THEY’RE NOT FOR
For me, writers’ support groups are a lot like poker players’ support groups. You show up at the door with a warm and fuzzy kumbaya sort of mindset: We’re all gonna sit down and help each other out. But then they deal the cards and instantly it’s every man for himself. Little known fact: 99.999% of writers are basically looking to push their own book, their own short story, and guess what. You are the competition. You are the guy to beat. That’s fair enough, I suppose, but you gotta know that going in.
The first time I showed up at a writers’ group I was completely unaware of the reality of things. This particular writers’ group was a small but boisterous subset of a much larger Art Group with hundreds of members and, I thought it might be fun…
I’d had some luck with a novel, entitled: Playing on the Black Keys, and had just signed a contract to have my art book, A Passion for Metal, published as well. In the grand scheme of things, this is not big potatoes, but for a local writers’ group it was big enough.
I was invited to sit in on a meeting and the first night, I decided to just come, listen, learn a bit and basically just observe. They went around the table, each taking turns reading a scene, or a poem, and then the rest of the members would tear the piece into tiny bloody shreds. It reminded me of Shark Week on PBS. They finally got to a nice silver-haired petite woman sitting next to me who had written a haiku about love. I think there was a butterfly metaphor in there someplace, but I’m not certain.
Now, I didn’t pay a lot of attention in freshman year English, but I do know that haiku is three lines…seventeen syllables. The people around the table began tearing it apart, tearing the very syllables apart. It wasn’t a bad poem. How bad can three lines be? It was about love being a butterfly for godsakes, and I found myself starting to fume.
The woman took it on the chin and folded up her haiku. Then, as new kid on the block, who had no intention of ever returning, I told them that this was the nastiest hatchet-job I’d ever heard…they were supposed to help each other. I told them that even my nasty high-paid New York agent was a whole lot kinder than they were. I pushed my chair back and walked out…quickly, hoping no one would throw their pencils at me…or worse.
I didn’t even make it to the parking lot. They had a real quick meeting… all forty-five seconds. The bottom line was: they wanted me to chair the meetings. They were very flattering and I was exactly what the group needed. How Zen can you get? I was stuck, because I’d just made my speech about how writers were supposed to help other writers out. If I gave them the finger, I’d just be confirming what they thought before.
They wanted to make me president and sit at the head of the table. I declined. I didn’t really think a bunch of adults reading poetry needed a president. I still don’t, but I offered to act as referee for a session or two. Things got better, but I think it was more like that shark week metaphor. They’d had their fill and were content just swimming in circles for a while. To bring the story full-circle, I began getting calls from the sitting president of the big 400+ person art group, asking me to consider running for president of the whole group.
She was and is a very nice personable gal. We’d always been candid with each other in the past and I saw no reason to change that. I told her that I’d had my fill of chairing groups…big-time, and now I just wanted to sit back, throw spit balls, like everyone else and have a little fun. She insisted that I come to a meeting of the secret inner echelon of the movers and shakers of the art group. Long story short, I seriously didn’t want to run the show and I thanked them profusely for thinking of me.
Well…human nature being what it is, at the next writers’ meeting, I showed up for the usual round-the-room readings. Because there were some new members, I let someone else take my spot and said that if there was some time at the end, I’d read the new chapter. At the very end, I stood up, cleared my throat in expectation of reading, and got ambushed. What was truly weird was, I hadn’t even had time to get a sentence out, before the attack took place. I stopped…made note of that fact and wished them well. I found out later that after I’d left, two factions in the tiny group went to war. Two weeks later, the writers’ group was no more.
About six months later, I was invited to join…another writer’s group in a town about half an hour from the first group. Pamela gave me a pep talk. She knows I don’t like being called a quitter…or worse, a chicken, so away we went. This one was run by a literary agent, and I use the term really loosely. But she ruled with an iron hand. There was apparently only ONE way to write a book. Out of curiosity, I googled the gal and ran into a wasp’s nest so bad that several people had created entire websites to warn others about the damage she was doing.
The moral to this story is: making contacts is fine, it’s GREAT and swapping business cards and such has its merits, too. Writers’ groups? Ford doesn’t send its Mustangs over to Chevy to have them critiqued. America doesn’t ask the Soviet Union for advice regarding ICBMs and…well you get the gist.