Sunday, February 21, 2010

How My Writing Group Works

In the past week, two people have asked me how my writing group, Meetup’s “Shut Up and Write” operates. So I thought I might take a minute and explain.
This group makes more sense, by the way, if you are familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s technique in “Writing Down the Bones” and other books of hers. The group pretty much strives for a Zen state in a writing practice.
The group meets in some form or another throughout the week in various locations—Berkeley, Palo Alto, SF’s Mission district. The Tuesday night group was my first and the one I drift back to. It was originally organized by a guy who put it in a bookstore in the Ferry Building. I did try to attend that meeting, but the group was hard to find and a little unfriendly by default of apathy. So I gave up on that one, but occasionally checked on the reviews of members. When I saw a new organizer take over, at a different location, I decided to try again.
The café where we meet is a place called Crossroads, in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMA) district. The café is nestled in among high rises of condominiums and along the Embarcadero—there is no view of the water, but there’s a feeling of the water being close. The neighborhood is clean, quiet, a little on the dark side, and easily accessible on the N or T lines during the week.
Crossroads is operated by a group that only hires men and women from halfway houses who are trying to get clean. All of the staff wear t-shirts that say “Crossroads Café” on the front and on the back, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Crossroads is spacious, with two halves and a patio. Our group usually takes up the bookstore half. We start trickling in and making camp at around 7:30, and the organizer takes his personal items and spreads them out over several tables, in order to “save” them. He sets up a sign at one of the tables with “Meetup” in red and white letters on one side and “Shut Up and Write” on the other side of the sign.
I usually set down my bags and order food at the counter. Dishes are Crossroads are your normal café fare, except for the fact that they give you a lot of it for very little money. You can also order wine and beer, and depending on the day and whether or not my mind is going to cooperate for an hour, I may have to partake of a glass of chardonnay.
After ordering I set up. I try to get a table to myself even though we’re in a group—I write longhand, and I find it entirely too distracting to worry about shaking the table and/or someone shaking the table for me. If we have a lot of people and I do have to share, I usually write on a notebook in my lap. I set up my table with a notebook, pens that will work with the paper that I have (at present I am using a notebook with a kind of shiny paper that won’t take to my fountain pens well, so the only thing that won’t skip and blank out on this paper is fine point Sharpie markers), iPod, and reading glasses (which help me focus if I get tired). I do not pull out my phone. This is my time, and since the organizer is keeping time of the session, there’s no need for me to even check it.
At around 8:10 pm the organizer calls us to order and we fall into introductions. The correct introduction is to say your name and then say “I’m writing ______.” You do NOT say “I’m trying to write _____.” WEAK. We are here and we are writers. And everyone is writing something different. In past meetings I have heard the following:
· A travelogue
· A science fiction novel
· Poetry
· Journaling
· A young adult novel
· A television script
· A videogame
· A book review
· A short story
· A memoir
· A feature story/interview
· A letter to a mother
A couple of these have been mine—I’ll let you guess which ones (and think outside the box here).
By the way, the introductions are just that brief, too: “I’m Sarah and I’m writing a story about macaroons.” The purpose of the evening has to fit in a sentence—we are here to write, not describe what we are writing. After we have all introduced ourselves, the organizer says something to the effect of “Great! Let’s write for an hour.” And we apply headphones if we’ve got ‘em and plow into pages and laptops. There is no talking among us. We are given an hour to write, and that’s what we’re gonna do, dammit. A good measure of us, due to family and work commitments have fought hard for that hour. We GO. Socializing was before the session and will come again after with the other writers. For now we are a giant machine, churning out hundreds of words per minute, fueled by the fact that if we stopped or got up we would assault our own rhythm and kill the rhythm of the group. It’s stunning—the force is so quiet and felt only the members, but it is a force of hurricane winds. When people re-emerge at the other side of the hour you can see that they left their bodies and minds somewhere during that time period, and are stunned to return. I put it akin to taking one of my literature exams in college—you have this amount of time to write something meaningful, so for God’s sake don’t stop.
There are regulars to these sessions, and then there are newbies, semi-regulars (folks who come once a month instead of every week), regulars who come back after significant time out (c’est moi), and the orgnanizer, who on Tuesday nights is usually a whimsical guy from St. Louis in curly hair who loves people. I spend all damn day with people, but not writers, so this group gives me support with the boundaries that I need, while he writes from home all day, so when he arrives to the group he travels from table to table before and after session, actively probing and listening to us talk about our projects.
The first few times I went I was all distracted by the concept of the group, and then after a few turns I let my mind split open and I was set free from the distraction of the romance. Gradually I got very good at shutting off the world and burying myself in a story or piece that I was working on.
When I took a writing class at the Cal Berkeley extension last spring I withdrew from the writing group for a little while to devote all of my time to the class. Shortly after that I broke my hand at work, and the healing process that followed kicked me out for months. In the late fall of last year I stepped back in, trying for once a month, grateful for the time but very afraid that the hand wouldn’t be able to go an hour straight. Yes, the hand did suffer at first, but it gets easier each time.
During the time before the class and the hand injury I had visited other spin-off sessions of the group in the Mission district, with a different organizer. I disappointingly found that I didn’t enjoy it as much and couldn’t get down to writing—either the venue was off, or the organizer didn’t have the same passion for the session that the SoMA organizer (Rennie), did. I found it to be like attending church with a lay-minister—the message is still there, but the delivery didn’t inspire.
More and more I had heard lately of different members talking about another session on Saturdays and Sundays called Shut Up and Write: SF Marathon, in which members write for the ENTIRE DAY. At first I dismissed it—with my hand, how could I do that?—but more and more it sounded like the new challenge that I needed. My mind’s focus power had gotten used to the hour-long session…it was time to change it up. I just didn’t want to cause damage to a hand that was and is still healing. However, I thought of it this way: this is something that I love to do, a part of me since I could read. I would be giving myself the time of a whole day of devotion to what I loved. If you think of it in terms of other professions or callings, then think of cowboys who endure broken bones and other scarring injuries in handling the ranch, or women who willingly want a pregnancy even though they know it’s going to completely wreck their bodies.
Fuck the hand, I thought. Let’s go for it.
The practice of writing for a day was an experience roughly on par with the early days of the one-hour Tuesday night sessions—I would emerge dazed and snapping off synapses of wonder. By the end of the marathon my hand felt like tenderized veal and my mind knew exactly what to do to built an equivalent to a space mission. I looked at the stages of progression of mind in this way:
Mind is complaining/too much in the world
Mind is blank (this phase was scary so early in the process, since I had a whole day in front of me)
Mind is a mess, but starting to fire off ideas and insight
True chaos. Everything wants to be heard in the mind and is screaming to be louder than the rest of the things wanting to be heard
Multi-colored chaos, starting to stream in pattern
The most intricate and detailed pattern on the planet, moving at the speed of light
And then I was out of time. My hand couldn’t take any more, and my brain was running on hydrogen. I started to hate my hand—“IMAGINE WHAT WE COULD HAVE DONE.” A friend of mine this past week reminded me…the hand is still healing. I look normal but the body remembers. And so in writing this I can forgive the hand. I can forgive it for holding its grudge, and my mind can forgive it because the hand got me to the point of space flight. That hand will take me even farther someday.
Write on, dear reader.


Robin Mizell said...

This post is wonderful, Jo. As I was reading, I could imagine every detail. I haven't been lucky enough to find a productive writing group, but I know they're invaluable.

BTW, I've never met Becky Levine, the author of The Writing Critique Group Suvival Guide, but her blogging persona is similar to yours in a way. Maybe it's the degree of transparency.

Thanks for sharing.

Robin Mizell said...

Yeah, it's all about "suvival." Here's the missing R.

Becky Levine said...

Great post. My writing circle & I do write together sometimes, and it's amazing. People think there will be distractions, and it does take a bit of brain adjustment like you describe, but there's something RUDE about talking/going with the distraction when others around you are trying to focus on the writing. Manners, if nothing else, get us writing! :)

Jo Jardin said...

Thanks for your thoughts, ladies! I checked out Becky's site and love it--looking forward to spending more time reading it this weekend.

Another session of my writing group tonight...I'm ready and completely willing!