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An Email to a Friend About Writers' Group

Back in April I wrote this to a writer I am mentoring. It's an artifact from the intense days of the pandemic shutdown.

What a wonderful email. I so appreciate it. I apologize if I gave the impression I was offended at anything. Not at all. It didn't cross my mind. First, you didn't say anything that was remotely offensive, and second, I'm not easily offended. I used to be, but I got over that tendency.

Anyway, your comments about the writing group make me reflect on a larger issue. For the last two or three months our group has been forced to separate and I think also rethink our priorities about how we spend our time. I know I have.  With the shutdown, my life went from totally involved in several groups to just about nothing but sitting at a computer. Normally in April I would be out three nights a week with concerts, events, etc. on campus or things at church or other places. Now, like everyone, I spend the day pretty much the same. And the problem is that at 64 I've gotten used to it!  I don't like that I have, but I have. And some point I'll have to go back to the other way of living and don't know if I want to, as far as being so busy, so booked up on things that largely did not benefit me that much or anyone else. My point is that I am going to have to think hard about what these things will be like, especially since all those things are the enemy of writing and sometimes of relationships and even authenticity.

I'm about to go into a rant here about writers' groups, so let me preface it by saying that maybe you can just continue with the people whose opinions and knowledge you trust the most, and maybe your own passion will keep the group going when the others are flagging. This situation has really messed with people's minds and emotions. I see it with the students so much and their ability to focus. I spend a lot of emotional energy just keeping my life normal and focused, (like making myself shower everyday no matter what, which seems small) and I think that is true of a lot of people, and some people, especially I think younger people, do not have the resources mentally or emotionally or in their relationships to keep focused.  A lot of our students just fell off the map and didn't finish the semester because of the shutdown. 

I said all that to say that I wonder if the folks going separate ways in the writers' group is a direct result of the pandemic or the pandemic just contributed a little to it.  I hope it's the pandemic and afterward they will regroup. A writers' group does take some effort, though. It really does. I have to read a lot of people's writing some weeks--I had five this week, ten pages each, and sometimes I just don't have anything to say. They are either fine, and moving along with the story, and the writing is good, or the whole concept is so weird or flawed that I want to say scrap it, or the concept is good but the writing is bad. One older lady in our group is writing her memoir and it's so boring, ("we went to the zoo. I had never been to a zoo.  We saw elephants....") but she could make it interesting because of her unique background but she seems reluctant to write about that.

It also makes me wonder if a writers' group is better if everyone is writing the same genre. Like poetry, short fiction, novels, etc.  If everyone wrote the same kind of thing, they would have a shared focus and could study that genre more. On the other hand, I think there would be more competition and even, from some mean people, sabotage, or at least comparison: "My poems are better than her poems." In my group, we have poetry, short essay (like for Chicken Soup), long historical novels, memoir, and short stories. That's a good variety.  I can critique poetry because I've taught literature, but I don't write poetry, ever.  My poems stink; they sound like Dr. Seuss. 

However, the variety means you get people who critique something harshly because it is "not what they read." My attitude toward that is, tough, other people are reading yours and it's not what they read normally. Thankfully no one in our group writes romance! But this came up recently in our group with two new writers. A man sent in his first chapter of a novel that was to say the least racy. The first chapter, the first page, was a sex scene, pretty explicit (not as explicit as some, but still kind of shocking for our group.) One member, also new that I had invited because she was struggling with some personal issues, roasted him. I told him not to send that kind of writing to her anymore. I'm annoyed with her but I was also annoyed with him for sending that without warning and thinking a sex scene would be okay for his first piece to the group! I kind of wondered, this is creepy. But the book is about two people who have an affair and struggle with it spiritually. Well, who is his audience? A secular audience that would be okay with the sex scene would be put off with the spirituality, and the spiritual audience would say what is up with the sex on the first page (talk about intimate body parts, etc.)  So I'm going to have to deal with him as well as my friend.  Sigh.  It's too much like my job.

Well, enough of that. Sorry.  I really appreciate your email and its thoughts about writing. Good writing is very hard work. Those who don't write don't know that.  They think it's easy, but one famous writer said it was like sitting at a typewriter and opening up a vein, in the sense that you're putting your life blood into it.  I can relate.

There is a book out called Grit. It is about learning and how much it takes to become really good, expert at something. She claims from her research (and she's a pretty credentialed person) that it takes10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. For example, professional golfers, really good musicians. Now that means over someone's life time, not in a year. For example, we have a violin teacher at the college who is brilliant, but she is in her forties and has played for decades and practices every day for extended periods. Writing is the same thing. Now, the 10,000 hours for us would include reading and especially reading about good writing.  I don't say that to say you have to spend decades before you can write---you already have spent that time. I say it because writing is hard work and you shouldn't get discouraged. Your writing is very good. But I know that there are lots of ways I can improve and I think even the Stephen Kings of the world could improve and learn more. 

All that to say, you have great passion for what you are doing, and that's major. I enjoy reading your work and look forward to more.

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