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Writer’s Group Horror Story: The Book Store

July 23, 2017

(image via wikimedia)

I should have seen the warning signs before I gave this writer’s group a try.  First of all, the meeting was held in public, at the back of a book store.  Over 30 people were crammed around a couple tables to read their manuscripts and get feedback.  Writers weren’t even supposed to make copies.  We had to read our words in front of the entire group and then get instant reaction.  To me, that was a lousy way to run a writer’s group, but I was desperate.

This was in the early 1990s, and I was trying to get a novel published.  I had a humorous mystery about a fake psychic who got coerced into hunting a serial killer, and it was tough back then to get honest feedback for your writing.  You can read Writer’s Group Horror Story: The Vulgar Guy  for more background information.

Anyway, about an hour into the meeting, a guy my age (early 20s) started reading a graphic sex scene that he had written.

And the guy didn’t use metaphors to disguise what he was talking about.  He used the bluntest of four-letter words, and he shouted them angrily as his male character called his female partner a bunch of dirty names.  And he spat out the words to this blunt scene with an intense fury.

And he was doing this in public, in a book store, next to the children’s section.

It was a little awkward listening to this guy read the sex scene really loud in public.  I could feel myself blushing (and I was a 25 year-old guy), and I stared at the table, and the immature part of me wanted to laugh, but if I had started I wouldn’t have been able to stop.  Whenever I glanced up, I saw other writers at the table making eye contact with each other and looking around.  Customers moved around us like we were diseased.   Kids peeked from behind shelves and mothers pulled them away.  I thought about leaving, but you don’t get up during a writer’s group reading.  That would be rude.

Looking back, maybe I should have intervened and told the guy to stop because there were kids around, but I was a rule follower.  Our writer’s group procedures stated to not interrupt while somebody was reading.  It was my first time in this writer’s group, and I didn’t want to be the new guy who thinks he’s better than everybody else and then breaks established rules.  To some writers, breaking writer’s group protocol would be worse than reading a graphic sex scene next to the kids section.

If this had happened today, somebody would have taken cell phone footage.  I would have been paranoid that we were on one of those shows where they put unwitting fools into awkward situations.  I would have thought this was staged for a prank video.  But that kind of stuff wasn’t done very often back then.

The five-minute sex reading felt like an hour, and when the guy finished, a silence lingered over the group.  Edgar Allen Poe might have called it stone dead silence.

We were supposed to provide feedback, but nobody said anything.  I had a few questions.  How could a writer be so lacking in self-awareness?  How could a writer read a sex scene out loud without shame while there were kids around?  How was any other writer going to top that performance?

Nobody offered any critiques.  I actually wanted to say something supportive to the guy.  When you get silent feedback, you know you sucked, and he started fidgeting, probably realizing that his writing wasn’t as good as he thought it was.  That’s a lousy feeling.  I’m an expert on that feeling.  I was inwardly cringing for the guy, but I couldn’t think of any positive reaction to a vulgar misogynist piece.

Somebody else finally volunteered to read, and that was it.  I don’t remember much else.  I just remember keeping my head down and hoping nobody I knew (especially from work) had seen me there.

After the meeting, everybody stood around and mingled.  Even a quiet guy like me talked.  I mentioned my fake psychic idea to a couple other writers, and they pretended to be interested, and they told me about their story ideas as well.

I noticed that a lot of people wanted to talk to the vulgar guy.  It was like he was a rock star.  I thought he would have been shunned, but I had completely misread the situation.  He even got phone numbers from a couple women.  Back then, we didn’t have cell phones, and you actually had to write down information, so you could always tell when people were exchanging phone numbers.  Ha, I thought, those women probably thought they could save vulgar guy.  Or maybe they were into that kind of thing.

I stayed a few minutes longer to buy a couple books.  I figured if the book store was nice enough to let us interrupt their business, we should at least buy some stuff.  And then I realized I was the only one from our group buying anything.  After a few minutes, everybody had left, and the store was almost empty.  Even worse, nobody had cleaned up.  The writing group area was still messed up, with coffee cups littering the tables and chairs scattered everywhere.

I was mortified.  I had cleaned up after myself, but I was the only one.  I felt bad for the book store.  They had thought they were getting over 30 automatic customers on a weeknight and instead they got a bunch of misfits who scared off families with vulgarity and then didn’t even buy anything.  That was worse than not leaving a tip.

I started folding up the chairs and asked an employee about where to stack them, and she said they’d take care of it.  I almost apologized for the vulgar guy, but since I hadn’t done anything to stop him when he was reading, I didn’t mention it.  The apology would have seemed empty.  I found a couple more books and bought them.  I couldn’t make up for 30 other thoughtless writers, but I could do my part.

The writer’s group never met again.  At least, I never heard about it.  When I contacted the group leader a few days later, he said the book store wouldn’t let us back in and that he was trying to find a new location.  I never heard back.  I guess word got out about the vulgar cheapskate writer’s group.

A few years later, the book store closed down.  A few years after that, the plaza was vacant.  A few years ago, the condos and town homes went up.  I wonder how much the writer’s group caused the domino effect.

As bad as that was (especially for the book store), it wasn’t even the worst writer’s group experience I’ve ever had.


To be continued!

From → Dysfunctileaks

  1. lexc13 permalink

    Damn, honestly kind of jealous I don’t have any experiences like this to write about. Not exactly surprising that the group didn’t last though. Done a bunch of workshops, mostly good experiences, no horror stories.

    • Haha! You might have been lucky, or maybe you chose more wisely than I did or weren’t as desperate as I was. I had some good experiences too, and maybe I’ll write about those at some point.

  2. lexc13 permalink

    Lucky I guess, well timing likely played a part, started about a decade later.

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