THE MAKING OF A BOOK
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PART 15 LEARNING TO WRITE
My husband, who was more interested in my writing activities than I was, told me about writing groups—people of like minds reading each other’s work to offer advice for improvement. I scoured the Internet for the location of a local Christian writing group. Nothing. I tried the newspaper. Nothing. But there was a meeting at the library about writing, so I jotted down the date and time.
At the conclusion of the meeting, one attendee made an announcement about a writer’s critique group meeting in Borders Bookstore. Jackpot! The following Monday, I walked into Borders and wandered around the store until a found four people sitting at a table near the bathrooms. I sat at the table.
The woman sitting next to me said, “Hi, my name is Susan. I’m a pagan.”
I assumed I’d just attended my first and last meeting. These people would never critique my Christian writing. The group had just started. They attended the meeting at the library to attract more members. Even though the leader and his friend had envisioned a group of Sci-fi writers, they had a Lutheran playwright who also wrote humor, and the Pagan writing historical fiction.
When they learned I had a book published, they redefined the group to accept all genres to encourage the craft of writing. Eventually, an attorney writing an epic, a fantasy writer who worked at a flooring warehouse, a college administrator writing mysteries, an atheist fiction writer, and a counselor writing a children’s book joined the group. This eclectic group of writers did what the church failed to do. They allowed me to participate.
We met weekly to refine our craft. Their brutal critiques taught me how to write. Initially, we had one rule. “Suck it up.” When the members commented on our work, we could not reply until we had been sliced, diced, and roasted. Was it difficult to remain quiet while people pointed out every detrimental item in your writing? Yes, indeed, but it worked wonderfully.
The pagan taught me how powerful a book can be. We gave paper copies to everyone in the group. During the week, we circled misspellings, grammar errors, and made notes on how to improve the submission. The pagan returned my submissions riddled with machine gun blast of profanity.
I could tell from the comments Christian had hurt her, so I invited her to dinner to extend a hand of friendship. She told me about Isis. I told her about Jesus. Then I learned the power of the written word. I read a book about David Wilkerson’s ministry that I found in the library. She read a book about witchcraft she found in the library. I became a Christian after my family moved to New Orleans. She became a practicing witch after she moved to New Orleans. A book had set the course of our lives on a parallel path that sent us in opposite directions. The profanity did not disappear from my submissions, but dramatically toned down, and we became friends.
The leader of the group was content to sit among us as a shepherd who supplied a place for the flock to graze as we found our own way. If he was late, or didn’t appear at all, we started without him. We were adults, not children who needed someone to hold our hand.
As the years elapsed, writers came, and writers left. Some left in wonderment that we did not perceive their genius. Others left in anger when we suggested their writing needed improvement. Many departed upon the realization they would not be an overnight success depositing a million-dollar advance check any time soon, perhaps never.
We developed into a core group of writers who rarely missed a meeting. Even the mighty Hurricane Katrina, the destroyer of cities, failed to blow us apart. We kept in touch by email. When we returned to New Orleans, we regrouped and met like nomads until another bookstore took us in.
We had a good thing, and we knew it. Our writing steadily improved until some received payment for their finely crafted work. We rejoiced and “high fived” the proud authors. The playwright among us won a competition. We attended the sold-out opening night to celebrate her success. She also co-wrote a book with her deaf daughter that was picked up nationally by libraries and Barnes and Nobles. The children’s writer won an award for her fiction book about a young boy’s experience during Hurricane Katrina.
We were happy until strangers wanted what we had. Fear gripped the faithful. We no longer critiqued one to three members’ work per meeting. We had to wait weeks for a critique, and then we had to wait months. Grumbling rumbled through the group.
“This group is too big,” said one member.
“Something needs to be done,” affirmed another.
“Patience,” I cried. “Nothing happens fast in publishing, so what does it matter if we have to wait?” My plea was met with scowls of disgust. New rules were discussed, but the submissions that came in like a flood subsided and the group breathed a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, our relief was short-lived. The bookstore blessed us with advertising. More strangers arrived wanting what we had, but the group no longer wanted to share. If we shared, we had to wait.
“Why can’t we welcome these strangers and wait if we must,” I sighed.
“These new people will destroy our group,” someone cried.
“But the purpose of the group is to encourage the craft of writing.”
Our leader shed his shepherd clothes and crowned himself sovereign king. He extended his scepter and decreed that the strangers must prove their worth first. They must wait for weeks and then we will read their writing to see if they are worthy to sit among us. This time I scowled in disgust, as the forsook the noble purpose of encouraging the craft of writing.
A minority in the group saw the strangers as loss. I saw them as gain. What did we have to fear? Writers with new ideas and fresh perspectives. Unfortunately, the minority had the power to decide which path the group would follow. They abandoned the purpose of the group that had made it possible for me to participate, to adopt rules that made it hard for people to participate.
The strangers did not destroy us. The rules did. I knew from years of Bible study that the letter of the law kills; the Spirit gives life. My opposition to the influx of rules fell on deaf ears. I didn’t want to quarrel with people who had become beloved friends. I didn’t leave the group; they left me, and later guaranteed I would never return by adding another rule: fiction writers only.
I left the group a better writer than I was when I joined.
TO BE CONTINUED…