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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Head Bangers, Writer's Groups, and World Peace

So, Emma remarks on her Facebook page. "It makes such a weird sound when the carpenter bees repeatedly fly head on into my lab window." I think, we must annoy God in much the same way.

I'm not a church going person, but I do have an abiding faith that what I do is of passing interest to some force greater than myself. I refuse to call this force a name or a gender personally, because I consider those identifiers to be human, and as I said, this force is greater than my humanity. I have to believe it is greater, because otherwise, I would argue with it all the time. Instead of arguing, I ask for help and then, misunderstand or disregard the help and bang my head into the same things over and over.

I'm not the only one. Whether it is a solitary committee of one running a life as best they can, or the collections of individuals organized as families, neighborhoods, villages, towns, states, countries, and unions, we seem to find a mistake we like and keep repeating it. We all know we do it. Change is more powerful and harder than the huge sins or acts of violence and war that they eventually lead to - the simple act of recognizing the crazy and making a different decision is what is going to save the world. Or maybe the day, or the essay.

Right this minute, I am sitting on a stool, typing away with my laptop perched on an ironing board in my closet. WHY? Because three days ago, I didn't listen to my own voice yelling STOP DON'T when I unplugged the router on the second floor of my house - the one that jumps the signal from the other end of the house into my bedroom, where I prefer to write. Now it won't work and I keep forgetting to ask for help to put it right. This is the only place that I can pick up a connection. Can I stop and move to a more comfortable location? NO, because I will lose all I have written. So, here I sit, getting crankier by the minute, with no one to blame but myself. Like ripples in a pond, this will affect my whole day and probably someone else's, as it spills over on to other things, and by mid-day, I will feel frustrated and defeated, mentally ticking off the list of similar things that prove I am a failure. All the while, writing about why I do this. No wonder I piss off that force.

One of the things I do over and over again which never leads anywhere is join writer's groups. It starts with this running commentary by the itty bitty committee: "You should get some opinions from other people, on your writing. Your friends love you, they know you, but they are biased. You really need some complete strangers who will give you input. Complete strangers are always experts and worthwhile listening to."

So, I sign up with a writing group and eagerly share. I start getting emails. Eventually, one comes in like this, as it did the other day, "i have plenty of poems i would like to be published i just dont know how to go about it help is needed desperetly" (errors intact.)

Now, if I was a fish, this would be the biggest, fattest bait worm in the history of chum. It has grammatical errors, punctuation errors, spelling errors and perhaps most heinous of all, a cutesy lack of capitalization that says, "You can't pick on me because I lack ego enough to type a capital I." No wait, maybe even more egregious is the presumption that they can write an email that badly and expect people to help them become a published author. No, wait, that the person who sent it feels it is that easy! YES! That is what bothers me. I spell check everything, try my hardest to be grammatically as accurate as my voice will allow, the voice it took me decades to resurrect from my bowels as honest and true, then, I read and re-read and re-re-read, and, as beads of sweat and blood form on my forehead, send my writing off to the universe to be judged, with the certainty that it is, despite my best efforts, flawed and imperfect. By flibberdegibbets like this one. But the wiggle on the worm that sets the hook is the plea for help. I can not resist.

In seconds, I dash off a reply, "That red line that appears under a word means it is misspelled. Desperately. If you want to be taken seriously, use proper capitalization and punctuation. Heed your spell-check. "Don't" is a contraction. If you send an email to a publisher or a magazine with this many errors in it, they will not even look at your poem.
Also, follow directions.
Now, don't get insulted. You asked for help."

I honestly believe, at the moment I send this, that it is a good, helpful and correct thing to do. Well, that is, I have convinced myself that it is, and shushed the protesting of the itty bitty committee who are pantomiming head banging into walls and slicing of wrists. They just don't understand the gift I am giving - like the thirteenth Fairy Godmother I am giving a gift of honesty - one that could be the help this writer desperately wants.

In seconds an indignant response comes from someone on the list. "You just got the smack down layed (sic) on you with the Paddle of Passive Aggressiveness. . . holy shit." (errors intact)

And the race is on. I fume, I stew. I have arguments in my head with this one and that one. This is a WRITER'S group. I start compiling the list of things that irk me about this defense. A! It is spelled LAID! B! The Paddle of Passive Aggressiveness may be clever but I was NOT passive aggressive. I was pretty up front aggressive. No, I wasn't. I was HONEST. I start looking up the definition of passive aggressive, just to prove to myself I am right.

And then I get a private email: "Your email was awesome, I was thinking the same things myself!"

Oh, really? Then why didn't you respond to the whole list? When did stupid people get loud and brave, and smart people get quiet and frightened?

Another list wide email appears: "Same rules apply: It's cell phone."

This refers to the PUN (a literary device used to convey several layers of meaning) I use in my signature - sell phone. I'm a Realtor, for God's sake.

My brain sparks and my spirit is galled and I find sympathetic ears to listen to my drama. I figure I just proved myself right about another writer's group - I don't belong.

I joined this group to be judged. Now, I am not liking it, because I don't respect the judges. Head Banger? Oh my, how many times I have done this, the pattern to each micro-drama exactly the same: !. Join. 2. Submit 3. Get insulted 4. Argue 5. Feel Martyred 6. Quit.

Beyond the issue of the judging/quality of judging issue is the more disturbing idea that I do this ALL THE TIME. It's just the most minor of all my constantly repeated idiotic, non-productive, constantly looping same old songs. What ails me?

I wonder if I find comfort in these same old stories? I know that life brings troubles. I have endured pretty horrific unexpected, drop on you like a comet troubles, but many many more of the same old same old troubles. Chagrined, I realize that maybe I am hoping that the same old troubles will squeeze out the unexpected troubles, as if there is only space for a certain amount and I get to pick. I am reminded of another old hackneyed truism: God will only give you what you can handle. My choices are the currency of a bargain I think I can make with God. If this is true for me, is it true for committees, nations and continents? Could the answer to all our ills, global and local, be just waiting to be chosen, instead?


bowiechick said...


Back in 1999, I went back to school to take a publishing program. The rational for this particular course was that though my goal was production and design, I so often was thrust in to having to write and I was totally insecure in doing so. I felt I just didn't know how. There were other fellow students who called themselves writers and so I suppose I was intimidated by the label really. The final project for our course was in producing a magazine called Pacific Rim Magazine and it would be distributed as an insert locally in the Globe and Mail not the local big papers but THE Globe and Mail. As it happened I decided to do a story on the Japanese internees from WW2. My home town was one of several designated camps during that time and my Home Economics teacher to whom I felt very close to was a former internee. I was a bit surprised to when it became the cover story for the magazine. I realized then in listening to our wee group of editors, how nasty, petty and insecure "writers" were for the very things you just wrote about. I suppose I guess I now am more comfortable about calling myself a "writer," but I admit I do not really want to hold out my shingle as such because I just couldn't handle the abuse. I write primarily with the idea that I do so in relative anonymity and nobody really reads it anyway so who cares. It's my therapy I suppose. Oh and the magazine story if you are interested is called Aya's Story and it lives here:

xo, T

Reed Stevens said...

Shirley, you write like an angel. I could listen to your funny, honest and brilliantly insightful voice all day.

What makes your writing so good? First, you can spell and use the language correctly so I don't stumble over the mistakes.

Next, you write in the voice of a smart, exasperated woman who has faced pain and sorrow and can still laugh.

"Black laughter", my pal Mary Moore calls it. It is surely our greatest Saving Grace. Thank you!

Boy, your blog is not only a gift but a two-fer. I read Bowiechick's terrific story of the Japanese Canadian interment camps. Easy to find on that site and well worth a click.

I'm so blessed to be in a long-going memoir writing class at the Campbell, CA, adult center, where writers from Asia and other far-flung parts read their chapters every week. I'm particularly fascinated by the Asian-Americans and only yesterday heard with great big ears Clarence Nihei, born of Japanese parents in Hawaii, tell of his wonderful adventures all over the world, beginning in the pineapple fields.

My car mechanic was born in a camp in 1941. For a Yankee such as I, this is truly a world journey. Now, does Bowiechick have a blog? I sure hope sp.

Thanks from my wee office here in cold, rainy but safe northern California, much love.

Rodeo Princess said...

Reed, meet BowieChick! She writes the WATERLOGGED blog over on the right hand column under blogs. Talk about a life different from mine! I know she would enjoy your blog, too. I love it! It's so personal, so warm, and experienced!

bowiechick said...

Thanks Reed! I echo to Shirley also with what you said. And actually...now I have two blogs now so that whole writing shingle I said I didn't want to hang out? Ya, I am so of bull.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, dear Rodeo, thankfully you fled such a modern day rat's ass as a "writer's group". I cannot imagine, but from the few tales I've endured about such a granfalloon as a "writer's group", I surmised they are often a lot of sado-masochism and other aberrent stuff. I learned, through the decades, most writers aren't terribly interesting and have little to say and typically fall into a quiet rage pit over the paralyzing truth that they will never become the next James J. Shakespeare.

Your faithful servant, etc.

Anonymous said...

Shirley, this is a powerful essay on a lot of levels and you know my correct and accurate opinion on such matters as "writer's groups", so I will be real nice as a guest on your blog and just post the following quote:

"I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself."
--from William Gaddis's acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

Reed Stevens said...

More on writers' groups. I belong to the South Bay chapter of the California Writers Club founded by Jack London. Oooh, Jack London! Does anybody read "Call of the Wild" any more? Woof if you love Lassie stories.

Few members of this group have published one word! Yes, some are book authors, such as I. Some blog, so do I. None has produced and SOLD an original radio drama, got paid to voice opinions on NPR okay, only 2 stations) or publish opinions in an emag.

Think anybody gives me a nod? Asks me to even fill out a panel? I rejoined these jokers to plug my 2009 book. Lotta good that did. The meetings are long and haphazardly run compared to the Toastmasters club I joined 2 years ago and LOVE, even at 7:30 am, weekly no less.

Writers are loners. You are always in that closet working on the ironing board all by yourself. It's just between your mind and the screen. Eventually the words leak out into the world but thew world is a mighty big place with little time for our mutterings.

You have found some reader who love your words and wait with 'bated breath (ha ha!) for the next installment.

Since we didn't go right to the Iowa Writers Workshop, get jobs teaching writing at a good university and make our connections to the publishing world while it wa still standing, we are doomed to write small.

But we are free to write anything. And that's worth everything!

Shirley Landis VanScoyk said...

I AM free to write anything. In a phone call today, a very very good friend reminded me of the first writer's group we belonged to. The only problem with that one was that it was run by a pathological liar with grandiose delusions! At least he was entertaining!!!

You are right, we are loners. I am going to stop joining!

Reed Stevens said...

Shirl, Shirl, Shirley! Tell us about that group leader who was such a liar. Come on, there's a tale. Please?