categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
A long time ago I would write a story, feel good about it, and send it out to the Paris Review or the New Yorker. I recall putting the very first of these in a blue mailbox in Ithaca, New York (which dates it early ’70s), and actually going to visit the mailbox for the next week or so. After a month I got the rejection slip and the story back (remember paper? envelopes? “stamps”? one-month manuscript turnaround?) and then I’d decide one of two things, or I’d pick both: 1) The story sucked. 2) The magazine and its editors and readers and the whole culture that spawned it and them and pretty much everyone in the world sucked. And so back to my typewriter (remember typewriters?), a fresh story. Because why would you revise something that sucked?
Of course the rejection meant nothing, offered nothing by way of criticism, implied nothing, predicted nothing. But that was all I had to go on. Because I was too shy to show my work to anyone but the screeners at famous magazines.
Later, much later, I’d go to grad school and get over my shyness, but for those long apprentice years I was the secret writer.
Now I have a group of reliable friends who are writers, too. We send one another pages, we send back comments. We get on the phone and talk through solutions to narrative problems. When I get a reading from an editor, I can discuss both letter and editor with someone who knows the work in question. Four, five, six people, great friendships, years of back and forth.
I’d prefer we all be able to meet, but we’re all over the world and don’t all know each other and so that’s not going to happen.
My advice to myself is to start or join a group close to home, meet once with them once a month. You’d have to have a rule about when the cocktails commenced. You’d have to have an understanding about how much everyone was expected to put into each manuscript. But you’d go home with a clear idea of what in your writing was working and what was not, a sense of how readers were responding. You wouldn’t have to walk around with delusions of grandeur quite as long. And you wouldn’t be alone with any despair that came up.
But I’m puzzled about how it should go. Or if I should even consider it.
So. I want to hear about your writing group. How does it work? How often do you meet? How many people? What has gone right in your group? What has gone wrong? Juicy stories are welcome along with any tips. Failure stories along with success stories. And theories of all kinds.
And this week’s bad advice, for those who haven’t taken it in advance: start or join a writers group. It might be the most important thing a new writer could do. But I have a strong feeling that it wouldn’t hurt a pro.