My Big Adventure with a “Writers’ Group”

My Big Adventure with a “Writers’ Group”

My Big Adventure with a “Writers’ Group”

I am in a chain bookstore in the Raleigh, NC Triangle.

I am here for an author book signing for my book the 60 Sixty Second Self-Starter. It’s a slow night, and I have plenty of time to read the store's flyer entitled: News and Local Events.

The write-up for my book appearance is short but well done. In the third column, half-way down the page is a long and intriguing notice. It reads, Third Saturday of the month at 10 am...Prompt Writing, an ongoing workshop... Free to Participants. The session is described as follows: “Writing that gets published is writing that gets work done and revised. But where does it originate? The answer is that it originates with a first draft or possibly with an intriguing journal entry or an experimental free-writing exercise. The answer is that it originates with play. In this workshop we, too, will begin with play. Join your fellow writers in a non-threatening atmosphere, using provided prompts as launch pads into more serious writing. All writers are welcome.” 

The announcement goes on to say that “Mary” is the author of a current book, and that her first novel was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. She has also had articles published in various literary magazines, and she’s currently at work on her third book, a memoir. I save the notice.

The third Saturday of the month is coming up shortly, and it seems like this group could well be worth joining. I have been writing self-help books for quite a while now, and my writing is getting better but not by major leaps. This ongoing workshop looks like a good opportunity to stretch my capabilities. 

Days later, I go onto the Web to see if I can find anything about Mary. Through, I find several listings; mostly, she’s involved with offering lectures or workshops at various writers’ conferences throughout the state of North Carolina. Some of the citations include a picture. Also at Google, I see a few other citations mentioning her books and her involvement with a local group, the North Carolina Writers’ Network. 

Session 1

The third Saturday of the month, I show up a few minutes before 10 a.m., the scheduled start time. I ask the person at the Information Desk where the writers’ group is meeting, and he points to the far left side of the store. I walk over to the tables. No is one around, so I sit down and bide my time. A few minutes after ten, others start coming to the table. A woman, who looks something like Mary but is noticeably older with salt-and-pepper hair and heavier than I had imagined, sits down at the table.

Others fill in seven of the eight seats. There is Suzanne, who is fifty-seven, sporting a sizable diamond ring on her left hand. She seems to be a regular. To my right, there is Celia. She’s affiliated with Duke in some type of writing capacity. On the other hand, Jim has been teaching writing with the Navy for many years. He’s an affable guy, maybe sixty, in good shape, with a face that actually seems to smile. There is Janice, who sits directly across from me. She was raised in Iowa and has a wealth of stories to tell about her upbringing in farm country. These are the denizens of Chapel Hill and Durham, Sunday New York Times readers, raised in the sixties, forged by the eighties, and keenly introspective by the 2000's.

I’m guessing that I’m the youngest member of the group. It’s about ten minutes after 10 before everyone who’s coming has arrived. The group settles in, and Mary  takes charge of the meeting. To my utter amazement, someone comes by with a tray full of food from the bookstore Café. The food is carefully arranged in the center of the table. I look around, and no one seems to be grabbing for it; respecting group norms, I don’t make a move.

In a while, somebody reaches for a sandwich, and so, in turn, do I. I don’t want to bring this up right off the bat, but the food is free. I am not sure exactly how this session will unfold, but it’s got great beginnings. We go around the table quickly introducing ourselves, and when it comes to me the group seems curious. They’ve obviously been meeting for a while and all know each other. I am a newbie. I explained to them that I was doing an author book-signing many days back and saw this notice on the store’s monthly calendar. It seemed intriguing, so here I am.

Now on to the Task at Hand

Mary offers a preamble to an assignment we’re about to undertake. I don’t remember what she said or even the topic, but the process worked. She gives us an assignment – I think it was along the lines of discussing a time in which we were not appreciated. We have fifteen minutes to write. Ah, so that’s how it works.

I turn over the back of the piece of paper that I have, but see that it’s inadequate. Mary asks me if I would like some paper, to which I say yes, and she generously rips several sheets from her pad. Everyone at the table begins to write.

“One spring day several years ago...”

At the end of the fifteen minutes, Mary announces that the time is up. I look around the table and to my amazement see that all of the other participants have written profusely during this time. The output of most people is easily double that of mine. In one case, someone has tripled my volume. Oh well, writing, and certainly these exercises, are not about comparison.

Mary asks who would like to read their essay. Being the newbie, I wait as others come forth. As the writers read I am considerably impressed. These are well-crafted pieces by people who obviously know how to write. Celia, who has a penchant for writing prodigious sums of humorous prose, reads her essay. The group is bemused. This is truly good material, good enough to go right into the op-ed section of a major newspaper. Jim reads his, then Janice, then Suzanne, then Mary. Wow, I had no idea. There’s not one weak hitter at the table. No hesitation among this group, no writers block in the least. Any one of the stories is publishable or very close to publishable. And most participants are gleefully ready to read their work.

I finally read mine. It’s shorter than the rest, but a good effort for me. I struggle with my own hand-writing and frequently have to pause to figure out a word. Undoubtedly, this distracts from the overall presentation. The other writers, it seems, not only write faster, but also more legibly than I do.

Those who want to read, read, those who don’t, don’t, and we’re finished with “round one.”  People reach for the sandwiches and chips and cookie bars, and Mary begins to discuss the next assignment. This time it’s going to be about parties. I think to myself, parties, now there’s a topic I can sink my teeth into. I used to give parties all the time, even though I am a closet introvert. I would actually use the parties as a way of hiding out.

“Parties: the very word is pleasing to my ears...”

As we put down our pens, I am more eager to read this time. I have done a better job. In as little as two rounds, I have actually improved!  Or, was it simply the topic? I can’t remember the order, but I think I read the second or third. I drew some nice comments from the other participants. I listen to the rest of the essays. Once again, each person who chooses to read delivers an essay that is well worth hearing.

Between the end of the second round and the start of the third, there is chit chat around the table. Mary mentions that she has been trying to make a living as a writer for the last twenty years. To be supportive of her observation, I mention that I have made a living as a writer for the last twenty years, but that alone would not have been enough to sustain me. I mention that luckily I had speaking fees and other income vehicles that helped me make my way.

Now comes the third and last assignment for our Saturday session. It’s something to do with the change of seasons. This one is a little tougher for me than parties or even being overlooked. It takes me a minute or two to get started, while everyone else’s pens are flying across their pages.

“When I was a child, I fully grasped in all its dimensions the change of seasons...

I put down my pen. Again, it’s not much in terms of word count, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances – I think it turned out reasonably well. I read my essay someplace in the middle of the pack. Somebody cites my phrase “how many more autumns do I have to live?” Mary comments favorably on my phrase “even before I knew what love was.” I am pleased; I have contributed to the group in some way.

That’s the end of our session. I carefully fold the pages on which I have written and hand back to Mary the remaining blank sheets. This morning I have explored three topics, upon which I would never have written a word had it not been for this process. The only other peer group in my life is my speaker’s group which, unfortunately, meets in faraway Charlotte, NC. I am definitely interested in coming back to the Writer’s Group. 

Mary passes around a sheet for listing our email addresses if we want to get notices of subsequent meetings. I choose not to, since it’s already clear when the next meetings are, and I am already getting a ton of emails each day, most of which I can’t keep up with. I am the only one who doesn’t list an email address.

Session 2

The next session is on Thursday night. It starts at six. Once again, I am the first one there. Mary and the other writers begin arriving minutes after six. Our location has changed slightly; we are now further towards the back of the store. As she takes her seat, Mary looks at me and matter-of-factly says, “Back again?” Hmmm, I don’t understand the remark, but I quickly retorted, “Sure.” 

Celia has returned and again is to my right. Suzanne has returned and once more is to my left. Across the table there is a different woman named Janice and to her left is a woman whose name I did not catch, and diagonally across the table from me sits Mary. To Mary’s right are two other women, one named Ellen and one with red hair.

The food cart is wheeled in. Oh boy, this is a deal. It’s about 6:10 in the evening, and everyone is less shy about reaching for the food. So am I. Mary asks that we go around the table, introduce ourselves, and mention our current writing projects. I am not sure exactly what this means, but whatever it means I don’t have one. 

I have written a book on project management, another on change management, and for nine years I was a management consultant, serving as a project manager and then promoted to project director.  Writing as a “project,” though, is not a term with which I am familiar. I either write books for which I have previously submitted a proposal and for which a publisher has offered a contract, or I write articles on topics that interest me, such as this one.

Two people respond before I do, giving their answers quickly, and leaving me little clue as to how one should respond to the term writing project. When it’s my turn, I say, “I don’t have a project.”  Mary asks me something like, “Then what is your writing based on?” I say “Contracts,” then add, “with publishers.” It comes out a little stilted, maybe defensive, but in any case, my transgression is slight.

Continuing around the table, the other writers all dutifully offer their names and discuss their writing projects. I am thinking to myself, for the next session, I need to have a project in mind so I can answer in kind.

Mary introduces the first assignment for this Thursday night session -- write about something that happens in your neighborhood. I think about the lady next door to me with her huge dog who nearly bowled me over the first week we moved into the neighborhood. I will start writing about that.

“The lady next door is a nice person...”

Mary informs us that time is up, and I put down my pen. As I look around the table, I am astounded by the output of some of the others. To Celia, Ellen, and the other prolifics, turning out a great volume is no big deal. In any case, this is a notably veteran group of writers who have obviously been writing for years. They were probably the A students in their English composition classes in high school as well as college, who but for luck or circumstance could have all been reviewed in the New York Times.

I read my essay, trying to give it some pizzaz, taking cues from Celia and the rest. I realize that how you read your essay is as important as what you’ve written in terms of impacting the group. I can’t make Strangers in the Hood sound nearly as good as what I hear around the table. 

As is the group’s custom, after each person is finished reading, participants randomly make a short, pithy, positive comment about what the writer has just read. I do the same. My carefully measured, always positive commentary is no more than twenty to thirty seconds, usually reflecting on a phrase that grabbed me, or how I can readily relate to the theme of the essay. I try to say something nice about nearly everyone’s essay, but in some cases it’s time to move on to the next round before I get a word in.

Mary gives us the next assignment. It’s about doing something that you felt forced to do. I quickly scan my memory banks. Ah, the time that Alpha Penguin asked me to do the book on change management. I start writing.

“I have been self-employed for exactly twenty years...”

I thought that the postscript was a nice touch. Here I tell the readers that the book didn’t do very well, and as a consequence my nine-year relationship with Alpha Penguin was sullied. When I read my essay, it didn't seem to draw much response from the group. Oh well, you can’t impress ‘em all every time.

Celia reads her story about being forced to see the girls in skimpy clothing and boys in the five-sizes too large clothing parading around Duke University with cell phones plastered to their ears. It is a marvelous creation in fifteen minutes. Insightful, funny, and poignant. This is an article good enough to appear in top literary magazines. Others read their equally well-crafted if non-humorous essays. Again, as a whole the group is impressive.

Jim arrives very late, and as there are already eight people at the eight-person table, grabs a small step-stool and sits between Celia and another woman. I offer him my chair as we’re approaching eight o’clock and I have leave to pick up my daughter. He says no, he’s okay, but I’m thinking that he really ought to take my chair. He’s older, and I am only going to be here for a few minutes anyway. I let the thought pass.

Inspired by Our Leader

After round two, we take a break of sorts. At this time I announce to the group that “inspired by Mary’s leadership,” I am launching a story-telling group at the store in June, and all are invited. I have been wanting to get back into a story telling group for years. Hosting such a group at the store seemed like a great opportunity.

Although I have paid Mary a sincere ultimate compliment in making my announcement, she offers me a nondescript look which I will only later come to understand. Some of the writers around the table have questions for me about the story-telling group, which I quickly answer.

We move on to the evening’s third topic, which is cleaning. Mary cleans houses during the day, I guess, to generate a stable income. She remarks on something she found in one of the houses she was cleaning. Apparently, the owner was discarding some valuable newspaper reprints from decades ago. Mary shows the artifact to the group, and it gets a noticeable rise. She then announces our third topic is cleaning.

“Cleaning, you may never have guessed...”

It’s my turn to read. This is my shortest essay of all. I stopped after about eight or nine minutes of the fifteen we were given because I didn’t feel I could improve upon what I’d written. I knew others were going way past what I had written, but those were their essays. When I read, Mary commented favorably on my phrase “take a victory shower.”  I feel pleased. No one else has anything else to say. Maybe it wasn’t that good after all, though. I do feel I am getting better.

Following particularly well written essays, which are well read by the authors, the group is animated. Celia’s essays usually get a huge rise. Ellen offers an essay about how her life isn’t going the way she wanted it; apparently, she’s underemployed and so is home a lot, and she has no significant relationship. It’s a bit of a downer, but it’s real and from the heart, and the group momentarily suffers in silence with her. Likewise, some of the other essays reflect on the heavy emotions of their authors. I guess writing on topics like doing something you feel forced to, or cleaning, can bring that out of a person.

It’s now a little past eight o’clock and my daughter’s going to be waiting. As it turns out, there will be a fourth round tonight, and as much as I would like to, I simply can’t stay. I bid the group farewell and am nicely greeted. As I rise, I remind Jim that he’d be a lot more comfortable in my chair than on the step stool. He agrees and takes me up on the offer.

Later that night or the next day, I mark down on my calendar when the next several sessions would be. As I look out over May, June, July and August, I can see that of the coming seven sessions, I can make three for sure, and possibly four or five. I want to email Mary to thank her for originating this group and perfecting its process, but even after extensive Googling, her email is nowhere to be found.

Session 3

Weeks pass. Another Saturday session is scheduled. It’s going to be tough for me to get there on time; my daughter is sleeping over on Friday night, then I have to take her across town to her choir practice. When I drop her off, I have to turn around and double back for miles to get to the bookstore.

Luckily, I get there on time. It’s ten o’clock, and I appear to be first again when I see another woman who already has a book and a notebook on a table as I’m walking around the store. I pick a seat, put down my things, and then recognize that I have once again forgotten to bring paper. I get up from my chair and make my way towards the information desk, whereupon I pass Mary.

She asks me if I’ll be here for the entire session, and I say, “Yeah, probably. Depends on how long it lasts.” She says she wants to talk about something, and I say I’ll be back in a second. I make my way to the information desk to pick up some store fliers, the backs of which are blank and can serve as my writing pad. I come back to the table and put the pages at my place.

I ask Mary what’s up, thinking that perhaps she can’t stay the whole session and would like to know if I can cover for her. However, I wait to hear what she has to say. She wants to move away from the table, and so we walk about thirty paces and pause in front of one of the bookshelves. She asks me if these sessions are really suited for me, and exactly what I’m getting from them. I’m highly surprised. I say something along the order of “What do you mean? I’m getting a great deal from them.”

She has no interest in hearing me. Without pause, she says that the energy of the group is dropping, and she thinks it’s because my experience is intimidating the group. I tell her that I’m shocked. I mention to her that I’ve only been here two times and that most people’s essays are markedly better than mine. She says, “I know how many times you’ve been here.” She goes on to say that people don’t seem to be as free to participate. She mentions something about my unwanted “critiques” of the other writers. I say to her that I have made only brief, positive comments and that I have made no such “critiques” 

She sticks close to her mantra, insisting that I am intimidating the group and  bringing down the energy level. I recount that most members are readily observable to be better writers than I am – so how can I be intimidating them? She continues with what I now realize is a rehearsed sequence. As I am listening to her, I quickly assess what I know about her assertions.

Energy can drop for a lot of reasons, such as who shows up at any given session, the male-female mix, the time of day, the temperature in the store, the ingredients in the food served, the nature of the writing assignments, and most of all the energy of the group leader.

Since I did not attend all those sessions before the last two, I’ll take her word for it that the energy of the group may have dropped, but as to my not gaining any value...I tell her that her assessment is wrong.  She bristles like I haven’t seen anyone do in years. The look on her face instantly transforms from one of heated and stern determination to one of volcanic but controlled rage. We’re in the middle of the store, on a pleasant Saturday morning and her exhortation, which she apparently has been holding onto since the last meeting, has not gone the way she wanted: I disagree with her assertions and accusations. 

To mediate, I quickly say to her, “You can be wrong, and I can be wrong.”  She is simply not prepared to hear me as I have heard her. She is the group’s leader. She has created a process whereby I am getting better at writing. I have listened to her closely during the two sessions, and during this morning “chat.” She raises her voice to a level with which I am uncomfortable in a public setting. 

I can see that she has no tolerance for rebuttal. Anything I say will merely further enrage her. And so I say, “Okay, I’m outta here.”  I walk back to the table and collect my things. No one else is around. I walked to the other side of the store, and considering that I had to rush from across town to get here and had no particular place to go, I decided to look at the magazine racks.

I have met people who exhibit behavior like Mary before and have learned over the years not to let it unduly upset me. After looking at the magazines for a while, I noticed it’s 10:20.I am six foot three and on my tip toes, six feet five or six. I peer over shelving units and displays and see that as of 10:20 only Mary and one other woman are at the table. Looks like it wouldn’t have been much of a session today anyway. I leave the store and head for the library. Maybe Mary is scaring away participants?

Fancy Meeting You Here

I often travel about town with a briefcase and keep a file of the reading I’d like to do, but for which I never seem to have time. I spend several hours at the library, when I notice a woman walking down the great aisle. It is none other than Mary. It’s been three hours, and I figure the morning’s spat has perhaps blown over. We are, after all, adults.

I give a small wave to her and a small natural smile forms on my face. She waves back and begins a smile herself and then, seemingly recognizing me, pulls down her hand and abruptly turns to the right. This is strange.

I get up from my table, walk down the aisle, looking to my left until I find the aisle into which she has retreated. She’s two-thirds of the way down. I walk down, and I say to her, “Well, I guess it’s serendipity that we met here, ‘cause I was planning on giving you a call.”  She maintains her gaze at the bookshelf. She does not turn to me. She does not say anything to me. I say to her, “I think we can clear things up.” 

Still, she does not turn. I say to her, “May I have a few moments of your time?” No response. I have not seen anything like this before. In a reasoned voice I say to her, “Why are you so angry with me? I have no anger for you.” She finally turns to me and says, “I said everything I wanted to say this morning, and you chose not to listen.” Then she storms off.  

So that’s it – the full extent of her “conflict-resolution” skills on display. I go back to my seat. Down the great aisle, I can see her standing in line, waiting to check out a book. She is standing erect and trying to minimize her trembling. Now the insights spring forward. I see the whole picture; the group wasn’t intimidated by me – Mary was. If the group’s energy was lower it was because her energy was lower by virtue of my presence.

Now I understood why she called my brief, always-positive comments “critiques.” She was listening for anything that I said during any of the sessions as mounting evidence that I was trying to assert control and influence over the group. My offering Jim the chair, my citing Mary’s inspiration, my briefest comment or smallest gesture were all grist for her mill. My not having a current “writing project,” and my not participating on the email sign-up sheet were likely taken as offenses as well.

It wouldn’t have mattered what I said or what I did; my sheer presence, and the agonizing reality for her that I might become a regular was unbearable. For Mary, there could be no “return to glory” as leader of the workshop unless the alien enemy, the unwelcome virus, was quickly expelled. My participation didn’t threaten her, my existence threatened her. The first session probably went well enough for her because, indeed, she had not had time to go back home, Google me, and heighten her fears.

It was clear after one session that I was no better than the rest and indeed, might not have even been an average writer within this group. When I returned for the second session, she commented to me, “Back again?” reflected her notion that someone who had been published as often as I had no business attending these sessions. Apparently, she got “getting published” confused with “writing.” 

Getting published is something I have done often. Doing in-depth, high quality writing: I am a novice. Moreover, how can one person surmise what benefit another derives as a result of attending a workshop? How could one possibly presume what I or anyone else is or is not receiving as a result of participation?

Writers Conferences as Salve

I had run smack-dab into the writing ego, which carefully protects its turf. Mary  used writers’ conferences to apply salve to her aching soul – where she could stand behind the lectern and gather up all the self-esteem otherwise missing in her life. 

It was all such a shame. I was looking forward to participating with the group for at least the summer, and maybe into the fall. There was so much I could learn, and so many ways in which my writing could improve. I too could be a resource for the group. 

Mary in particular had much to offer me, and I in return had much to offer her. I felt that the situation carried the seeds of long-term friendship. Even after the original turmoil on Saturday morning, I felt that if we could aspire to a more reasoned discussion away from the store itself, the matter could quickly be resolved and we could go on.

After the library encounter, I knew that no such resolution could be entertained. I could just imagine calling her on the phone one evening following her library behavior. My call would undoubtedly be met with a response like “stop harassing me.”  The conversation would last about 60 seconds punctuated by her insistence that I haven’t listened, she’d said what she wanted to say, and to stop bothering her.

There would be no further discussion with Mary. Sure, I could go back and sit in with the group at the next meeting. She wouldn’t attempt to say anything while others were around. Would it be worth it for me, however? Clearly not.

The noted psychologist Carl Rogers once commented that the roots of all aberrant behavior are founded upon the supposition that “mine is better than yours, or yours is better than mine.” Comparison – there’s no place for it among adults, among writers, among intellectuals. Yet, here it was.

Mary’s workshop description, including the statement “all writers are welcome” was as guise. What she meant was, “all writers whose accomplishments do not intimidate me, hence bringing my energy level down.” Finding herself in such a predicament, her fragile ego did the only thing that it could do. I didn’t inhabit this plain, but I sure as heck understood it.

My adventure with this particular writers’ group, then, had come to an undesired, unexpected halt. Yet, employing Mary P.’s own method, I have transformed my curious experience into an essay of sorts. What, I wonder, might have been the topic prompt for an article like this – ”A time in which I was misunderstood...” or perhaps “The many dangers of writers groups’...”. Who can say. Still the truth of any situation is, often as not, stranger than fiction.

As for Mary, may she one day have a New York Times bestseller, that will help her to achieve worldwide acclaim, prop up her esteem, and make her feel like she is someone worthy in the world.

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Jeff Davidson

Work-Life Balance Expert

Jeff Davidson is "The Work-Life Balance Expert®" and the premier thought leader on work-life balance, integration, and harmony. Jeff speaks to organizations that seek to enhance their overall productivity by improving the effectiveness of their people. He is the author of Breathing Space, Simpler Living, Dial it Down, and Everyday Project Management. Visit or call 919-932-1996 for more information on Jeff's keynote speeches and seminars.

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