My first writing group met maybe a half dozen times, and reviewed less than twenty pieces in all. We were a hopelessly mismatched group. I was a traditional science fiction fan, more or less, with some strange experiences under my belt, a veteran of the psychedelic seventies. Ron, the big-bearded man, had a similar backstory, but he was subtly different.
For one thing, Ron was on the internet, which I’d only read about in magazines. He’d upgraded his Mac 128 to a Mac Plus and wired it to a 300 baud Volksmodem. I marveled at the four tiny multicolored wires teased out of the phone cable, screwed into little posts on the modem, next to the mottled beige Mac all-in-one information appliance. Ron had met his wife on IRC, the web’s first chat protocol. He’d proposed to her the first time they’d met in person. Ron was living in the future. He was, and is, one of the few true intellectuals I’ve known in my life.
Marty, Ron’s wife, was sort of in and out of the group, and probably wrote the best prose; she wrote from experience.
Steve Burke was an object lesson to me on not judging people based on regional accents. He was from South Boston and had that accent; that Boston accent. Parking the car in the Harvard Yard. He’d lived through the busing crisis; he’d suffered for decades at Fenway Park with the Red Sox. He wrote contemporary fiction, fragments of a novel, in which the curse of the Red Sox manifested itself as crows which dogged his protagonist through a series of calamities. He was smart, and funny, and soulful, and I regret having lost track of him over the years.
And then… there was Joyce. Joyce the Poet. Who wrote, well, poetry. Here’s the thing about Joyce, though, and maybe it’s all you really need to know about her, (but I’ll say more) Joyce wrote poetry but never read any. Reading Joyce was akin to listening to a man who’d never heard music bang on his guitar with a rock.
And this, to me, is the essence of almost any workshop, you bring together a group of people ostensibly trying to do the same thing, and you discover gradually that you are all so weirdly impossibly different that it’s amazing you can even speak to one another. You try to create some kind of shared language, shared understanding, of what writing is, what prose is, what story is, and mostly, you fail.
But it’s fun, somehow, trying. More than fun–it’s illuminating.
We met a few times, over a few months, never finding a venue we found comfortable. Quickly, Ron and I dubbed Joyce the Vogon Poet, and it became harder and harder to go to the group. Ron wrote two science fiction short stories, both of which I remember vividly to this day, and decided that his calling was elsewhere. He didn’t really read or write SF; he mined it for idea, he sucked out its marrow and used it to help him construct reality. Ron’s reality is complicated. Maybe everyone’s is.
We dissolved the group officially, in order to get rid of Joyce, and though we met a few times afterwards, in a new, reformed, Poet-less group, we’d cut the heart out of the thing when we did that somehow shameful thing.
I can’t remember what I wrote with these people–my terrible novella? I remember their work, though. I remember a line from one of Joyce’s poems. “Today, I am a bandage.” I remember Steve’s crows. I remember Ron’s VLAI (Very Large Artificial Intelligence, my first brush with the Singularity.) I remember Marty’s bee-drowsed meadow.
I remember losing a kind of shame I had, shame and fear, at pretending to be a writer, at playing at it. I remember a subtle shift in personality, in identity, as I struggled with figuring out what the hell I was going to say about someone else’s story.
I would never be the same, afterwards.