Tag Archives: writers’ groups

Where do we begin?

I belong to two or three writers’ groups, and one of the mysteries of creative writing is how the writing arises in the first place. What is the impetus for what you write, whatever it is you write?

Some people like to pose writing “challenges” to respond to, bait to get the juices going, but I myself for whatever reasons find that annoying. These challenges force us to respond to something we may have no interest in, whether a certain topic or a form. (Sonnet? Villanelle? Are you kidding? This is not the sixteenth century! Doing good to others? How annoying! I’d just as soon run the opposite way, as Thoreau says, if I see you coming at me with your charity, or therapy, or do-goodism.)

How about you? Where do you begin if not from a sense of what is necessary? There is something within you that must come out. A response to something you’ve seen or witnessed in the world at large. In your family, it could be. Or your circle of friends.

Here’s a quick list of the origins of some recent efforts of mine, both poetry and prose:

  • “Show Me That Thing: A Love Poem.” Well, this unusual rhymed piece must’ve started out as a naughty response to the excessive politically correctness it’s easy to see in the arts. Not great artists, for sure, but the middling bulk of artists lean on the correct, the tried and true, so they can steer their wagging tongue the right way and make sure it’s not banded or branded by the morality police.
  • “Material Girl.” A poem written as a debate with a friend who tends to believe in the not-here and not-now, though she’s firmly anchored in the here and now of exercise and artistic craft. A response to something specific she said, in an email exchange, I believe, about what might come after this life is done.
  • “What We’re Looking For: Or the Editors Seek.” A found poem, in editors’ own words, about what they seek. The desiderata found in little literary magazines tend to be cant, that is, pious platitudes. Or we can’t be sure what the hell they mean they’re so silly or obscure. No need to comment on this stuff, really, aspiring writer. Just read it and weep.
  • “Rivers of Blood.” This began as a novel, a form I’ve tried several times with no success, but morphed before long into a screenplay. It began, and continued, as a response to the godawful spate of gun violence in this country. Its setting is academe, where I once worked, and its protagonist the one-time girlfriend of a guy who goes berserk and guns down his professor and classmates.
  • “Unko.” A long short story, in a metafictional vein, prompted by the death of my older brother a couple of years ago. As older siblings tend to be, Gerry was what I call here “a guiding and misguiding light.” Unko is the Japanese word for poop, as the story is ostensibly about installing a toilet, something Gerry would have been very comfortable with, besides his life as a wonderful artist and illustrator. (I couldn’t call the story “Toto” for pretty obvious reasons, but I do use some of Gerry’s erotic and humorous illustrations.) Since the brother is not available, the author implores the reader to help out with the task, which is not only installing a toilet, you see, but accomplishing the business of mourning.

Of  course, once we have an idea, a “germ” of a poem or story, as Henry James would call it, we still have to run with it, don’t we, and develop the idea? That part is not easy, but if we believe enough in our idea, and are excited enough about it, we will persist in the development. This persistence might be fortified by encouragement and corrections we get from other writers, as in writers’ groups, but wherever it comes from it’s a completely necessary component of the writer’s life. (This topic to be continued, of course.)

 

Who do you write for?

Or, to be perfectly, stuffily grammatical about it, For whom do you write?

In either form, it’s a question that is put to the writer often, either by his overactive superego or by those who don’t or won’t read him.

It’s a question posed a week or so ago by a writers’ group to which I’ve belonged for two or three years, a group I call Twelve Old Ladies and One Old Man, though to tell the truth, or something like the truth, our ranks have been swelled lately by one more old man.

I was reading  the first part of a long story I wrote several years ago, a very unconventional story in both form and, evidently, content called “Bird in Hand.” The first-person narrator, a married man, eyes other women and admires their asses.

Oops! That’s the word that got the ladies excited, I fear. They dismissed the piece as something gross and nasty about “horny men,” a genre that was popular back in the 1960s. So, you see, “Bird in Hand” was only 50+ years late on the scene.

Yes, the story is about a horny old man — but much more than that. As the title implies, it’s about marriage itself, about fidelity, about solidity, about what my old mother, may she rest in peace, used to call “sticktuitiveness,” for isn’t that what we need in marriage or other relations in a contemporary world of nothing but distracting pleasures?

When I wrote the story, or when I revise it, do I imagine an audience? An ideal audience? What the hungering hordes in the fictive hinterlands might desire?

I’m afraid I don’t, not even in itty-bitty ways.

I write what I feel and what I need to express  … to get it off my chest, as they say, the stuff that is bothering me.

And it evidently bothers others, at least the ladies, which is their right certainly.

If you look through directories of little magazines in Submittable or Duotrope, for example, you can find the widest, wildest variety of tastes and topics imaginable, everything from church broadsides to pornography, with the churchly in one form or another, for better or worse, taking precedence over the porn. (By churchly, I mean journals that are seeking to validate their preferred audiences and topics, whether “LGBTQ+” — be sure not to omit the + — or “the marginalized” or “diverse” others. I mean journals with a moral, or moralistic, mission, with values that you’d damn better not forget, you poltroon, even as you’re writing.)

If I wanted to be perfectly moral, or moralistic … if I wanted to be commercially viable, I would certainly write for a well considered audience. I confess, however, I’m unable to do so. I simply hope to express myself with enough skill and patience that the result will always find an audience. I write for myself, as others have said, and trust that there’s enough of me, and enough humanity in me, to shine through to those who are looking for a glimmer.

Writing, again, is working in the dark and working in a deafening silence. The clamors of the critics are the first thing that must be shut out. And the roar of the crowd the next.

 

The Writing Life

With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.

Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.

The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.

Gay Talese Writer's Life
Gay Talese’s Writer’s Life is said to be “a cracking good read.” So let’s get cracking, readers and writers.

Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?

Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little  money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.

Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.

Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.

I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.

About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of  us are writing fiction, a few poetry.

We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.

Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)

So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.

 

Writing in the dark

Kafka
Franz Kafka, 1883-1924, was consumed with themes of loss, death, and family dysfunction.

Met last night, at a local bookstore, with a new meetup.com group of local writers.

Four of us thronged the long table and pulled long faces at the start.

No, we didn’t know each other; in fact, had never met before. We were shy, introspective,  examining our navels.

Trouble was the founder and leader of the group did not show up, as promised. So there we were, on each other’s hands, in the semi-dark of this book-lined room, and how to proceed?

As a pretty gregarious person and former college writing teacher, I prodded the multitude to introduce themselves. We had D, who tried to write short stories, but they turned out to be poems. (The stories “weren’t going anywhere,” he said.) We had M, just returned from eight years of bumming around Europe and Asia teaching English as a second language. We had S, who offered she wanted to write a book about enlightenment. (I assured her there was plenty of darkness to dispel.)

M read a poem from a book he was assembling about his experience teaching in Alaska. S immediately asked whether this was a dry village. (Alcohol was not in the poem.) And if the natives used sealskin canoes. (No boats or seals were in the poem.)

I read the first page of a story I wrote about a year ago, and brushed up just that day a bit, about patricide, you might say, called “Who You Daddy?” Or maybe it’s about fraternal longing and fecklessness. You may kill off the daddy, in other words, but then when you’re in charge you’re still wondering, Who you daddy?

There is plenty of darkness to go around, all right. We write out of darkness and hope for the light, including of course the light of publication. We sweat and wrestle and doubt ourselves, and fall willy nilly into depression and despondency. What athlete wants to train in the dark, forever, without the chance to get on the field and play the game and hear the crowd roar?

Well, art, if we’re talking art writing, is not necessarily about winning. In fact, I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, it’s about losing and failing. I don’t mean the writer doesn’t want to publish: of course not. I mean he or she writes about failure, as Kafka wrote “The Hunger Artist,” dramatizing the dying artist in a cage of straw at the circus, the crowd sweeping by, ignoring him entirely, for they’ve come to see the lions, tigers, acrobats, and clowns. Or as Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, about the beautiful woman of the title, who commits suicide in the face of her society’s judgment and hypocrisy. Or as Atwood wrote The Blind Assassin, where narrative itself is elegy, for “taken to its logical conclusion, every story is sad, because at the end everyone dies.¨

So why write? Why not just play golf? Or go to the bar? Plenty of darkness there, too.