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My first (sort of) writing group

This is a slightly-edited copy-and-paste of what I’m hoping will be one of many story e-mails I’m writing about my everyday adventures to a friend, Cheryl, as she spends a year teaching English in China. It’s both my way of letting her know what’s going on back home, and an excuse for me to write more.

I did it Cheryl; I found and joined a writing group! I asked Google about them shortly after I wrote you to say I was looking for one, and found one group called Write Wellington that had been operating for some months, via the website Meetup. So I signed-up to the website, joined that group, and went along to my first meeting about a month ago.

I didn’t really know what to expect on that first night - I did say I wanted to throw myself into my writing hobby a bit more, but to what ends and by what means, I never really thought through. So, I showed-up with pretty much nothing: no samples of my work in my bag (all my stuff is on the internet anyway - I hope the others have smartphones), and no expectations of what might happen. I was a blank slate and I bet that’s what made me look like a clueless idiot, because when I showed at the pub where this group was to meet, the lady behind the bar caught my vacant stare and knew I was looking for something.

“Through the door,” she said, pointing to a doorway at the other end of the pub, “then up the stairs. There are signs along the way.”

“Umm, thanks.” I replied, astounded at the mind-reading prowess of the bar staff. Maybe it’s happened a bunch of times before and she’s just used to it, or maybe I am as easy to read as I wished I wasn’t.

When I followed the directions and found the group, the night basically amounted to a bunch of writers, across the vast spectrum of what constitutes a writer, talking through what kind of writing they do, what they hope to get out of a group like this, and what their own experiences have been with writing. As we went around the table, I was introduced to published novelists, people doing research for historical fiction, someone who had done creative writing courses through university, a poet who wrote about her feelings and sometimes presented them to audiences on poetry nights in small secluded venues, and most everyone just trying to push the words inside from their head out on to physical or electronic paper.

There wasn’t really a structure to this meeting, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t informative or lacking in fun. I, for the most part, got what I wanted out of the evening: a glimpse into what other writers in Wellington are up to.

When I introduced myself to the group, I told them that I’m a blogger, have been at it since about 2001 (from before the word ‘blog’ made its way into the vernacular) and the only audience I’ve had for my blog posts are friends and family. I developed my writing style from the books or other blog posts I’ve read, and haven’t really had too much in the way of criticism of what I do or variety in the way that I do things.

Because of the lone-operator nature of my writing, I thought it good to see how other writers did things.

And the night delivered on that part. It was also quite nice to just share stories with like-minded individuals who have had similar experiences, as well as have an obligatory 50 Shades / Twilight -bashing session :)

3 weeks later, I got an e-mail from the writing group: an invitation to join another writing group that had come out of the first one I went to. I did remember reading on the Meetup profile that some other groups had spun-off from this first one, so while technically the same group on just a different night, it was another writing group in their own right.

I accepted the invitation, thinking it’d be a good chance to see how another group operated and another look at how other writers did things.

The venue was the same, so this time I entered the pub with purpose, heading for the door and stairs pointed-out to me that first night. When I found this new group, the night went a bit differently in that it wasn’t just people talking about whatever topic came to mind; this time there was a plan, critique of another member’s work, and even an on-the-spot writing exercise!

The exercise for the evening was to write whatever came to mind when given the title of a novel.

“Tonight’s title is…” said the lady running tonight’s exercise, “The Fine Colour of Rust.”

I haven’t had to partake in any kind of writing exercise since high school, or April 2009 if you really wanted to count the month I did Blog Every Day April, so I pleaded with my brain to give me anything and everything it had so I would look like a legit writer in-front of this new group of people.

“Aaaand, go!”

With that, I started stringing together the random thoughts in my head into what I hoped was a cohesive story.

I surprised myself, not with how I managed to be writing something almost every second of the exercise, but rather with how terribly messy my handwriting got when I was writing at speed. I felt like I was committing every scribble to memory because a part of me knew that I was going to have to read this out when this was all over. When the time came for me to read what I had written, I was mostly reading from what I had in my mind; the scribbles on the paper in front of me acting instead like cue cards to a memorized speech.

The variety of what came out of that exercise was really surprising, in a good way: some people mind-mapped their ideas, others managed to write some pretty cool stories around the theme, and someone actually created a rhyming poem out of it. I was really impressed by the calibre of ideas that came out of everyone’s heads in such a short amount of time.

After that was the critique of a chapter from one member’s in-progress book. I hadn’t read it beforehand (I was an invitee from outside the group after all), but there were copies to share, so I read through a copy and, not knowing how to really give feedback like this before, used my method for critiquing movies as a template for how to go about it: mentioning the moments when my suspension of disbelief was dragged back to reality.

I really liked the exercise, and the idea of bringing something along for others to critique was really appealing to me. As I walked home after this second writing group, I thought that this group would be the one I’d frequent if I really wanted my abilities to grow. I’ll probably go back to this one whenever they next meet, turn it into a regular thing, so you might hear me mention this writing group in future e-mails.

Oh yeah, I took home the story I wrote in the writing exercise. I’ll transcribe it below while it’s still lingering in my short-term memory - before the hieroglyphs that pass for my handwriting start looking like a foreign language!

The Fine Colour of Rust

For some reason this title makes me think of an old barn with the chassis of a car from another era sitting in it. It’s all movie-inspired, I swear, because it’s a big red wooden barn and the car chassis looks like something out of a 1930s gangster film - sooo American.

The chassis is falling apart; the colour it once held now lost to the decades - it could have been a shiny black or stunning red, but they all decay into some shade of brown - and random patterns of rust developed over the years into what would look like a map in a fictional fantasy book series.

The largest rust patch would be the main continent on which all the exciting dramas would take place - stories of dynasties rising and falling, political intrigue and figurative and literal back-stabbing, plots of star-crossed lovers and crimes of passion - and across from it, several smaller islands of rust where “local fishing village” stories would originate.

What would happen in that realm is way more exciting than anything I can envision for the barn and farm in which the chassis resides, because I can’t imagine anyone living here, and thus, the farm is abandoned. The only residents now are the weeds growing through the floor of the barn, the occasional lost dog wishing for home, and the constant breeze that has helped perpetuate the rust world, much like how tectonic activity shapes our own over the millennia.