Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Much Ado About Writing

In my search to fill ghastly amounts of free time, I joined two writing groups in Chicagoland within my first week of residency: one just north of the city, right on the edge of Boystown (exactly what it sounds like), and the other in downtown Evanston. I joined the Boystown group (Writers Anonymous) through Meetup.org, but panicked when they couldn't seem to get their act together enough to schedule a meeting for that week. I swiftly RSVP'd to the last space open in the Evanston group (Scribes) only to learn the next morning that Writers Anonymous had finally settled on an official date. Scrambling for a social life, I decided to try out both groups.

Before I went to either group I knew I had an interesting case study on my hands. Writers Anon was meeting in an area of Chicago known for being eclectic, accepting, young, and hip. Evanston, on the other hand, could go one of two ways: rich retirees or Northwestern students. As my sister put it: one group will have a member who's working on a sci-fi screenplay, while writers from the other group probably publish nothing but academic articles and anthologies.

Writers Anon met in a fairly large coffee shop that was most likely once a studio apartment. The walls were made of cracked beige brick and the wooden floor had small holes like driftwood. A post on the Meetup page had said someone would try to secure tables in the back room. I ordered a chai tea and made my way to the bricked archway where I could see people sitting at a random assortment of tables and arm chairs. A petite woman with black hair and cat-like glasses turned in her chair as I cautiously made my way down the three steps. "Are you here for the Meetup group?" she asked. I answered 'yes' and the other three people at her table cleared a space for me to sit.

For the next hour and a half we simply sat there and wrote. There was some chatting every now and then and about ten more writers showed up. Ages ranged from early 20s all the way to late 50s. There were recent college graduates, a professor from Columbia (the country -- I made the mistake and asked about the Chicago college), and just regular people who were working random jobs just so they could support themselves and their writing. A guy next to me, Rick*, told me about a three day trip he and two of his friends were about to take to Charleston, SC. They were going to leave the next day and drive through the night, stay three days and then head back to Chicago. After learning where I was from Rick asked if I would recommend taking a side trip to Savannah during their excursion. Never have I had someone be so enthralled while I recommended things to do and see in Savannah's historic district.

At the end of the hour and a half we all went around and introduced ourselves and what we were writing/like to write. As I had suspected, the majority of the writers there were screenwriters. There were a handful of poets and one woman had just had a piece published in a collection of short stories. Her story was under the genre "steam punk romance", but was apparently lacking in "porny sex." Another guy was writing a screenplay about Apple computers going rogue and taking over the world. Needless to say, I liked this group.

The following night I ventured a lot closer to my home: the Barnes and Noble in downtown Evanston. The Scribes weren't as easy to find as Writers Anonymous. I stalked the coffee shop, eavesdropping on any laptop-bearing groups made of three or more people. Finally I pulled out my own laptop and looked at the profile pictures of the Scribes members. Having found a few distinguishable faces I set off to scour the store. Luckily I didn't have to search long before one of the faces came down the escalator. I asked if he was part of Scribes and he sent me to a corner upstairs where a sign had been posted, reserving three tables for the writing group. There were about fifteen people already situated around the table and right away I could tell that this would be very different from Writers Anonymous. The crowd was definitely a few generations ahead of mine and the men and women were very "put together" and I was even able to spot a few recognizable Talbots pieces. My "wealthy retiree" stereotype of Evanston was proving true, but there was an unexpected sprinkling of nerds who carried the aura of World of Warcraft about them.

I spied an empty corner seat near the window. The chair was flanked by two older women with short gray bobs. The woman on the left wore a light purple sweater set and I couldn't help thinking 'public school librarian' as I looked at her. The lady to my right had a muted neon green (oxymoron, I know, but it's the only way to describe the colour)shirt tucked into high waisted jeans and eyeglass holders strewn with colourful beads: the Artist.

As I unpacked my laptop The Librarian looked at me quizzically. I smiled back and she asked, "Are you at the right group?" The question kind of took me aback, but I finally responded, "This is the writing group, right? Scribes?"


"Yep. This is the right group." I sat down.

Librarian was still staring at me strangely. "So," she said, "did you just decide to take up writing? For fun or for a hobby?"

"Nope. It was my college major." I realized I was clearly the youngest person in the group, but I was confused as to why my presence seemed to be so offending to this woman.

"What do you like to write?" The Artist asked, much more warmly.

I told her I preferred plays and creative nonfiction. I began to ask what she liked to write, but then the face from the escalator called the meeting into session.

Scribes was simultaneously very much what I had expected and not at all what I had expected. Unlike Writers Anonymous, the members of Scribes read submissions from three group members each week and the group meetings were focused on feedback of the pieces. Having been in mourning for all my college writing workshops for nearly two years now, I was very excited at the prospect at having other writers read and critique my pieces once again. Scribes critiquing, however, was much more militaristic than what I had experience at my liberal arts college. Everyone had to format their piece a particular way (prose and poetry) with line numbers and specific margins. Although everyone had read each piece and written comments, only four people could speak about each work and they were restricted to only a few minutes before the iPod timer would blare an embarrassingly loud siren (embarrassing because there were still regular Barnes and Noble patrons around us trying to get work done and the tone sounded like a fire alarm).

One of the pieces being critiqued did take me by surprise. It was a fantasy-horror piece by one of the World of Warcraft-esque men entitled "The Toad Who Killed Frogs". There was a bit of confusion as he had posted Part I as a prelude to the Part II everyone was supposed to be critiquing, but that confused half of the group so some people had only read Part I and others only Part II. Obviously I did not read this piece, but some of the lines I caught were:

"Sauerkraut balls"
"Poked the woodle"
"Probing an orifice, one of his captive frogs..."

I was stunned that everyone kept a straight face. I began scribbling notes in my journal, hoping to somehow capture the absurdity of all these retired professionals having to critique a piece about what I assume is a sadistic serial killing toad.

The meeting ended with a critique on a poem that was submitted by The Librarian. I was amazed because no one seemed to know how to critique poetry. I don't mean this in a "you're not using the right technical term" sort of way. The group members were absolutely daunted by the poem and the notion that they now had to discuss it. One man even said, "Well...it was good? I mean, I didn't see anything to talk about because...well it's POETRY." I wanted to snatch the sheet of paper from someone's hand and say, "Give me a minute. I'LL critique it!" Really, Scribes? You can talk until the alarm sounds about frog orifices, but a simple poem is treated like a disease? Perhaps I should continue to join the group just so the few non-horror-fantasy have a chance of someone taking their craft seriously.


  1. Your writing always makes me smile. I hope you keep going to both groups because it is a good way to learn about people. I also like how you sum people up in stereotypes. Maybe you will find a playwriting group. If you need someone to read your work, I am retired and have nothing better to do. i don't know how good I will be at critiquing but I can try it. Keep writing whatever you do.