I've joined a writing group...for people over 50. Here's how it works: Everybody writes something, brings it to the meeting, and takes turn reading aloud. After each reading, the rest of the group give it a good critiquing. Until a few months ago, I never even knew such groups existed.
This particular group has been going for several years, has about 20 people in it, and meets on Friday afternoons. It is also associated with a University of Illinois program: OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.) OLLI is for "mature" people (50 and above.)
I must be honest with you here: some of my fellow writers look like they should be in nursing homes. Others in my group remind me of those sweet old church ladies who volunteer in the hospital. And the rest are seemingly an assortment of befuddled emeriti, diehard hippies, and old soldiers with prostate problems.
I joined the group because I'd like to write a different genre of literature some day. All of my current creative writing is poured into these Sunday letters you get each week: work that tends to be whimsical, amusing, and light-hearted. I'd like to flip this stuff into a novel, but so far I can't capture the gravitas or plot that is needed to get over the hump. I figured this writers group might be a good discipline for me.
So I showed up two weeks ago for my first session. Per instructions, I brought along one of these Sunday letters the one I wrote a few weeks ago about Interstate 57. (Remember? The most boring highway in America?) I was scheduled to be the fourth reader that day.
The first reader seemed like a sweet old lady. She looked a little frail...and her voice kept cracking...so she had to keep sipping some water. She announced that she was reading from a novel she was writing on Central America. I thought it all sounded rather sweet. But I had to strain to hear her. Her characters were on the top of a hill somewhere. Then one character took out a sharp object and cut the heart out of two other guys. Whoa! Wasn't expecting that. My eyes were fully popped out by the time she got done reading.
Suddenly the geriatric ward around me came to life. People started peppering her with skepticism and speculation about the mechanics of ripping out a human heart. A few went after her grammar. I started to sink in my chair, comparing my own essay to what I had just heard. This surprising woman had written a thriller filled with thugs, terror, and unspeakable cruelties. I was horrified: not so much about some guys having their hearts gouged out, but that I was only two readers away from telling the group where to buy a good slice of pie in Effingham.
I had hoped that the next two readers would contribute an essay on how to change a flat tire, or perhaps read something like an amusing limerick. But no such luck: the next classmate brought me to tears with a story about a teenage drowning. And the one after kept us on the edge of our seats with a narrative that brought us to the brink of an intergalactic massacre.
And then it was my turn to read: about how I was going to move to Mattoon...and how I'd be spending more time on I-57.
Perhaps I could quickly scratch out "Mattoon" and write in "North Korea." Ah...that might work: "My bishop has ordered me to go to North Korea...escape imprisonment...uh...and see if... uh ...I... can get...uh...Kim Jong-un...uh...to join the youth group! (He's about that age, and perhaps it will help round him out a little.)
My panicked plan wouldn't work of course. Even if I changed Mattoon to North Korea, most of my essay was about I-57: and everyone knows that I-57 doesn't' go as far as North Korea. This group didn't like you to be too casual with the facts: if they blasted the sweet old lady for not getting the facts straight on how you rip out a heart, they surely would not let me get away with driving my car to North Korea.
As I passed around my article, I apologized profusely, suggesting that I hadn't understood the assignment and that what I brought was not an exciting novel. But the group leader mercifully assured me that any kind of writing was acceptable...poetry, novels, whatever...and that it was just happenstance that the first readers were presenting novels. So I embarrassingly reported that what I was about to read had no violence or death. I quickly mumbled that if anyone felt unhappy with my work, I would try to cheer them up with a couple of funeral stories if they wanted to stay after class.
And so I gingerly read my essay. Much to my relief the class laughed in all the right places. And they even clapped when I had finished. (Out of kindness.) And then they delved in and helped me by offering some good critique.
Later that evening, strangely, I felt like I had been to church. There was welcome, kindness, and grace. Good stories were told, fiction and non-fiction, to get at real life. Offerings were made. Bits of wisdom were imparted, melded in with humble opinion. Efforts to impress one another were transparent and grounded in honesty and authenticity. I am eager to go back.
And so now I have a new Friday afternoon hobby for the next couple months. But I'm going to have to steer my novel off I-57. Maybe putting a dysfunctional GPS into my story will be just what I need to make my novel rock. Lord have mercy. --Mike