by L B Gschwandtner

For two hours on the last Wednesday of every month my writers’ group sits around a low table at the back of a coffeehouse in a mall. I guess we’re really a combination writers’ group slash book club because we spend the first half hour discussing one person’s current writing project and the next half hour on someone else’s. The second hour we talk about books or stories we’ve assigned ourselves. At least that’s what we’re supposed to do. There are seven of us.

Mary Kate started our group. She had gone to a few writers’ workshops around the country. Her first was Iowa – a serious workshop with many course choices. Poetry, memoir, short short fiction, beginning the novel – take your pick. She met two women there who had never written anything but were each “fleshing out” a novel. Mary Kate asked them what their novels were about. After half an hour of explanations, she realized neither one of them could give her a plot or description of characters, except that both were about a woman who is unhappily married. A fairly universal theme: Madame Bovary meets soccer mom.

Then she did a thriller of a workshop in New Mexico. The semi-famous writer who ran it believed in stripping everyone bare by the time it was over – psychologically that is. Mary Kate said her turn came second to last. She wrote a first-person short story about it. That was the first piece our group read. The last sentence summed it up:

“I couldn’t believe how quickly I fell apart, crying and wailing, asking the others to help me, help me, until at last I managed to pull myself together and declared that this had been a cathartic experience that moved me forward as a writer.” Well, she got a short story out of it, anyway.

Mary Kate also asked James to join the group and another woman who used to be Sharen but changed her name when she started teaching yoga . . . and writing about spiritual awakenings. She now calls herself Wren.

It’s not unusual for someone who starts to take writing seriously to write under a nom de plume. Mary Kate did it. She wasn’t always Mary Kate. She used to be Arnold. She also used to be a man. That’s right. I have no idea where she got Mary Kate. But now she writes about an Irish Catholic clan that left Ireland during the potato famine and ended up in Framingham, Massachusetts. It took almost eight months before we found out that Mary Kate wasn’t always a woman. She dresses very well. Coordinated outfits. She looks a lot better than I do. I favor khakis and tee shirts. Short sleeved in summer, long sleeved in winter. Layered for warmth. Mary Kate has a mink-paw coat. Very stylish but politically incorrect. She says she doesn’t care. Her boyfriend gave it to her and she plans to wear it every winter no matter what anyone says. She says she hopes he’ll move up to diamonds, gift-wise. He doesn’t know she used to be a man. I told her that would make a good story.

She said, “Oh, that’s a really boring subject. And besides, it’s been overdone.”

I don’t see how that’s possible.

Wren invited James to join our group. He attended her yoga classes when he was having some trouble with his lower back. He had tried to join two other writing groups in town but they had already closed ranks. He really wanted to get into the Thursday night group that meets at the Unitarian church. It’s the oldest group in town. Very competitive entry-wise. Two of its members have published short stories in the Atlantic and one of them had a short story “considered” by The New Yorker. All of the writers in that group have agents. It’s a big deal to get an agent. I think James wants an agent more than he wants to publish anything.

One of the women in that group has a book contract for a novel she is finishing – again. Actually she wrote the novel, got an agent, got a publishing contract and an advance and then decided the book needed a complete rewrite. Originally the book was written in first person. She’s rewriting in third. James has an acquaintance who has a friend who knows one of the writers in that Thursday night group, and he tells James that he hears this woman is almost finished and the publisher that gave her an enormous advance wants her to get on with it. James doesn’t know what “enormous” means but he figures, the way these things are going nowadays, enormous must be well over $150,000. Well over.

So that’s four of us. Bridge joined during our third month. We were still feeling kind of open and unformed at that time. Bridge comes from a very old Southern family, land grant and all that. His family founded the town of Bridgewater and all the men have the word “bridge” somewhere in their names. Usually in the middle or attached to some other part of the name somehow. It’s always the first thing people ask him: “How’d you get that name?”

Of course when I heard that I thought he must be some kind old Virginia patriarch with lineage back to King George. Dumb me. I looked up Bridgewater on the map and it’s some dinky little town in the mountains on a river that the map doesn’t even name. But people are still impressed. Land grant always implies a big huge Texas-style thousands-of-acres parcel. I think the whole town of Bridgewater can’t be more than a hundred acres. But Bridge turned out to be a young guy and very sweet.

No one in our group asked about his name. We figured he had given it to himself. One member of our group still thinks he did. I won’t say who. It’s not good to go telling things about your group members outside the writing circle. But it’s okay to talk like hell about every other writing group no matter how paltry the information you have to go on. It’s a struggle to stay focused on writing every third Wednesday when some writer in another group has just sold a story or gotten some big agent to read an ms. or been dumped by a publisher or just gone insane. The ones who go insane take up a lot of our time.

Bridge is working on a historical novel about Sherman’s march to the sea. He’s done painstaking research and now is constructing the outline on the lives of the people who were ruined by Sherman and his relentless campaign to flatten everything in his path. I suggested he read James Thurber’s If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox, but Bridge is very serious about the historical aspects of the story. Not many people in writing groups write anything even remotely funny.

Bridge introduced Jocelyn to the group. They used to be in a poetry group a few years back. Until they both switched to fiction. Presumably because that’s where the big money is. She’s a lesbian. She doesn’t make a big thing about it. And when she writes about it, there’s always an edge of disbelief in the stories. Like, what else could she reveal? Her first book was a memoir that focused on growing up in rural Kansas and how she knew from the time she was eight that she was different from the other girls, but it took her until she was sixteen and had her first “encounter” with a woman, a teacher who was twenty-three, to realize that she was only different from some people and that there were a lot of people she was the same as, only she never knew they were around because they were all in hiding for fear they would lose their jobs and get eggs thrown at their houses. That book didn’t get her an agent. But our group liked it. It was very honest. And clear.

Some writers insist on being obscure. The last member of our group is like that. Erich. He used to be a playwright. Now he writes fiction. He’s a good writer, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that Erich will go on for pages and pages and I never know what is happening in the story. He says that doesn’t matter. He says the texture and voice are what carries the reader. I say it’s fine to knit beautiful stitches, but you can’t wear it unless it has sleeves and a neck hole. Erich and I argue.

Wren is married to a guy who travels around the country with a big band that plays music from the 1930s. They travel in a converted Greyhound bus. He got it at an auction. I never knew they auctioned those old buses. How would you even find out where such an auction was being held? Wren doesn’t go with him because of her classes and because life on the road does not lend itself to contemplative meditation. At our Wednesday night meetings, Wren sits in the Lotus position on a mat. She brings her own mat. She’s wide awake but her eyes are usually closed. She even commits some passages to memory. She liked one of Erich’s short stories so much she memorized five pages of it. Then recited it to all of us. It took over eleven minutes. I timed it.

When I asked her what had happened in those five pages, she said, “I have no idea. The writing was so uplifting I really didn’t care.”

That’s what they mean by a writer taking you to another spiritual plane. Maybe one day I’ll write a story that will have people levitating at the library.

I think it’s good that we have both men and women in our group. One of the other groups in town has eight women. That group is always dissolving into petty bickering and personality conflicts. Jocelyn’s girlfriend is in that group so we get the straight dope on them. We spent our entire session in October, except for the last fifteen minutes, talking about what happened in that group the month before.

One of the women left her husband after thirteen years of marriage. Actually he decided that the marriage wasn’t working out, so he told her he didn’t love her anymore and then she walked out. After she walked out on him, she stopped talking to one of the other woman in their writing group. She would still go to the meetings. But she wouldn’t sit near this other woman and wouldn’t go out afterwards if that woman went along. The other woman was completely perplexed and felt so ostracized that she decided to drop out of the group altogether. That created a rift in the group. Half sided with the woman who left and the other half sided with the one whose husband didn’t love her anymore. A third member of the group, who hadn’t wanted to choose between the two women, got more and more confused and went into a depression from which she failed to come up for air. She refused medication and began to lose weight from lack of food and sleep. Her family put her in a hospital and, as far as we know, she’s still there. At their September meeting the group ousted the woman whose husband didn’t love her anymore and decided to suspend meetings until after Christmas. They figured the holidays were no time to begin anything new, and this would give their depressed member time to cheer up. The woman who was ousted wrote a novella about a woman who kills her best friend because of a petty disagreement that becomes such a severe rift that she doesn’t see any other way to move beyond it. She got an agent and a highly coveted two-book deal from that novella. She moved to New York. Now we hear she’s hanging out with Salman Rushdie and Rick Moody.

We wondered which agent she got and if anyone in our group had read the novella. Jocelyn told us she would get more information and report back. So far we haven’t heard anything else. Around that time I sent out thirty-five query letters to agents and, over the next few months, got requests from six New York agents to see the first three chapters. I didn’t tell anyone in the group. I figured it would just cause trouble. And probably nothing would come of it anyway, so why stir up the pot? And besides, Bridge was going through a really bad time.

Bridge has a ten-year-old daughter who got some strange virus at a school picnic and went into convulsions after spiking a fever. She was rushed to Children’s hospital in an ambulance and put in an oxygen tent. I didn’t know they still did that. They had her on an IV and she was so hot they had to pack her body in ice. She suffered some brain damage and now she has trouble reading and doing simple arithmetic. Bridge wrote a short story about a small bird that fell out of its nest and then couldn’t fly by itself. The father bird wove special wings out of very fine grass and together he and the mother bird tied these wings onto their baby and then they lifted it into the air and flew it around from tree to tree. But the baby bird never did learn to fly on its own. Bridge had trouble with the ending. One month he brought in the story ending with the bird being found by a little girl who took it home and kept it in a cage. Another month he ended the story with the little bird moving in with a chipmunk family. Finally he brought it in with the little bird living in a mailbox. He didn’t like any of the endings. None of us did either. But we didn’t know what to say. We encouraged him to put it aside. We discussed how writing can be a process of excavating and it doesn’t always have to lead to a finished story. He went back to writing about Sherman marching toward the sea, flattening as he went.

Some stories sit in a drawer for years. I wrote one that started with a spectacular sunset in a thunderstorm sky. Just two paragraphs. It was supposed to be about a summer drought. But it sat for years with nowhere to go. Then one day I took it out and wrote the story in two hours. The sunset turned out to be the end, not the beginning at all. The story was about my father dying. I loved my father. I knew he was dying for at least two years. But knowing and accepting are different. That story was about accepting it. My father never read any of my stories. I never even asked if he would like to read any of them. It just never occurred to me. I don’t know why.

The main character in Mary Kate’s new book is a nurse. I think Mary Kate would like to have been a nurse. Her nurse character is very quiet and noble. She dotes on the sickest patients in the hospital and seems to have curing powers. Even some of the doctors are impressed at her success with very difficult cases. But there’s one doctor who feels threatened by her and wants to force her off the staff. Mary Kate has a real gift for a story line. But sometimes she goes over the edge into melodrama.

“People like melodrama,” Mary Kate once said.

“People like whatever they’re fed,” Wren commented. “Most of the books on the best-seller list are just pure junk. We’re a nation of junkies. We’ll eat anything, smoke anything, watch anything and read anything. We have no moral fiber.”

I don’t agree with Wren but there’s no sense arguing. She can be very rigid. In a contemplative way.

Here’s a list of some of the books we read and who chose them, although once you know the group, what they choose to read can be pretty predictable.

The Way of the Pilgrim. Wren’s choice.

I would rather have read Franny and Zooey than that little book about a Russian pilgrim wandering around reciting a prayer.

Dr. Zhivago. Me.

I said I thought Pasternak threw in the love triangle because it mirrored his own life and he felt guilty. And that the real point of the book was to tell everyone that Christianity was the greatest human development in a series of three great epochs in recorded time. Jocelyn called it a “sweeping epic.” I think she got that from the book jacket. Wren said it was silly to view one religion as above another religion because God is everywhere and knows everything. I asked if God was in Buchenwald. She didn’t seem to grasp my logic.

Memoirs of a Geisha. Jocelyn’s selection, which I thought was interesting, since it’s a woman’s story written by a man.

We Are Norsemen by T. C. Boyle. A great choice by James, in my opinion.

It’s amazing how many writers are known by their initials. J. D. Salinger, D. H. Lawrence, J. K. Rowling. P. D. (Wodehouse and James), ee cummings, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I guess it’s good to cut down on words wherever you can.

The Joy Luck Club. A Mary Kate selection.

She read somewhere that it was originally a group of short stories and some editor at a publishing house had Amy Tan turn it into a novel. I said I thought Salinger started this with the Glass family, but no one else agreed with me.

The Alexandria Quartet. Erich, wouldn’t you know?

I pointed out that was four books. We negotiated him down to Justine with the rest optional.

Blood Meridian. A surprise call by Bridge.

I had nightmares for two weeks. I couldn’t even discuss it. There are some gruesome scenes in Zhivago. Like the description of a man who had his leg and arm hacked off and then the soldiers who did it tied his severed limbs to his back and made him crawl back to his army encampment that way, half delirious, with blood running out of the tied up limbs that were no longer attached to his body. Some writers really like dark subjects. I had no idea Bridge was one of them.

The Bible is pretty dark in places. Supposedly a lot of different people wrote the Bible over many centuries. Only nobody knows who they were. The original anonymous manuscripts. Oh I know, that’s a sacrilegious thing to say. God handed the Bible down all written. In Hebrew, with the New Testament in Latin. There’s a theory that parts of the Bible were written by a woman, or maybe a few women. The theory goes that the female writing is different from the rest of the Bible. Not Psalms or any parts like that. It’s more the story-telling parts. Some say the sexy parts. Like women want to be telling a hot story all the time. The soap writers of the Bible. Maybe that’s where serialized writing started. Maybe the Bible and these new connected stories are really a long literary tradition that is still unwinding itself. That is if you can accept the Bible as literature. As one great big writing group that met over many, many centuries.

Anyway they’re still finding “lost” books of the Bible. You can insert the word “excised” in place of “lost,” because these books have always been around. It’s just that the guys who decided which books were in and which ones were out had their own motives for what they wanted included in and excluded from the Holy Bible. I say that was some politically corrective editing.

Somewhere I read that there are only seven plot lines. I wonder if those plot lines include all the Bible stories and any stories from Eastern religions? I mean the Baghavad Gita offers up some really bizarre tales. I can’t imagine all those animals doing really weird things fitting into the seven basic plot lines. Animals swallowing people is a standard plot device used successfully in the Bible. And animals swallowing other animals is fairly popular too. Swallowing is often used to get a point across to children. A wolf eats a grandmother and, bingo, you’ve got a scary tale that also serves up a lesson about trusting strangers. Eating is another loaded theme, so eating people covers a lot of psychic ground for a writer. Maybe the religious books started as children’s stories and evolved into more adult fare.

I tried to bring up some of these opinions at one of our Wednesday meetings. It seemed to me it fit right in. We had read Jocelyn’s latest short story, about a young woman who wanders outside on a foggy summer night because she can’t sleep and gets mesmerized by the moon. It casts a spell on her so that she forgets who and where she is. She wanders for a long time. She’s in her nightgown and slippers. Jocelyn used the word diaphanous to describe her nightgown. The character gets picked up by police who take her to a psychiatric ward where nobody can figure out what’s wrong with her. The story ends with this woman starting to emit a soft glow.

I said, “This story is a metaphor, just like the Bible stories.”

Erich was the first one to jump all over me.

He said, “How can you compare the Holy Bible to something written by a mere writer who’s just struggling to figure out plot and character?”

So I said, “I think all the religious books are simply metaphors and teaching aids to keep people in line so they don’t become total beasts.”

Then James got really hostile, which surprised me because he’s usually calm.

“”You’re putting yourself above God. You’d better do some soul-searching before you get yourself into trouble,” he told me straight to my face. It made me think about what happened when John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

Well, I couldn’t let that go, so I said, “The Bible is just the beginnings of laws. It’s what all Western laws are based on if you think about it, and not the written word of God at all.”

Well, that really got me in trouble.

Jocelyn said, “I had no idea you were so arrogant and such an atheist.”

I said it wasn’t being atheistic at all to suggest that people were behind the great religious books. One of them, and here I won’t say who because of the unwritten rule, said I sounded satanic and maybe I should consider taking some time off from the group to get my head together.

I pointed out that they were being as narrow-minded as those people who put out that Fatwa thing on Salman Rushdie. Well. All hell broke loose with that, let me tell you. And here I am going to abandon the unwritten rule in the interests of the greater good – exposing hypocrisy.

Bridge said, “You’re going over the deep end.”

He didn’t say of what.

Wren untwined her legs from their double helix and walked over and actually wagged her finger at me – as if I was a third grader.

James said, “You should watch yourself.”

I find that hard to do under most circumstances, unless there’s a mirror nearby. When I asked him for clarification he told me he had never really trusted me or my writing. That I was only in it for the glory. I asked him if this was one of the glorious moments he was referring to, but before he could answer Mary Kate stood up.

She said, “This is a real shame.”

And then even she (or if you want to be genetically technical, he) turned on me.

She said, “You should reconsider why you come to a writers’ group.”

I turned to Erich, who had started the whole thing.

There was a moment of absolute silence. Erich looked around from writer to writer.

Then he said, “It’s a tragedy that the world had become so polarized. That even writers have become affected by the general intellectual and cultural malaise.”

He went on about the media and hip hop heroes and blogs and gossip mongering. All of which had nothing to do, in my opinion, with what was going on in our little group.

Finally he said, “We’re a microcosm of writers all over the world and the issues they’re struggling to bring to light.”

Then he said, bluntly to my way of thinking, that I was not a positive force in this group.

So I stopped going. Oh all right, call me Ishmael.

A few months later one of the agents in New York emailed me asking to see my entire oeuvre. I sent it in. After another month he called to talk about representing me. So I went up to New York and stayed in a cheesy hotel that had kitchenettes so I could cook my own food to save money, which I never did – cook or save money. I signed a contract with the agent. It’s good for a year. He sold the book right away. I can’t say I got an enormous advance. But I’m not telling anyone back home. Let them hear about it from some other writers’ group.