Roomful of Words
Writing is an isolating experience. You sit alone in a room with your thoughts all day, sorting through your feelings and making things up. It’s a private, exhausting process.
One of the reasons I like writing is because it’s so private, but it’s difficult to know if I’m doing anything of value.
Blogging helps alleviate that somewhat; I can see how many people liked my posts, how many people read them, and readers are free to comment. But the rest of my work remains stubbornly separate from everything else.
For a long time I’ve known how to solve this problem, but it’s an ugly solution for someone as introverted as me. I knew I’d have to attend a writers’ group, share my work with complete strangers, pretend to care about their writing and their ideas, and gain feedback from them.
My work feels raw and personal to me- there are few people I trust to read it- and the idea of sharing it with strangers filled me with visceral discomfort.
I found a writers’ group on Meetup easily enough, signed up in June, and then made an excuse at the last minute as to why I couldn’t make the June meeting.
I also skipped July.
This is a problem, because I’ve hit a roadblock with the novel I’ve written. The novel itself is great- I honestly believe it’s the best novel yet written about Asperger’s Syndrome- but I don’t know a whole lot about the publishing world.
I know that when you send your work to a publisher or an agent they usually want a cover letter or a query letter and a synopsis of the book.
A synopsis is supposed to look like the description you see on a book’s dust jacket. I wrote one for my novel, it was an excruciating process, and I had no idea if it was any good. I was worried that if the synopsis was crap I might be sabotaging myself by sending it out to publishers.
So I needed help. I hate needing help.
The writing group’s profile on Meetup suggested printing off ten copies of whatever work you wanted to share. I don’t have a printer, so I had to use Hannah’s.
“I don’t even know if I want to go to this thing,” I said.
“Well, figure it out before you print out ten copies of the synopsis. I don’t want you wasting paper.”
“I know that I need to go, but it’s going to be a shit show.”
“Maybe you’ll make friends.”
“I hate people.”
I printed off ten copies, put my shoes on and got change for the subway, feeling like I was on my way to a funeral.
“Have fun,” said Hannah.
“Unlikely,” I said.
The meeting was held in a pub. When I got there it occurred to me that I had no idea what any of the people looked like. I wandered around inside, trying to find people who appeared to be writers, but had no luck. I stepped outside, thought about going home, then tried again.
This time I spotted a cluster of odd-looking people in an alcove at the back. They looked like they weren’t accustomed to being in public.
The facilitator introduced herself to me, and I squeezed into a chair in a corner; there were about ten people in the alcove, and more trickled in. An elderly woman sat next to me, and two middle-aged women sat across the table from me, one thin and tense and one stocky and gregarious. The alcove was crowded and noisy, even as the facilitator cleared her throat and started the meeting. She greeted us, and explained the standard procedure. I zoned out immediately, and heard only snatches of what she said.
“… two dollars a person due to operating costs…
…other meeting held in a community centre…
…I know this isn’t going to be a problem, but I want to emphasize the importance of constructive criticism…
…around in a circle and introduce ourselves. Just say your name and what you’ve been working on.”
She turned to me expectantly.
“We’re starting with me?” I said.
“If that’s all right.”
I stared at the floor, gave my name and explained a few different projects I’ve been working on. I mentioned this blog, though not by name.
Other people spoke in a somewhat disorganized fashion, because we were seated haphazardly around several small tables. I zoned out again. The room was too small and too crowded. I did not want to be there.
The gregarious woman leaned closer to me and rapped her knuckles on the table. I turned to look at her.
“Give me your right hand,” she said.
“Your right hand, just give it to me.”
I did. She squeezed it.
“Relax,” she said. “You’re thinking too much.”
This didn’t do a damn thing except make me more self-conscious.
When everyone had said their bit, the facilitator nodded appreciatively and surveyed the room.
“All right, we have a lot of people here tonight, so I think we should break up into groups of five, six maybe.”
People broke up into groups based on their proximity to each other. I ended up in a group with the facilitator, the two middle-aged women, the elderly woman, and a woman around my age.
“Okay, who has something to share?” asked the facilitator.
“I have a chapter of my memoirs with me,” said the elderly woman, “and I’d some feedback to make sure I’m going in the right direction.”
She passed around copies, and proceeded to read. The chapter was about all the times in her life she had sexually harassed. Because of her age, she’d spent most of her life in a much more violent form of rape culture. Back then, catcalls, unwanted physical contact, and indecent exposure was considered getting away lucky. I found the chapter disturbing and compelling, though the sentence structure was often ungainly and there were many grammatical errors. She could benefit from a strong editorial hand, I thought, but the substance was definitely there.
She finished reading, and the facilitator offered some feedback about some of the stylistic quirks I’d noticed. Then the tense woman spoke.
“What is the point of this?”
“Well, it’s about my experiences.”
“Yes, but as you said, most people have lived through this. I know I have. So what are you trying to say? You’re repeating what’s already out there, what’s already been said.”
“It’s my life.”
“But why write it down?” asked the gregarious woman. “I’ve lived through these things too, almost every woman I know has. Everyone knows this is true. There’s nothing new here.”
The elderly woman seemed confused. She explained that the chapter was a key part of a longer narrative.
“I don’t think that matters,” said the tense woman.
“Maybe we should move on,” the facilitator said.
“Actually, I have some-” I said.
“Who’d like to go next?”
I passed my copy of the chapter to the woman. “I copyedited it for you,” I said, and she thanked me.
“Is there anyone else who’d like to share?” the facilitator said.
“I will,” I said.
I fully expected to be eviscerated by the two middle-aged women. But maybe, I thought, the facilitator will say something useful. Or the elderly woman might offer some insight, or the young woman who sat next to the facilitator, and had remained silent up to this point. If they could find a way to cut in.
I handed out copies of my synopsis, explaining what I was going for. I apologized for not having something more typical to share. But the group seemed receptive.
I read the synopsis out loud, and after I finished there was a brief silence.
“It’s good,” said the tense woman, sounding disappointed. “It’s very good.”
The others concurred.
“It’s fine,” said the gregarious woman. “But if you’re going to write this book, you must find this boy. You can’t fake something like this, you have to study it closely.”
“The book is autobiographical,” I said.
“All right, but you have to find this boy and talk to him and learn from him.”
“The boy is based on him,” said the facilitator.
“You must tap into the passion. You must find the pain,” the woman continued. “Earlier when the group was introducing themselves I was watching you and I could tell you were in pain. Didn’t I say that to you?” She turned to the tense woman, who nodded. “That’s why I asked for your right hand and why I held it in my right hand. To transfer positive energy. I know you can relieve your suffering.”
“The only improvement I think you can make is if you added some more details,” the facilitator said.
“Yes, more details would be good,” said the tense woman. “And I want you to read this book.” She wrote a title on a piece of paper and slid it across the table to me. “The author is telling the same story you’re telling.”
The book was The Death of Virgil, by the modernist Austrian author Hermann Broch. It is about the last hours in the life of the poet Virgil.
My novel is an account of my grade seven year.
“Okay, maybe we should move on,” said the facilitator. “I have something I’d like to share.”
She took out photocopies of a magazine article she’d written which had already been published. I have no idea what the point of this was.
The article was a profile of an athlete who was paralyzed in an accident and then overcame her disability to lead a full and rich life. It was written in the first person.
Oh, I am not touching this one with a ten foot pole, I thought.
I zoned out while the others complimented the facilitator on her work, and expressed admiration that she’d been published in an honest-to-god magazine.
Afterward, the young woman volunteered to share her work. Up to this point she had listened intently but offered no feedback.
“This is a chapter from the memoirs I’m writing,” she said. Her voice had a pleasant Middle Eastern lilt.
“You’re writing memoirs, too?” said the elderly woman. “Oh, that’s nice.”
The woman started to read. The chapter was about body image and weight shaming, which are tough, complicated issues. It was smart and soulful. Some of the sentences suggested that she’d learned English as a second language and was used to putting nouns and verbs in different places, but that’s easy to correct. I knew that with a few revisions the chapter could be published by any number of websites. Fat shaming is so hot right now.
She finished reading.
“This is no good,” said the tense woman.
“Are you serious?” the young woman said.
“There’s nothing here that’s any good, it’s just flat, it’s nothing.”
“Let’s remember to be constructive,” said the facilitator.
“I really liked it,” I said.
“There’s no passion here,” said the gregarious woman. “No feeling. It just lies there.”
“What is the point of this?” said the tense woman. “Why did you write this? What reason does it have for existing?”
The two continued to lob criticism at the young woman, who stared at the ground. She seemed to shrink into herself.
“Look at you, you’re shaking! Why are you shaking?” the gregarious woman said. “There’s no need to be so emotional. We’re just people here, we’re just talking. You’re too sensitive.”
The barrage was unrelenting. I scrawled a message on my copy of the story: This is good. Seriously. Buzzfeed publishes this kind of stuff. You should look into it.
I passed it to the woman and she read it.
“In order to write well, you have to have passion, you have to have conviction. You can’t be so sensitive all the time,” the gregarious woman continued.
“Do either of you have something to share with the group?” the facilitator said.
The tense woman shook her head.
“I do,” said the gregarious woman. “But it’s too dangerous.”
It was 10:00, and at other tables the conversation seemed to be winding down.
“I think that’s about it for this month,” the facilitator announced to the room. “Please feel free to join the mailing list.”
The young woman quickly gathered her notebook and the copies of her work. Her jaw was clenched. She stood up and rushed out of the alcove. I followed, wanting to offer some reassurance. The facilitator followed too, and reached her before I did.
They quickly became embroiled in what sounded like an intense conversation, and I didn’t want to interrupt, so I left.
I’m relieved that my synopsis is apparently well-written, but horrified at the toxic atmosphere in the writing group. Maybe everyone except those two women were perfectly nice, but neither me nor the facilitator knows if that’s the case. Instead of circulating between groups to ensure there were no personality conflicts, she stuck around with us to share something that didn’t need to be shared.
If I do go back, I don’t know what I’d show them. The novel I’m currently working on is at a sensitive place right now, and I don’t particularly feel like watching it get shredded. It’s difficult being in such an isolated profession, but the worst part is knowing how hostile the outside world can be toward our hard work.