Warning: Some passages of this blog may not be suitable for gentle writers. Discretion is advised. Names have been withheld to protect the innocent—and the guilty.
It’s the morning after having returned from one of my writers’ group meetings, and I am still thinking about what happened.
If you’re a writer, you know that writers’ groups are formed mainly for support and encouragement, and a little constructive criticism. The group I’m referring to was too, but we also have a low tolerance for “pretend” writers.
Since we meet in a local coffee shop, and our group is listed on Meetup, it’s not uncommon for a new writer to just “show up” without contacting us first and submitting a sample of their work (even though we ask that they do so on our web page). And if said interloper is a newbie, wannabe, neophyte writer, that person may set him/herself up for a rude literary awakening.
Our group has a small core of writers who take the craft very, very seriously (although our meetings are often a guffaw-fest, which often happens when you get a group of intensely creative and similarly focused people together). We are dedicated to improving our writing and getting it published, not so much because we crave the spotlight, but because we love writing so much we’d like to do it all the time and make our livings from it.
So frankly, we get a little offended when someone waltzes into our meeting, tells us s/he likes to read Stephen King and Dan Brown novels, thought it would be fun to be a writer, and plops a few opening chapters down for us to gush over. Sure, and next week I’m going to become a concert violinist, because I’ve always liked symphonic music and think I’d be pretty darn good at it.
And so we read. In this last case, the writing was so weak, and we’d had several such submissions in the previous month, that the cork came out of the bottle of ill-will. As the critiques went around the table, they grew increasingly harsh. The submitter began to wither under the pressure. Finally, we came to our most vocal critic (not me, btw). This is someone who studies literary theory with a passion and isn’t shy about holding bad or lazy writers accountable. He has made pretenders leave and never return; reduced others to tears. In his defense I will say he backs up every point he makes with theory and logic. He’s just not very nice about it.
My critic friend could not hold back. He attacked every weakness in the writing, going on for close to twenty minutes. And at the end, he folded his hands in front of him, leaned across the table, looked the submitter in the eye, and said, “Do you really want to be a writer?”
The answer: “I don’t know.”
Then you’re not.
Vicious? Yes. Vindictive? You bet. Justified? Let the jury decide. I do feel bad for the victim of the criticism, but remorse is not a defense.
Since the incident we’ve removed the group’s meeting location from our web page and reinforced our membership application procedure. We’ve talked about how to find and keep strong members, but the truth is that where we live, there is not much of a professional writing community. Short of us moving en masse to a literary Mecca, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.
We’ll do our best to be clear about who we are and what we expect from applicants, but I believe there’s another aspect to this issue, and that’s the responsibility of writers to learn a little craft before taking their game public. Sure, you don’t need a degree to write, but perhaps a little respect is due to writers who’ve spent the time (and often the money) to understand the history and trends, the details and nuances of what we do.