I did not join a writing group to write about the writing group, but the collection of people in one of the eight-week sessions I’ve attended over the last two years proved irresistible.
In addition to our “leader,” Elena, who organized the meetings and provided the prompts, there was Velva, a sweet wheelchair-bound woman whose house we used since she cannot travel; Tracy, a wildly curled redhead just graduated from college, who wore cowboy boots and wrote about drunken bacchanals she had attended; Greg, a psychiatrist, and Marybeth and Debra, two admitted depressives who’d never met before, but whose macabre tales of woe and suicidal thoughts appeared to have been written by the same person. If Greg had hoped the writing group would provide a break from his work-a-day world dealing with psychological crises, he was sadly mistaken.
The sessions were split into two parts. In each, Elena provided a verbal, visual or tactile prompt. We wrote for thirty minutes in longhand or on computers, then each person read their piece aloud, and everyone said something admiring about the piece, no matter what they may have really thought. When I first encountered this requirement, it struck me as impossibly disingenuous. However, I soon recognized the necessity of encouragement in this context. Also, one glows with goodness from lavishing praise, like telling a dinner host “everything is delicious” while contemplating which cereal to have immediately upon arriving home. Between the two writings, we spent fifteen minutes sharing snacks and herbal tea. All-in-all, the format presented a pleasant, nurturing way to practice speed-writing technique.
Several problems seemed to arise more acutely with this group than with other writing groups I have attended. First, not everyone was able to produce cogent writing in thirty minutes. Obviously, some are better at doing so than others, and everyone is flummoxed sometimes. For those occasions when a participant was completely blocked, or when they deemed their product to be total gibberish, they could opt out of reading aloud. In this group, participants chose not to read nearly half the time rather than a typical tally of, perhaps, ten percent. And, in retrospect, considering the head-shaking quality of what was written, we might have been better off with even less reading.
After all, what does one say when a piece is terrible or incomprehensible? How far can one stretch such adjectives as “interesting,” “intriguing,” or “unique” to suggest only positive connotations? Sometimes, after listening to Debra or Marybeth describe pondering submersion in a bathtub and “crossing the River Styx” not for the first time, I expended more effort and anxiety formulating a positive comment than I had contributed to my writing.
Greg’s solution was to comment exclusively in verse, which somehow deflected the tension. It was like having Doctors Seuss and Freud in the room together, formulating cryptic couplets. For example, when Marybeth wrote about her lack of friends, Greg said, with sympathy: “There are good ships, there are bad ships, but the best ships are friendships.”
When Debra wrote about finding her grandfather’s dead body, with emphasis on the word “putrefaction,” Greg nodded admiringly at her vocabulary, and said: “There’s a good deal of action, in putrefaction.” I tried to picture Greg offering therapy. He insists he does not resort to poetry with patients, but did admit to having said to one: “You snooze, you lose.”
On a weekly basis, Tracy described behaviors resulting from chugging beer that made me believe the kegs had LSD instead of alcohol. And she went to a fundamentalist, all-girls’ college! After she described one debauchery courtesy of some visiting males, Greg broke the stunned silence thusly: “One thing for sure, suffice it to say, I’ll never view a pool table, in the same way.”
Velva read from her wheelchair, with a smile, about relatives maimed in car crashes, marriages ravaged by adultery and disease, and crimes carried out with savagery. “It was really creative that you could get to cholera from the prompt ‘shirt collar,’” I once enthused.
My ego was boosted from participating in this particular writing group. In comparison to my co-participants, at least, I was adept at producing a page or two with a beginning, middle and end within the time limits. The bar may have been set low, but I usually attained it. In contrast, Elena rarely produced more than four or five sentences in a thirty minute period, and she knew the prompts ahead of time.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said, speaking of running her household, holding a part-time job, taking a correspondence course, and mothering a four-year-old. “I can’t think straight.” Her admission was a revelation to me; it helped me feel greater empathy for her and the other participants. My life, at this stage, is comparatively uncluttered. After I attended several of her subsequent eight-week sessions, filled with writers I deemed more mainstream in their personal lives and subject-matter, Elena announced she was taking a break.
The hiatus has provided the opportunity, and necessity, to write on my own. This has been a useful development. Yet, I miss the ferment of the writing groups and the interesting collections of people who came together; while most sessions have melded in my memory, the group described above stands out. As the ever-gracious Greg concluded at the end of one bizarre evening:
Those images were horrible,
But don’t take this wrong.
I really enjoyed them,
Gross, pungent and strong.