Helena Writes #5: On writers’ groups

Helena Writes
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her fifth post, Helena reflects on her experiences in writers’ groups and how, good or not-so-good, they can shape us as writers.


Below, I offer a writing that grew from a writing exercise.

I’d visited a writers’ group in a nearby town. This is a rural place. Nearby is an hour’s drive. But the weather was still good, I’d heard they were serious writers, and there is no group nearer home.

The first group I was, ironically, fortunate enough to find myself in, was an anguishing experience. I carpooled with a published children’s writer, a perfect stranger, who picked up another published writer, a stranger, too, on our way to an upstate library where the group met. I then lived on Long Island.

Not being a small-talker, the conversation in the car hammered my solitude, my feelings rushing in circles of high-speed opinions that went nowhere. It was a kind of torture, though one doesn’t have the luxury any longer of using such terms so loosely—not with our growing understanding of torture’s widespread practice, and also of the nicest people thinking it’s just fine.

The writers’ group at the Barryville Library was entirely composed of published children’s writers. So what was I doing there? The Benevolence of Things. I had a friend, who knew someone, who had a friend, who knew someone. My friend made the connection.

And it was summer. People were away. The group’s ranks had thinned and they jumped at the chance of a new member. I didn’t have to submit work—good thing. They needed feedback. Maybe no one there considered I’d be a novice.

In or out

Looking in on that scene so long ago now, I wonder if the group had shrunk to three, four with me, because of the grayness of the picture—a big library room, a long conference table, linoleum floor, buzzing florescent lights, a grim sort of place. The three were certainly serious, and well-published, all engaged in historical works, when I was among them. Researched work, years in the writing. Work that was geared for the school library market. I hear no laughter in that room. See no smiles. I was a novice, submitting manuscripts for two or three years, a pile of rejection letters growing thicker in my careful filing system. My friend was as naïve as I was when she joyously made the connection. This was my in, we both thought.

While the writers in that group were researching, I was dreaming of the moon: the moon following me home in my father’s car from Brooklyn to Queens. The yellow harvest moon, and how a camp counselor sang to me about it. My young son’s absorption with the night sky. I didn’t have to research the moon. I only had to look up, holding Galen in my arms, while he pointed, and recited his beautiful child poetry. And those things made up the gist of the stories I submitted to publishers and to that group.

I was getting nowhere with my “thin” and “slight” stories, words I didn’t understand, that were written on that growing collection of rejection slips I’d finally use for kindling when I moved here where I now live.

Here was the way the group functioned: We made copies of our work so that everyone could mail, read, and critique. It was the seventies, before email, before computers. We were barely in the age of photocopies. Thinking it over now, those women must have used carbons shortly before the waters parted and I showed up.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was learning. I can’t say just what it was that I learned, maybe it just toughened me up. Maybe I understood the way I didn’t want to write. I can’t remember a single critique written in pencil across my moon manuscripts. I did take in the way they worked, exchanging work, commenting, talking about it. It became the template of my university writing classes, and I later learned that it was a pretty current classroom practice stimulated by the teachers coming out of Columbia Teachers College.

What I remember clearly is the heavy depression of that drive upstate and that gray library, and that work, so carefully researched, that I had to write my novice comments on. What did I write? I don’t remember. But here is something  I do remember, and hope I never forget:

Don’t lose your poetry

There was one writer in that group who I connected with. She was soft, and spoke gently about my work. At the last meeting I went to, she approached me, took me aside. It seems symbolic now that we stood in the clear daylight pouring through the big institutional windows when she touched my arm lightly.

“Don’t ever lose your poetry,” she told me. “No matter what anyone says about your work.” My throat tightened and she looked into my eyes and I thought I’d cry. She smiled. “It’s a gift,” she said. That’s what Mildred Jackson said to me that day in the Barryville Library.

Don’t ever lose your poetry. No matter what anyone says about your work.

As it turned out, it was my last meeting with that group. Before the next month’s meeting date, my husband had exited the lives of me and my children. I couldn’t have supported driving two hours in that carpool, nor could I have survived that grim room of heavy critique. Perhaps it worked for more mature writers than I. Published writers with thick skins, who really needed ruthless feedback.

I suppose my skin is thicker now. Nearly 40 years of writing and publishing have passed. I have a better grasp of who I am, and the work I want to spend my life with. And I am still trying to tell those stories about the moon.

Even now, I look for gentler writers’ groups. Besides the groups I occasionally run and those we foster in the Center’s virtual classrooms, I’m sorry to say, I never find them.

So, take care with writers’ groups. When they are good, they are very good, and can keep you writing.  When they are a kind of suffering, well, stay as long as you can and learn what you must. But don’t stay so long that you never come to understand your own giftedness. I was fortunate after all.

Soon after my husband’s departure, and mine from the Barryville group, I wrote the first draft of the story that would become my first published book, A Grain of Rice.

The Other Side of Orange

I’ve had wonderful writing partners. They have sustained me with feedback and encouragement that rewards the solitary hours of work. One small group existed like a shooting star—too brief. Tom Russo was in that group. Tom was a brilliant writer, and he had insight. After I’d been working on Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn for 25 years, struggling with its first chapter, Tom held the key to revision in his gentle, laser-focused feedback. Tom passed last summer. He had one of the most luminous minds of anyone I’ve ever met, and I miss him. I’ve dedicated this writing to him.

And here is the piece of writing that came out of my visit to that town I drove an hour to last summer.  The exercise is a great one: Choose four entries from a list of words and phrases, and, writing as fast as you can, push out a coherent piece. I chose orange, circle, mist, and as a matter of fact.

Orange: A Writing

I once had a very clever friend.  On my birthday he sent me a card.  He was a painter like me.  This is the card he made: Cardstock, folded.  Glued to the front, a paint sample—an orange rectangle.  He’d cut a phrase from a magazine, a fragment—‘she filled her mouth….’  On the inside of the card, ‘with what? You might ask.  Why, with orange birthday cake, of course!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HELENA!’

I was awed by the brilliance of that card, and kept it on my shelf for years, then moved it to a bag of writing prompts I sometimes use, as a matter of fact, in my own writers’ groups and classes—a perfect circle.  That card is vivid in my mind’s eye.  I don’t see it through the mist of time, no—but clearly, orange as autumn, as though time doesn’t exist.  And I think, as far as any moment of art goes, it doesn’t.  I mean Time, of course.

That was the writing I did that day, and I was delighted with myself. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the prompts, the writing, the recollection. That was enough for me. I was glad I’d made the drive.

After I’d read it to the group, the leader said, without blinking, “What’s the other side of that?” That stunned me. But I was quickly taken up with the wonderful writing everyone else had produced in that short time, with the pressure to make whole cloth out of the mere threads of unrelated words. Oh, writing! We are natural story-tellers. I know from my own teaching experience that everyone can do this, every time.

Yet I pondered that leader’s question the next morning, in my journal. I’d been stiff-necked, but now was intrigued. So I continued…

The Other Side of Orange

Leaves, oranges, skies, summer dresses, lipstick, shoes, underwear, hair, flowers,
A bird
Taking off,
Flying from sunrise to sunset.

I haven’t seen Evelyn and Karl, who sent me the card, in years. I remember our dinners, our laughter.  How our friendship kindled. Then Karl and Evelyn had their kids. Where are they now? 

Some friendships end in a whisper.

A writers’ group, for my money, wants to be gentle, fun, exciting. But, really, and above all else, it wants to be a place that gets a person writing.

Are you part of a writers’ group? Will you use Helena’s “other side” technique to keep pushing through a piece of writing? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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