Essays / Experience Required / Features

Experience Required: A Group of Writers

I graduated with a master’s in creative writing in the summer of 2011. Prior to that, my literary fantasies had simmered for many years on a stove of many burners. They were symptoms of a condition I called ‘English Major’s Disease,’ a chronic enthusiasm for the language that masked an unspoken yearning to be struck by the magic pencil. By the time I decided to pick up the pencil and finally write, I had at last become willing to entertain all suggestions for improvement. It was that kind of cleansing decision.

Hansmann_bookgroup

My MFA class developed a wonderful sense of comradeship and, in that spirit, six of us in the New York metro area agreed to form one of those writers groups, relying on our shared experience to animate it. When the group got off the ground, we were midway through the degree program, trying to balance all the academic pressures with the daily tsuris of our regular lives. We gathered at my apartment. Each one of us got a chance to be the center of attention. And we kibitzed happily through a meal of pizza pie and Diet Coke.

Five women and me. We had at least three things in common: we’d all been accepted into the masters’ program, we were all prose writers—storytellers—and the six of us lived close enough to one another to commit to meet once a month. Four wrote nonfiction and two told the truth, we joked, but we were all at different places in our writing lives. The women had seen their work in print with regularity, either by working at magazines or contributing to them. I had had three hundred and twelve words accepted to the Metropolitan Diary section of The New York Times. But I knew how to be a good host and I trusted our collegial vibe.

Right away, fissures in the group appeared. Not fissures, exactly—for that suggests that our writers group was less than elastic—but stretch marks, places where motivation and self-esteem attenuate into insubstantiality. Almost from the first meeting, one young woman’s life became complex; she left the group and eventually the graduate program altogether.  Another woman lived too far away to make the drive consistently and withdrew. After those two women departed, another fellow grad, Sophia, who worked at Columbia University, joined the group. Then we were five, four women and me.

Sophia, the two Merediths—Meredith K. from the Upper East Side and Meredith L. from Brooklyn—and Ellie from Schenectady. And me. Every month, Ellie made the two-hundred-mile trip by train and spent the night on my sofa. Then, she broke her ankle. She didn’t drop out, but she dropped away for long periods. Meredith K’s husband fell ill and Sophia had teenagers; so often, it would be just two, me and Meredith from Brooklyn.

Meredith was all business, her dedication to writing absolute. Though she had mom duties, she found enough time in her schedule for eight hours of writing every day. Her stories were atmospheric and emotionally rich. I, on the other hand, stuck to a modest morning routine, and the tone of my essays was light and wry. We were the core of the group, with perfect attendance and a commitment to try to review new work, or at least a thorough revision, every month. The pair of us made for a very civilized group—punctual, considerate, and unsurprising.

I wanted everybody to like my work, of course, but as the number of bicameral gatherings increased, I felt deprived of performance anxiety. A small audience, no matter how appreciative, does not satisfy. I worried not only what Meredith L. thought about my writing, but what she thought about me. Maybe what we needed was to add another writer to the mix, someone to boost the chances of there being a quorum each month.

We putt-putted along, meeting on Tuesdays in the early middle of the month. Then, I met a guy at party. That’s the way it usually works. He was in a graduate writing program at Fordham, I think. Join our group, I said. As exasperated as I was with our elusive quorum and maybe looking for some male participation, I overstepped. The group quietly acquiesced to my unilateral invitation, but only Meredith L. was at the gathering he chose to attend. It did not go well. She was uncomfortable from the outset, sharp and defended. I did nothing to promote harmony. He brought an essay about his sexual attraction to his much older, truck-driving brother. Her piece was perhaps her least successful, a loose bag of teenage rebellion. And my five pages of tentative hemming and hawing could barely qualify as prose. When they both left, I would have cried; instead I just tidied up, muttering, and went to bed, gobsmacked by the stupefying awfulness of the last four hours.

The following morning, Meredith informed me that if he were to join the group she would leave. “God, I know, Mer, it wasn’t working, was it?” Now commenced the excruciating dis-invitation process. Endlessly, I berated myself for my poor judgment and my even less substantive defects of neediness and control. I had a month to resolve this, a month to waffle and procrastinate, to growl at myself and ignore the rest of everything that was going on. About two weeks into this fiesta of self-recrimination, he called and demurred. “The fit, V,” he said, “The fit just doesn’t somehow seem right.”

I would never ever do anything so foolish again, I vowed. No fucking way. The group would serve its noble purpose if I just relaxed and concentrated on my writing. Take what you need and leave the rest, as they say. Almost a year went by. Most of the time, we were a monthly threesome, and that was certainly more activating than just two.

One summer afternoon, I sat in a coffee shop window, sipping a decaf with an accomplished young writer, another graduate of our master’s program, talking about his many projects and his writing process.

“Do you belong to a writers group, V?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, Ned. It started when we were still up at school. It’s a huge help, getting heard, getting feedback, and just hanging out with comrades.”

“Do you think I could maybe audit one of your gatherings?”

I felt a hiccup of reservation.

“Certainly, I’ll run it by the ladies.”

Clearly, he wanted to be part of our gang. This time I would consult them and attempt to exercise my persuasive powers. We’d be six now, but look – we’re famously under-attended more than half the time. We could use a new voice, certainly another body. As I was composing a circumspect, yet cheerful, email describing the many benefits that would accrue to us with a new member, an email dropped into my inbox from another writer/classmate, a lovely young mother from Eastern Long Island.

Oh, V. Do you have any room in your writers group? It is so barren out here. I could really use the support. I miss you. Laila.

I had an orgasm of misgivings. Laila’s great. Ned’s great. Good writers, congenial, theoretically reliable. This’ll give the group the kick in the ass we sorely need. Oh, this will never fly. They will kill me. Both Merediths will quit in advance. The squawking will be deafening and intimidating and personal. I’ll disband the fucking thing, that’s what I’ll do. They can find another apartment to complain in.

The group chewed on the possibility of our expansion for a couple of days. The resultant disturbance in the force prompted a wide-ranging online discussion on ways to “improve” our meetings, shortcomings we should strive to fix. Reasons to maintain the status quo abounded, the status quo that only I seemed upset with. How could we possibly review all seven pieces beforehand, much less during the course of the evening? Let’s not eat the pizza. Let’s set time allotments. We mustn’t wait until the last minute to transmit our new work. Some of us have lives, you know.

I was wound up. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. My mother would call my reaction a ‘tizzy’. Here’s where a little self-awareness would benefit all. I was taking myself terribly seriously. Their reaction was not a personal indictment. But I couldn’t help myself. I wrote a huffy email, then I wrote an explanatory email. I wore myself out. Ned had been in the email loop all along (I had plugged him into our group’s mailing list in anticipation of a sunny outcome), and the next day, he sent me a note stating his reluctance to join our clamorous throng; he declined, wishing “not to upset the group’s delicate ecology.” Laila was spared the agita.

Things have settled down. We’ve had a quorum of four the last two meetings and Laila’s been at both. The pizza’s still delicious. We will meet again on the 12th at six-thirty.

Bloom Post End

Hansmann_authorphotoV Hansmann was raised by wealthy people in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. For thirty years he worked on Wall Street in a private office managing other people’s money, and when the office closed in 2008, decided to try his hand at poetry and nonfiction. V completed a low residency MFA in creative writing at Bennington College in June 2011. His publishing credits are slender, consisting of an anecdote in the Metropolitan Diary section of the New York Times about shopping for styrofoam with a nickel stuck to his forehead and, recently, an essay at The Common online about therapeutic spelunking.

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6 thoughts on “Experience Required: A Group of Writers

  1. Pingback: Friday Links « Writing and Rambling

  2. This is a terrific essay. I’ve been there, so many times: in writers’ groups, sub-groups, splinter-groups, great groups, godawful groups. Thank you, V, for letting us behind the scenes of your group/s. For the time being, I’m working alone ….

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