Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writers' Group flashback

Talk about draggin' old dusty stuff out from under the couch!

Writers' groups have their value. I've been in a couple of them.
I was lucky to attend one led by a pro, and she balanced the hand-holding aspect, which can take over some groups, with some truly valuable feedback. They're also a great place to find exercises that actually help a writer sort out plot and character. "Write about the thing you most do not want to write about." That's a disquieting but very good one for dredging things out of the unconscious that may be short-circuiting something you're trying to articulate. And the exercises could bring out cool, interesting stuff: "Interview a character in your story. What would you ask the character, what would she say to you?"

But there's no denying that a writers' group can foster the production of stuff that I can only describe as: Writers' Group-y. I'm not even sure what I mean by that. It's more like venting than it's like truly telling the world something it needs or cares to hear.

But therein lies a challenge of its own: To take one's piffly little personal experience and convince the reader to care, to relate.

This is an old group piece of mine that I turned up awhile ago while looking for something else, and have had hanging around in draft mode. While I still like some of my imagery, I don't feel like I quite pulled it above Writer's Group-yness level.

Warts and all, just as I wrote it in 1993:


In the summer of 1964 I was too told to catch fireflies.

By day I was still a kid. I read Roller Skates and Dr. Dolittle. I walked to the neighborhood swimming pool with my four-year-old brother and waited with adult patience when he crouched in the exact middle of the street to pop the hot tar bubbles in the asphalt.

But in the evenings I donned my full blue skirt and a sleeveless white blouse, crammed my bare feet into Pappagallos, and walked to Sally's house. My friend Sally and I had turned ten years old during the winter. By June, the thrill of gaining a coveted two-digit age had worn off. We wanted more. We wanted to be teenagers.

Sally's side porch was enveloped in thick magnolias and hydrangeas. I watched fireflies flicker in the bushes, and sipped my RC Cola in a restrained, adult manner, as Sally and her older sister Patsy performed the Sacred Teenage Record Player Ceremony. They strung extension cords out the doorway onto the porch. Patsy, on her knees, would plug in the little square box, reverently open the lid, and place a stack of 45's next to it. Then Patsy would teach us to dance. She was fourteen, and enjoyed our deference to her teenage wisdom.

Languidly we swayed our hipless bodies to "Every Little Bit Hurts," and "Don't Worry Baby." It was important to look weighed down, as though we fully understood the tragic emotions of the songs.

Then Patsy would show us her newest acquisitions. Patsy's record collection was more than marvelous; it was chosen with mysterious knowledge gained from some secret cultural network accessed only by teenagers.

"You mean you haven't heard of the Beatles?" she said, with a touch of pity in her voice, knowing full well we hadn't.

"They're funny-looking," I said, gazing at the record jacket.

But the sound blew me away. It pounded with pure, confident joy. The exquisite pain of teenage angst had attracted me, but this carefree sound seemed to promise a world of fun. It gave me hope of leaving my childhood insecurities behind at the moment of hooking my first training bra.

The world had already changed, but we didn't know it that summer. The shock of November's assassination had worn off. The intolerable knowledge that nobody was safe still floated below our conscious minds. Our daily lives hadn't changed. We still had two parents apiece, our own rooms, and Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights, on our black-and-white TV's.

Summer ended. In October, Sally and Patsy's successful attorney father connected a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and ended his life. Their mother rebuilt her life around bourbon. The sisters had only each other. Patsy made a teenage marriage. Sally scavenged for love, briefly married an attorney 20 years her senior, divorced, disappeared.

There aren't many fireflies around anymore, but once in awhile I see one.


Mike said...

You're exactly write -- this is good "writers' group" writing, the sort of stuff that gets praise in writers' groups but doesn't rise above echoing the expected form.

That doesn't make it without some use -- NPR loves these little essays that ritualistically elevate the personal to the profound for "All Things Considered."

I would not say that, of course, if I didn't think you were doing much better writing today -- it's called "finding your own voice" and it is also called maturing as a writer. I've always said that, before a painter starts flinging stuff at the canvas, he needs to first know how to reproduce DaVinci's Last Supper, even if he never ever wants to. Learn the rules, then break the ones you want to and let the others become internalized.

In this, you painted the Last Supper, and it's a good copy. Your blog is much more interesting and fun to read, perhaps in part because of that practice.

But mostly because you're no longer writing what you think other people think you ought to be writing.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Um, what Mike said. I think.

Actually, I kind of liked it. A lot. But then I'm a science/math geek and am not sure what a verb are, so take that accolade as lemonade and sweeten to taste.

I have yet to even attempt the Last Breakfast, so there you go.

("You're exactly write" -- heh.)

Mike said...

I meant to say that.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I enjoyed both these comments!

Most of the essay is honestly felt and expressed. Till i get to the required "wrap it up in Deep Meaning" part ("world about to change," yadda yadda). It's a small portion of the piece but it's the key element in this kind of essay. That's where i drop the ball because i'm oversimplifying to make a sound byte. You can tell where i stop writing for my own pleasure and start trying for commercial viability. "Evoke fireflies 3x, beg/middle/end" etc.

Of course, i also never watched Wonderful World of Color becaue it conflicted with My Favorite Martian. 8~)

I like blogging better because i can ignore any and all rules and expectations and just do what i like, trivial or not!