Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The end of my excellent NYC writers group

As obvious as it was, 

I didn't see the storm coming.

My NYC writers group imploded. The implosion happened in mid-June, out of nowhere, and it caught me by surprise.

Sometimes writing about something helps me understand it, or put it into perspective or, when necessary, let it go. Maybe I’ll land squarely on some nugget of truth we can all benefit from.

The breakup was ugly and wrenching, with accusations and tears and hurt feelings. Not only did our group break up, but at least one valued friendship ended. Since then, none of us has communicated. Our Thursday afternoon writers group was very good and now it’s very gone. I am still in disbelief.

Every week we listened to amazing stories — a handsome young husband’s cruel betrayal, a loving father’s midnight whiskey fogs, a single mom’s multiplying payday loans. We talked about the metaphors, the points of view, the sentences that worked and those that didn’t. We referenced other books. We brought luscious treats like chocolate chunk cookies and creamy gelatos from New York’s finest shops. Could it get any better?

We told each other how important this group was, how well it served us, how we wouldn’t know what we’d do without it and then … boom. Just like that.

Writers groups have to have rules. A few I’m familiar with are: Don’t debate another member’s critique; leave it to the author to take it or leave it. Be polite when you critique but by all means critique. Be on time. Don’t mistake the writers group for a pajama party. There’s work to be done and limited time. Yes, there are lots of rules and most long-lived groups end up adopting a few.

Sometimes you have to evict a member from your group. If you have to do it, do it right away. Better yet, have a very strict admittance protocol so that you induct only those who fit in. I’ve heard myself tell groups: This is not a democracy. She has to go.

If she doesn’t, the group will go down.

My NYC writers group evicted one of our members a year ago last spring. She was reading a very personal, powerful memoir about her life as a sex worker and her battle with acute depression and hallucinations. She was a dominant that specialized in kicking men in the testicles. She had good reasons to like this. And the men that signed up for what’s called ball busting liked it as well. Though her stories were hard to take, they were well written. I thought her book had a chance if she were to pull the various chapters together into a cohesive whole.

NYC is often called the creative capital of the world. 
It's easier to find and connect with writers here. 
But there's a volatility, too.

Our group took a retreat and spent a long night helping her produce an outline with chapter synopses. She wore us out and the next day one of our key members said she’d had enough. The schizophrenic had to go. We ousted her for being too needy and too oblivious to us. The previous afternoon, while we were in the swimming pool, the about-to-be-ousted member asked me to photograph her. I noticed that she was always aware of me, always posing, always turning herself toward me provocatively. One of her attributes was her beauty. If she was a narcissist, as some thought, she was oddly vulnerable and sweetly likable — attributes she used to her advantage.

This spring another group member got targeted as disruptive and insensitive. The complaint: She talked too much and she interrupted others to the point that some felt the quality of our critiques had suffered. The objecting member proposed a slew of rules meant to eliminate all the chitchat and keep things more orderly. In an instant we were to go from collegial and friendly to no-nonsense workshop. The transition felt undoable. The two members locked horns, laying down boundaries that essentially took both from the group.

With two of the four core members gone, that was it. Immediately prior to all this happening, I had recruited three new members who knew nothing of the dispute. I still haven’t had the heart to tell them. I’ve been hosting a virtual group with the new members this summer in hopes that all will be forgiven and that our group will miraculously reconvene this fall. This kind of protracted hoping is an example of me needing to work the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  

I think the clarity I’ve been looking for is starting to materialize.

There are good reasons this implosion happened. Groups need rules but rules are hard to implement after a certain critical point — specifically, when patience has dried up. Second, writers groups resemble therapy groups even if they’re not therapy groups. Lots of psychology gets revealed in the process of reading, critiquing and rewriting. In other words, we know a lot about each other. Thus, and third, trust and sensitivity are essential. Had we trusted each other, we could have brought up the issue of excessive chitchat a lot earlier and simply helped each other through the hurt feelings.

Our writers group retreat in the Hamptons 
felt like a gift till one member tried our patience. 
The rest of us planted the seeds of our eventual destruction.

I once started a writers group that functioned for years with me as host. We met in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked as an arts magazine managing editor. I invited the people. I disinvited them. Once, one of our long-term members plagiarized a short story. She put her name on another member’s story, changed the beginning slightly and got it published. When I found out, I did what I thought was the logical thing and told her to leave. I loved my writers group more than it loved me. When I took a job at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and asked if we could move the group’s starting time up 15 minutes to accommodate the train schedule, they said no and that was that.

Which proves to me that a writers group is not a family. It’s not a bunch of best buddies. It’s not therapy. And it’s not school. Its primary purpose is to help you produce good writing. If that stops happening — for any reason — expect an implosion.



  1. Such a powerful essay, Rae. I know what this group has meant to you, and I can imagine how painful this is. You've turned the pain into a beautiful essay that will help others. Thank you for all that you teach me.

  2. A very thoughtful piece.

    Fiction writing is one of the few activities which allow an artist to create an entire universe (explicit or implicit) and everything in it. If a writer is defensive, that's a lot of her own creation to defend even that's the purpose of the group.

    Other people's egos are often a problem; they just don't affect us as much as our own.