting. I hope you got some good feedback, but reading your post makes that seem almost beside the point — the interesting thing is to observe the group!

  14. Reading this, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry, or gnash my teeth in agony for you! The whole evening has the sense of the surreal about it, and might make a very good chapter in a novel about mutant writers.

    You are far braver than I to endure an evening like that!

  15. All right, I haven’t laughed this hard since I read David Sedaris’s latest book. I wish I had thought, at the time, to write about my experience when I attended the very snooty, all-female writer’s group that made me feel extremely insecure about my fiction that didn’t “ring true.” Perhaps if I’d done so, I would have seen it for what it was instead of allowing it to paralyze me for a while (a paralysis that all my lovely blogging friends have helped me to overcome).

  16. As I said, my writer’s group was made up of extremely religious women. The young lady with dyslexia was particularly religious. I had to warn her if the chapter I was reading had anything in it such as a kiss, or hand holding, or gasssssppp: sex, so that she could leave the room. Mind you, this lady had six children at the time. Now she has nine and is on husband number 2. Anyway, what makes this so funny, (she would agree) is that her dyslexia often caused her to misspell things. Once she was valiantly trying to create a pretty description and accidentally used the phrase “a slapped hard on.” Of course she meant something completely different and innocent, I can’t remember what, now. But I and the more worldly ladies laughed until we were sobbing. Another time she wrote “She scooped her bowels in the ocean.” Another hysterical evening was had! She toyed with the idea of writing a book made up of her spelling blunders.

  17. Stefanie – on first hearing, it was trying not to let my eyeballs pop that was the biggest challenge. I did sit there with a broad grin on my face, though. But that was okay as he meant it to be funny, and it most certainly was. But your right that years of listening to student essays have given me good self-control 🙂 And I don’t think it’s bad at all – no worse than my wanting to go so that I can write about it afterwards! 🙂 Danielle – I am so very happy to have given you a laugh at work! It was worth going for that alone. That’s so kind of you to say you’d have been nervous too. It’s surprisingly taxing to read work out, which is bizarre when I’ve spent years reading academic lectures and papers that I’ve written. But then, I don’t ask students for feedback. It might have been much scarier if I had! 🙂 Dorothy – you are a woman after my own heart. So glad someone else lives in order to blog – how reassuring! And you’re so right – observing the group was just so intriguing. I am having to keep very quiet indeed about the fact I write a blog though! 🙂 Becca – I had the same sense about the evening itself! It was wonderfully surreal, just a joy in that respect, and so generous of them to hand me such material on a plate. I’m really bad about attending groups and such like because I am not a sociable person, but writing about them afterwards is a lot of fun. Dear Emily – there is nothing on earth like my blog for neutralising experience. I don’t know how I got through awkward, difficult or traumatic experiences before I had it. Now, I can quietly say to myself, this is going to write up SO well, and it all feels much better. I am so glad you have returned to writing, and no harm in considering a post about those snooty writers with the benefit of hindsight, right?

  18. Your account of your writer group is so close to my own past experiences that I wonder why such meetings are universally strange… (I remember an extraordinary session involving Serbian erotica, no member of the group knew exactly how to comment). Anyway, Leonard the Lemon seems intriguing! Do you think it would stand a chance at any editor’s test?

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