Leslie Goetsch, "All I Need is a Little Help From My Friends: The Value of a Writing Group"
In that summer between my sophomore and junior year of college as I waited tables in the insularity of a local country club, when a member asked me my plans for the future, I gave my well –practiced stock answer, as I placed the ice tea refill on the table: “I think I’m…(pause for dramatic effect) going to write.” And maybe I thought I was. But as the intellectual concerns of college gave way to more practical issues of real life (like paying rent), I left behind my half-baked visions of a writing life and moved forward into my profession of choice and necessity: teaching high school English. I would never have guessed that teaching would afford me the writing impetus and opportunity I might never have found, had I, indeed, instead chosen “to write.”
In my third year of teaching a colleague urged me to get involved with the Maryland Writing Project and to participate in their Summer Teacher Institute: five weeks of reading, writing, and discussing the teaching of writing. The Institute involved being part of a writing group that met each afternoon to discuss personal and professional writing. When I learned of this requirement, I confess I almost dropped out. Writing had always been a personal thing for me, which certainly explains my dirty little secret that would have to be revealed: I hadn’t really written much. I had no stockpile of manuscripts to turn to; I would have to get busy. So, between the dread of having to come up with something fast and the abject terror inspired by the sharing of this something with three strangers, I was not feeling very enthusiastic about this whole writing group thing.
But I got lucky: from the very first meeting, the four of us unconfident, unpracticed writers found a synergy that kept us writing and meeting together for another five years, long after the imposed summer regimen. We all wrote different things: poetry, fiction, academic articles, memoirs. We all wrote in different styles and with different goals. But whatever the differences, we found a common passion and inspiration in our work together. This was no mutual admiration society, nor was it the cruel trial-by-fire that so many writing workshops practice. We were all good readers and we were all good listeners. We could be honest and supportive. We could help each other become better writers.
In time, life took us to different places. I continued to work on an idea for a novel that had emerged from a story I had written for those early summer meetings. But without the carrot of a writing group, a live audience, I didn’t get very far (I think I was on my thirtieth rewrite of the first chapter) until an opportunity to join another writing group appeared. Again, a group of four women, all writing different things in different styles in different stages of development, meeting together once a month or so to share manuscripts, problems, small victories, publishing opportunities, tea and life. We met for a long span of time, in fits and starts, but with tangible results this time: all of us publishing work and continuing to write. In fact, the excerpt below is from my first novel, Back Creek, a work which had many stepmothers.
I find myself now working on my third novel, without a regularly meeting writing group. Though I can accept the frustrations and enjoy the pleasures of my writing process with a much more natural emotional balance, I still can’t help but seek out incidental writing group experiences: meeting up with a writer friend to talk about our work over lunch, sending out bits of my writing to friends and family, continuing to submit work to agents and publishers, workshopping my writing with my students in a fiction writing class I teach. For now, this sometimes random writing group experience seems to be enough, but I suspect it won’t be long before I find myself copying pages and talking through character developments, sitting in someone’s kitchen. Perhaps it’s true that misery loves company, or, perhaps it’s truer that company relieves misery. Whichever it is, being a part of a writing group has been crucial to my development as a writer and I thank all the writers who have been patient and gracious enough to read my pages and tell me honestly what they thought.
An excerpt from Back Creek (Bancroft Press, 2008)
I lay in the old pine spool bed my grandmother had slept in, dozing and listening to the early morning sounds of the creek. I didn’t know then what I was listening for, nor did I know that this Sunday morning, the last Sunday of May, 1975, would begin a summer I would spend straining my ears for the sounds of coming disaster. What happened that morning would throw things already in motion to spin out of control. Everything would change by the end of the summer. But I didn’t know any of this then, rustling around in my hot sheets.
I did know well the creek’s shining calm that Sunday morning. The wakes of the Saturday boaters had long ago settled to a glassy pink and gray flatness. The tiny ripples across the surface fired off shots of early sun rays. Waiting like sleek racehorses in their stalls, the tarp-covered sailboats across the creek bobbed with the water’s flow, pulling at their nylon restraints. The mallards and gulls were silent and virtually invisible, heads tucked and webbed feet planted on the mud banks surrounding the water. The tall pines swayed ever so slightly, standing guard and marking boundaries. Even the watermen were still in bed, or taking another cup of coffee, before they began their seven-day-a-week work. The creek knew a deep peace that Sunday morning—so that when the outboard’s engine ripped open the silence and broke into a million pieces the mirror stretching between two banks, no one was ready to witness one of the worst accidents in the creek’s history and, for an even longer time, no one was ready to pick up the debris.
I could feel the calm of the creek, even in my little room on the third floor of our house. I was just gaining some sense of consciousness, rubbing my eyes against the insistent sunlight filtering through the original glass. Everybody said my great-grandfather was crazy to build a three story brick house on such low land with a reputation for flooding, but we Barnetts have never been known for our ability to follow others’ advice. I was glad he didn’t listen to those who doubted, because I loved my little room, with its outcropping of small windows facing the creek. All that thick glass tended to distort the view, but I’d always been able to straighten out the ways things look, and figure out the truth of them. I had the best view in the house—maybe the best view on our side of the creek. Which is why I was the only person to have a good idea of what happened that Sunday morning.
I felt the room starting to heat up with the sun; it would be a real oven soon. I struggled up from the sheets and summer quilts, hearing a gas-powered whine coming down the creek. My head was full of cobwebs after staying up late drinking beer with HB on his boat across the creek and I had set my glasses down somewhere again. I can’t see much past my nose without them. The whine outside grew louder as I leaned over the side of the bed and felt along the edge of the braided rug, just below the ancient dust ruffle. My mess of brown hair fell all over my face. Just as my fingertips reached the stiff metal of my wire-rims, my legs kicked up and I landed butt-first on the floor. Sitting up, I flipped back my hair and pulled the frames over my ears. Somewhere in my fog I realized that the whine had become a roar.
I bolted up to the windows and peered out. The glass seemed even wavier than usual and the sun glared against my glasses. I turned my head through the panorama the windows created and glimpsed only dead calm below. Yet the sound grew louder. I would have to push open a window and stick my head out to get a better look. Jerking the frame open with a paint-ripping pop, I stuck my head out one of the windows. Way up, almost to the boat ramp near Dandy Park, I could make out a white boat followed by a huge wake, rolling hell-bent down the creek. My stomach lurched as I strained my neck around the window and recognized the sleek triangular bow of a Boston Whaler.
The mouth of the creek faces off to the east, just katacornered to where the York River meets the Chesapeake Bay. I watched the boat head towards that opening, churning plenty of white water behind it. Straining my eyes, I could make out only a lone figure, standing up at the steering wheel: tallish, with long hair streaming out behind. I brought my head back in from the window, removed my glasses and rubbed my sun-dotted eyes, trying to imagine what kind of crazy fool would be out on the water this early and this loud on a Sunday morning. I leaned back out the window to shout a righteous “Slow Down!” guaranteed to wake up my father, whose snores miraculously still rumbled from the first floor den he used as a bedroom, despite the boat’s roar and my thump onto the floor. I positioned my hands like a megaphone around my mouth, but I didn’t have a chance to get out the first word. Everything just froze in me as I watched the boat veer deliberately towards a long-abandoned pier still standing at the mouth of the creek. The boat met the pier with the sound of a bomb exploding. I saw the wood flying- the creosoted planks of the pier, the white plexiglass of the hull. The boom echoed up and down the Creek, as the churning white peaks settled to the silver calm of the morning, just as if nothing had happened.