Saturday, May 1, 2010

In my tribe

Go to most any writers’ conference and a peculiar strain of war stories often surfaces: viz., tales of the writing group from hell. So plentiful and outrageous are these stories (the curmudgeon who never met a phrase he liked, the woman who wrote solely about elves, etcetcetc) that I actually ducked invitations to writing groups for years.

But I began rethinking my anthrophobia this past fall. At Wordstock I got to meet most of the Seattle 7, a group of amazing writers who met for years and wound up all getting published at the same time. And I organized a panel that was ostensibly about playwriting, but which wound up getting populated by several members of Portland’s Big Brain Trust, including Marc Acito, Storm Large and Cynthia Whitcomb. All these writers clearly had tremendous admiration and respect and bonhomie for each other. You could tell from the way they badgered each other mercilessly in public. I knewI wanted that.

Well. Put an idea out there, Madame Blavatsky sez, and a clarion call ripples through the universe. Post-Wordstock, in a chance conversation with a playwright I know, it came out that we have both been writing novels — for years. We knew we needed the support of a group, but my friend was equally leery of them; she had not had great experiences joining extant meetings. So we started collecting people. We discovered a local director whose first book comes out this fall and who was well into her second manuscript; and then another playwright, who had recently realized her latest script was crying out for a long-form treatment.

Voilà — a gang of four. We’ve been meeting weekly for months now. And while this blog may have languished as a consequence, hey! The novel’s coming along great. The simple fact that I’m committed to providing my gangsters with 10 pages a week whether those pages are gibberish or gold, has been near-miraculous for this scribbler. What I was missing from my writing regimen all along is now embodied in these weekly sessions: an audience. A respondent audience, not a vague abstraction.

What’s fun, too, is that we’re all refugees from the theater. Not that any of us have abandoned the form — quite the contrary. But our theater backgrounds inform our writing in surprising ways. The compression of dialogue, for one. And perhaps even more importantly, our instincts for what constitutes a “scene” in a narrative is, well … theatrical. Aristotelian. Beginnings/middles/ends. We understand how images — and not just words — can give a story tremendous unity.

I love my small tribe and our as-yet unnamed cabal. (Suggestions?) Stay tuned for more dispatches from the trenches.


David Millstone said...

Mead- Suzy Vitello can tell you a lot about writing groups. She's been in a very successful group for years.

Cousin Tabitha (nmrn) said...

Name suggestion: Ink Spots. Sure it's taken, but then again each moment is different than any before it.

Marguerite said...

I am so happy for you and your Muse, Mead. What a lucky group of writers to have found a safe nest.

Possible group names:

The (Portland) Nest.

The Gangsters. (Your word.)

Patrick Wohlmut said...

I wanna play too. :-(

I miss being part of a group that requires you to bring something, anything, to the table every week. I miss having a cabal that keeps me honest and keeps me working. I am very jealous of you right now - as well as being very excited that you have this wonderful opportunity, and such wonderful people to participate with you.

Hmm... Names. I'll think about it and get back to you.

Holly Mac said...

Oh, Mead. I'm jealous too. It's funny to read this because I have been trying to talk myself out of contacting you about forming a writing group for months.

I have a double-sided fear when it comes to writing groups. My first fear is much like you mentioned, the dread of being sidled with naysayers or people who are constitutionally incapable of thinking outside of the box.

My second fear is that I will be the weak leak in the group, the girl writing only about elves, the one who has to look up denouement and didactic in order to understand what the hell everyone else is talking about.

But, as Patrick mentioned, there is that certain something that happens when you are part of a group like that. Your creative spark has a reason to show up, and not just because you've been begging it to show up for months.

Congrats on your group. I look forward to hearing about the updates.

A name? How about the Novel Idealists?