The Group

It comes to you unbidden in the shower: a glimmer of an idea, as unexpected as a long forgotten memory returning from a random smell. There's little time. The ember is fading in the ash heap, and unless coddled and fed with gentle breath and kindling, it'll go out again. So you stop everything to nurture it. It's tiny, just a scrap of dialogue spoken by someone standing in the shadows. Or a first line, with nothing following on. In time, you'll change that line, but right now it feels perfect.

After that magical moment, the story stubbornly refuses to write itself. It's work. Sure, some passages come easily, but there are never more words on the screen when you open the laptop than there were the last time you closed it. For a while, you live in two worlds. The voices of people who've never existed are almost as clear as those of your wife, or your friends or coworkers. 

At last it's done. You've done it. You are a Maker of Worlds. The story is complete.

Then you take it down to the library, where every week you meet with a bunch of near-strangers in a children's reading room. Under the mural of an old lady looking out the upper window of an enormous boot, you present your newborn baby, and they set upon it like a pack of literary dingos. 

Ah, the writing group. Frequently helpful, always encouraging, occasionally baffling, at times maddening. Mine is comprised of an interesting blend of literary aspirations and genres of choice. All do it (so far) out of love, but most aspire to be published/revered/enshrined in canon. 

When I was an art student, I discovered how much more information is usually encoded in a bad critique than a positive one. If people loved my work, I walked out of the session feeling like a kid whose drawing had just been posted on the fridge. Should I just go on doing more of the things everyone liked? If only I had a better understanding of what it was that had earned their approval.

When they hated my stuff, I felt galvanized. For starters, they were so much clearer in expressing the minutia of my failures. As a result, I either recognized myself as a lousy artist (which, generally, I was) or was utterly convinced that the critics were total idiots. In either case, I was going to work harder next week.

It doesn't make it any easier to hear when something you labored over in fascinated glee proves to be sort of boring to the other writers, or they don't think Paul should have stolen the car, or this made absolutely no sense, or I don't think the robots should kiss. 

My defensive belief was that they simply weren't tuned into the kind of writing I was showing them, but I quickly abandoned that indulgence. The reality was more subtle. I do, at times, dutifully write down feedback that I have every intention of ignoring. Paul is going to steal the car, damn it. I command him to steal the car and no entreaty will change his fate. But over time, I began to process comments not as savage attacks on my baby, but as data. Everyone in the children's room, under the paintings of teetering, anthropomorphic eggs, is not only a writer but also a serious reader. I don't aspire to be the writer whose novel gathers dust in a desk drawer: I write to communicate. That requires two parties, and now more than ever, the two sides meet as equals.