I was supposed to attend the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers meeting last night at the Marriott Suites, featuring Laura Tohe, published poet. However, in my ignorance, I decided to get a physical Tuesday, which entailed a tetanus shot and three tubes of blood stolen from my body. Since then, I’ve fallen victim to what I’m calling “The Black Plague”—sinus congestion, body aches, headaches, and general extreme exhaustion. What I’m trying to say, is that I was too sick to attend last night’s writers’ meeting.
Now, if that last paragraph had been attacked by a writers’ group, they would have said I went off on a tangent. I took too long to get to my point. I lost my focus. Which brings me to my real point of discussion: writers’ groups.
For me, it started in college. The opening scene of the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys ought to give you a good feel for a college writing workshop—a bunch of kids, reading each others’ work, and tearing each other new ones. It’s not always a massacre (“I hate it. His stories make me want to kill myself.”), but there can be grudges that last the entire semester, based on the critique of a single sentence.
I’ve matured since those days, but not by much. I joined a writers’ group as soon as I moved here, to Phoenix, and I still tend to have a big mouth and perhaps say things I shouldn’t. I didn’t used to be like this. I was at least semi-concerned for the well-being of others, during my college days. I’ve found the older I get, the less my internal filter seems to do its job. Life is too short to be nice when being mean might help another artist grow, I suppose.
But this all got me to thinking: why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we, writers, have a need to hang out and talk about our work? Is it because we believe, as Wonder Boys’ Grady Tripp, that “most people don’t think. And if they do, it’s not about writing. Books—they don’t mean anything. Not anymore.” I know it feels that way sometimes, as a writer. Some days, I wake up and know I’m supposed to work on my novel that afternoon, and I think, “Why? What does it matter? If it even gets published, it’ll just end up on some dusty, library shelf, forgotten and ignored.”
I do my best to shake these demons, but hey, I’m a writer. I’m insecure. I’m terrible at accepting criticism. I’m like a child throwing a tantrum, and sometimes the child in me just doesn’t want to be a writer anymore. Why couldn’t I have been born a banker? A scientist? Sure, I probably would have been miserable, but I would have had a job. I would have had a steady paycheck. I would have had quantifiable ways to measure my success.
This is why we do it. This is why we writer people stick together and talk about stuff, because we need to know that someone cares—someone out there is listening, someone is championing us, saying “Keep writing! You’re gonna do it! Keep on going, you writer, you!” We ultimately measure our success via the opinions of other writers, so we have to stick together or tempt the eventuality of getting “a real job.”
At its simplest, a writers’ group is just a friendship forum—a way to meet new people with interests a lot like yours. Because, when it comes down to it, I’m a believer in Wonder Boys: “Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell them what you know. You tell them to find their voice and stay with it. You tell the ones that have it to keep at it; you tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it, too, because that’s the only way they’re going to get where they’re going. Of course, it does help if you know where you wanna go.”