I’m not really sure what my first experience with writer’s groups was. I remember being at them with my mom – she was a founder or member of several. Sometimes she’d bring me with her. Since I was a pre-teen(? maybe teen?) I think my initial reaction was awkward self-consciousness, which of course presented as eye-rolling boredom. My impression, however, not that I’d ever have admitted it to her, was twofold – 1) it was actually helpful and I learned things, even though I never brought any of my writing in and 2) these were some eccentric people; like suddenly finding myself in a British mystery novel – I would half-way expect one of them to turn out to be an amateur sleuth and wait for a dead body to turn up. But to a certain extent every adult in my life was counter-culture or weird in some way, so it wasn’t like I was judging them for it, just noticing. Mom thrived in these groups though. She seemed to gain some kind of sustenance. These groups “grocked” each other, even when they got testy or took things personally, there was something bonding them together. I noticed and wanted that.
I tried a few times to recreate the idea with my friends who also liked to write. It never worked. For one thing I didn’t take criticism well and would get prickly. I also wanted to control the experience, because I was mimicking what I understood the groups were supposed to be like and how they operated … and there were procedures and rules for that, “dang it”. In reality, though, my friends weren’t really into it to begin with.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I found a writing community that finally clicked for me. It was online. Online was new. Really new. Modem dial up, AOL village, pre-Yahoo new. I stumbled upon the writer’s chat board and instantly felt I’d found my people. We spent hours, hours and hours, having discussions. Encouraging each other, occasionally there’d be spats or disagreements, but for the most part it was fun. Just fun. Intellectually stimulating, funny as hell, and maybe a little eccentric. The conversations weren’t limited to writing. We operated as a community, so there were deaths and work problems and money worries and romantic disasters to discuss and help each other through. Most of us typically had the main chat open and private chats going in one or more private discussions at the same time. We shared our writing that way, gave each other feedback. Sometimes flirted. Mostly had more direct and open conversations about politics, personal things via the private chats.
There were probably a hundred or so people who were regulars – the daytime crowd, the nighttime crowd, and a few – like me – who were both. I remember only a few of the writers now. This was when people didn’t use their real names in online forums ever. It was still mildly taboo and awkward to admit to people in real life that you “went online”. We never really knew who was a published author with name recognition. Some people claimed to be, but it was so far fetched, others actually were, but demurred – honestly enjoying the anonymity. We would sometimes try to catch them out and there was speculation that so and so must be So and So. But mostly everyone was just a writer, in this shared space, on even footing; with all the mental acrobatics and angst and joys and difficulties that entails.
There was a celebrity chef and cookbook and memoir author that I bonded with over which were the better Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. (She had told me in a private chat who she was.) She was amused that this young, obviously white woman knew and went to the “real places” as she put it. She claimed to have heard of my father (a chef), but I think she was just being nice. I was a little awestruck and embarrassed that a real published author, with some seriously fascinating life experiences was taking the time to give me advice and encouragement. She kept trying to get me to come to one of her restaurants and meet her, but I always chickened out.
There was a middle aged woman who wrote Christian romance novels. She had the most wickedly funny sense of humor. She lived someplace in the midwest. Took no crap from anyone and loved quoting philosophers in her arguments. She claimed she’d never been published, but I often wondered later if she made it. Her writing was so good.
There was a young man, a few years older than me, that I hit it off with in particular. We progressed from teasing each other in the open chats, on to long – wretchedly embarrassing to think of now – conversations, on to arranging times to talk by phone (he lived on the east coast). I think we watched a movie together over the phone a couple of times. I honestly don’t remember very much about him in specifics. He was one of the men I was drawn to that I classify as the Eeyores. Decent guys, deep thinkers with clinical depression and an alcohol problem – everything was so dark and bleak, with brilliant moments of humor. And anyway, having been living through the AIDS crisis for half of my life at that point, I was grief stricken, shell-shocked, angry and no sunshine myself. So of course he came out to San Francisco and we hooked up – it was so unbelievably awkward and weird for and because of both of us. He was sweet though. But a few weeks later, when he asked if I would be willing to hide him from the police after a three strikes-DUI, I had to just say no more. I think I was most upset that he was going to just abandon his pet snake. I never had any contact from him again and don’t know what happened to him.
There were a couple of other young women, like me, trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing. There were a few older men, and I have vague memories of them – but think I’ve just flipped them into stereotypes in my mind. My general impression is that the group was made up of people of very disparate backgrounds, interests, writing genres, and beliefs. With social media today that is so common place as to be taken for granted, but 20 something years ago, it was rare and notable in that we connected at all, got along so well and for so long.
Then AOL went through some kind of change – a growth spurt, a purchase, something. We were suddenly flooded by new people. Casual writers who had no real interest in the kinds of meandering, playful, long discussions the rest of us were there for. There were lots and lots of students – high school kids – looking for help with their homework. A sudden influx of pontificators and advice junkies. People hoping to find famous authors to pitch their ideas to. There also were the precursor to “the sexbot” and “the troll” represented as well. Less sophisticated, less disruptive, but just as annoying.
In the end the “regulars” drifted away – tired of trying to fight through all the noise to stay connected.
I moved on to Zoetrope Virtual Studio, which in the early days was like a virtual studio and gathering place for short story writers, then for novellas, screenplays, and music. It was structured though. There were spaces made for more casual conversation and connection, but the idea was that you submitted work, fellow writers read and provided feedback. In the early early days (98ish) the draw was that it was in theory at the same time a pipeline to Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine, which was a potential pipeline to movie idea development, as well as a gathering ground for writers and independent small filmmakers to discover each other and collaborate. I participated for a while, but wanted more than the constraints the structure allowed for. The connections were, in my experience, superficial and driven by networking more than support. People only read your work so someone would read theirs and it showed. I wanted the free form mind-meld “I grock you” connections where I could commiserate, blow off steam, distract myself, AND support others and be supported and learn from each other. Instead it felt like work.
Years later, my mom found the writers forum in Craigs List and became a regular there. I tried it, but it was her space and we both felt constrained having the other there. The first thing I posted was a poem I’d written for her. Since we used screennames, she didn’t realize it was me, and she posted a reply in clipped angry tones that this was her daughter’s work and whoever was posting this was stealing it. So that was an awkward introduction to the group.* Also, she was kind of brutally honest in her feedback on my writing and while I could deal with that in real life, having it be public with others to chime in, was not something I wanted. She was my biggest fan and was my go-to editor and sounding board, but we tacitly agreed to keep that just between us, and I ducked out. Up until just a couple of years before she died, she was still active and would talk about the group as if they were friends she saw every day, and in a way they were; I totally grocked it and was happy she had that.
While mom had turned to online groups and had stopped going to in person groups, I had turned my attention to playwriting and joined the Playwrights Center of San Francisco and all of my writing community was in person. For the last decade and a half, I’ve not really participated in writers groups online. It’s been more about promoting our shows and sometimes each others as well. There are formal channels to connect like New Play Exchange and Howlround, but the informal ones on FB and LinkedIn or etc. haven’t been a good fit for me.
I’ve been a little surprised by my excitement for the posts on Twitter this last week when someone put out a call for writers to follow each other, to post about writers we should follow. And the response was huge. I watched it warily for a few days and lurked before tentatively raising my hand and selectively following a few people. Would it just be another hashtag trend, where we’d go back to just posting into the ether? And I suspect for many it will be a little blip in their experience. But for some, there are deeper connections being made, obvious writer-mind-melds happening. It’s nothing like the old AOL village forum, but I see in the threads and postings a glimmer of it, something approaching a modern version, a descendent. Kind of like those random long-lost-no-one-knew-about-relatives that pop up on soap operas to stir the pot, change things up a bit, who eventually settle into the storyline as if they’ve always been there.
I imagine little naturally forming groupings of writers who will continue to connect, chat, check-in with each other, share, play, encourage, celebrate, and support. I really hope it does take hold and last. I’ve never really stopped mourning the loss of that weird and inexplicable group of people on the other end of the modem line.
What would we call a group of writers? Birds are a flock, bovines are a herd, crows are a murder …. are writers a klatch? A klatch of writers? This will ping around in my head at the wee hours of the morning, I know it.
Anyway, I hope you and I find our group, the ones who grock us, our klatch.
*On a side note, my mom used dial up for a long time and would spend so much time on the Craigs List forum that sometimes I’d have to go to a cafe, login and post “HEY MOM, I’m here, but your doorbell is broken and you’re online so I can’t ring through. Let me in!” So I guess in a way I helped balance out that awkward introduction she’d given me.