Writing is a very solitary act. It’s just you, a screen, and a keyboard. Or a page and a pen. Or a fetal position and a cocktail. Even if you do it in public (you exhibitionist, you), it’s still not exactly a cooperative effort.
I share my life with someone else who writes, which helps, but sometimes I feel like I should give him a break and write around other people so he doesn’t divorce me. So earlier this year I decided to try a writing group. I’ve always loved the idea of writing groups but never actually joined one, mostly because 1. I don’t consider myself enough of a writer to do them, and 2. I hate showing my writing to people. But I see the benefits of being a part of a circle of like-minded wordsmiths who are also possibly creatively depressed and definitely in need of a supportive community to write with and bounce ideas off of. I romantically pictured writing groups to be like Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation – just a bunch of artistic ex-pats drinking and smoking and discussing their work in a 1920’s Parisian salon. And obviously if Gertrude Stein were assembling a collection of novelists, artists, and musicians in today’s world, she’d do that on Meetup, which is where I found a group.
Writer’s groups have different formats – this one was four to six fifteen-minute writing exercises, with time after each exercise to read if you chose. I’ve never been an ace at timed writing, but thought maybe it would be just the thing to jolt me out of my ongoing writer’s block and sad-sackiness.
Despite some first-day-of-school-style butterflies, I was excited to go to the meeting. It was a nice night and an easy walk to the meeting place, I got there right on time, the group was well-run, and everyone was welcoming and encouraging, so naturally afterward I went home and had a writing-insecurity meltdown. It was like spending two hours playing with a litter of happy, friendly puppies, going home, and then being like “OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I JUST DO? I’M TERRIFIED OF PUPPIES.” *brain-melt*
As a disclaimer, I’m not really afraid of puppies. But, as it turns out, I am highly stressed out by writing group. I would tell you a story about what transpired between excitement and dejection, but luckily I don’t have to, because I wrote it all down as it was happening. And without further ado, here are my two hours of self-inflicted torture, copied directly from my notebook:
Exercise One: write about a ‘top five’ list that belongs to one of your characters.
Ok, here we go!
I’m drinking my tea too hot because I’m nervous. l have nerve pain in the elbow of my writing hand. Everyone here is a full- or part-time writer and I am a poser. We’re sitting in the dingy back room of a restaurant at three tables pushed together, all intimately facing each other, with nowhere to stare except at the empty page or the person in front of you who is actually writing something while you chew your pen cap like an ape. OMG OMG I suck at writing group. This feels like the last time I took an in-class essay test in college – it was on Henry VIII. Wait, no, the one with Hal – Henry V? I can’t even keep my Shakespearean Henrys straight. SUCK. And now I’ve written a whole page of nothing. I hate how the page curls when it has a ton of (nothing) writing on it. Time is almost up. I guess I technically just wrote about a top five list, except it’s like eight things and they’re all about how horrible I am.
Exercise Two: choose 1-2 words from the envelope and work them into a story.
She smiled at me, the kind of smile that said…
I officially have zero fiction-based thoughts on recipe booklets or cinnamon sticks.
The keyboard tapping noises of other writers’ productivity is heartbreaking.
Oh good, I’ve wasted fifteen minutes on nothing. I wish I had written something I could read, so these other actual writers don’t think I’m a total asshole.
I love that I accidentally sat across from the master of ceremonies, so every time she asks if anyone wants to read I get to feel extra pathetic for not volunteering.
Exercise Three: write about a character confronted with his or her worst fear
I’m pretty sure that’s me right now.
I just noticed there’s a camera in the corner pointed right at me. So somewhere there’s some very compelling video footage of me failing at life.
I can’t stare at my notebook anymore, so I started staring up at the wall instead. It’s bare, but full of nails and pushpins. It’s very sad looking. It’s like there were decorations there, but someone was like “these are so ugly I think it would be better if we just had an empty wall full of nails.”
Why did I feel like a notebook was a good choice? I’m a word doc writer, not a notebook writer.
FOCUS. Wait, ok, maybe I just thought of something.
“Surprise!” they yelled.
Susan screamed and threw her keys, which beaned her neighbor Malcolm right in the face. This would have felt like sweet retribution for all the times Malcolm let his toy poodle crap in her yard, but Susan was too nervous to enjoy it.
“Happy birthday, Sue!” said her boyfriend, coming forward for a hug.
Susan forced a smile, but her eyes darted around the room.
And then she saw it: a three-tiered chocolate cake on the dining room table.
Her body stiffened. She screamed again.
“Sue, what is it?”
“GET. THAT. THING. OUT OF HERE.”
Exercise Four: Use the following phrase as the first line of a story. “The miserable vessel that called itself a ship sailed swiftly west toward destiny.”
The miserable person who called herself a writer slipped pathetically under the table toward defeat.
No, actually, I’m doing better. I read that crappy nothing story about a woman with a crippling fear of cake, and they laughed. Politely, but I’ll take it. Someone pointed out that I’d appropriately introduced my story as “half-baked” and then they laughed more and now I think we’re all best friends, right?
Now I’m back to not completing the exercises. But I think we’re done after this one, and I guess at least I read once, so now (my literary aspirations) can die happy.
And there you have it: my first try at writing group.
I’ll probably go back. Drunk. The way the Lost Generation would do it.