by E.E. Kennedy
It began as an author’s promotional gig. All I did was to offer my services as a speaker at the local Senior Center. Facilities like these appreciate having a speaker for free, and I can often sell a few copies of my mysteries. I like to call my basic speech “Taking the Mystery out of Mysteries.” A little corny, I know, but it’s self-explanatory and who doesn’t like mysteries?
This time, I was told that they’d love to have me, but I would need to fashion my presentation into four one-hour classes, a short course on writing mysteries. Since I enjoy public speaking and have a lot of material on the subject, I agreed. In preparing the lessons, I decided to go easy on the poor dears and keep things simple and elementary. After all, this was a Senior Center and these were oldies, probably a little dim and slow on the uptake.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my arrogance. The first class was well-attended and all the attendees were sharp and attentive. I quickly ran through at least two weeks of my prepared material in one session! In an attempt to fill the time, I asked if anyone would like to bring in something they’d written next week and share it with the class. I’d give them pointers.
It had been billed as a class on mystery writing, but the excerpts that these folks shared the following Friday ran the gamut of genres: police procedural, industrial espionage, mental health textbook, folksy cookbook commentary and memoirs—lots of memoirs. To my surprise, they were really good!
And that’s how our Writers’ Circle came into existence. The four weeks passed quickly and at the fourth meeting, the attendees asked if we could meet again, and make this a regular thing. I reluctantly agreed. I’d do it for a few months and then pass the baton on to some other person in the group.
I actually did try to escape—once—but couldn’t…quite…pull…myself…away. It was just too fascinating to come every week and listen to what these intelligent, experienced people had to say. Things developed into a pattern. We would gather every Friday morning at 9:30 and take our seats at the long conference table. As mentor and mistress of ceremonies, I would open the session and call on each person one at a time, going clockwise. They’d read their piece and the group would give advice. We generally had about eight people at any meeting, but sometimes as many as twelve, which meant each reading had to be brief!
One fateful month about a year into the group’s life, I missed the signup deadline and lost the use of the Senior Center conference room. Desperately, a friend and I searched for a new meeting place. The local bagel shop was far too noisy, the nearby brunch restaurant required us to buy food, the local retirement community wasn’t interested and the civic arts center was full up.
Time was running out when one morning I sat in my car in a parking lot after a doctor’s appointment and prayed, “Lord, I believe you have brought us together. This is such a great group of people. Would you help us find a place?” Immediately, the thought popped into my head, “Why not YOUR church?” I hesitated. Technically, the Writers’ Circle wasn’t a Christian group, though it was obvious that the vast majority of members were believers. Would my church agree to let us meet in one of the rooms? I made the call then and there.
And that’s how we got our permanent meeting place. Every Friday, we gather in a room that isn’t needed by the church’s preschool. It’s a much better location for us, because now we aren’t limited to seniors only, it’s all on one floor with easily accessible restrooms and the Christian spirit that seemed to pervade the meetings does so in Sunday School rooms with huge framed Bible verses on nearly every wall. Several members of my church have joined us, and have quickly become irreplaceable.
Sometimes, there’s even music, too, as the toddlers’ voices are raised in song or as they beat rhythms on makeshift drums in the classrooms next door. We’ve become accustomed to smiling and saying, “The natives are restless,” and turning up the volume a bit as we read.
Not long ago, I read an article on the Internet that had a title something like, “The Pitfalls of Belonging to a Writers’ Group.” It was full of dire warnings about the dangers of displaying your latest work to a roomful of egos. In critiquing each other’s work, the article said, there were bound to be sharp words, wounded pride, jealousies and back-stabbings. Lifelong resentments had been known to form. Many a group had gone down in flames, it asserted, and one was probably wise to approach such a notion with great caution. I’m so glad I didn’t see that article before our group formed. I would have been scared to death!
Perhaps it’s because we’re a bunch of amateurs, you might think, but you’d be mistaken. Our group boasts a large percentage published authors—both traditional and indie—one of our members has had over sixty books traditionally published in his lifetime. Another has had many pieces published in the various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, another in Christian women’s magazines, another has independently published (complete with audiobook), still another in a mystery anthology and I recently saw the release of my fourth mystery. There’s no envy when one of us publishes something, only celebration.
I think it’s what my daughter calls “a God thing.” There’s something terribly intimate about reading aloud what’s in your heart. We’ve had people recount some terrible experiences, generally in memoirs. It’s rather like a confessional and it has become an unspoken rule that such things will not be repeated elsewhere. During the life of the group, a few of us have battled cancer, lost loved ones and worried deeply about family members. This is always met with, “I’ll pray for you.” Sometimes, we have prayer right then and there, as we did when one of us was undergoing surgery that very morning.
And we laugh together, big belly laughs and little giggles. There are shared jokes and terrible puns. It’s a mighty witty group!
One person in particular—I’ll call him Henry—became special to all of us. He was in his nineties and walked slowly, with a cane. He’d never let any of us help him out of his chair, but struggled to a standing position when it was time for his son to pick him up. Henry was in delicate health, but his mind and spirit were raring to go!
He was writing his memoirs. Every week, this white-haired sage would keep us spellbound. His descriptions of his mother’s cooking made us all hungry. We were fascinated by his life on a bare and battle-torn island in the Pacific as a fighter pilot during World War II. We all smiled as he told us how he met his future wife and knew right away that she was the girl for him. Henry and Barbara (not her real name, either) were a true love match. One favorite Henry story described what happened when he had said goodbye to Barbara and boarded a train to ship out for military training far away. Suddenly, as the train began to move out of the station, Barbara ran, hopping aboard and into her husband’s arms, calling to her mother, “Ship my clothes to me!” Theirs was a long and passionate marriage. Henry would choke up every time he described her death from cancer.
So it wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shock, when Henry’s son called recently to explain that his father had died suddenly. I quickly informed the group via email. The following meeting, we all admitted that we half expected to see Henry hobbling through the door, wearing his radiant smile. We sent cards and wrote condolences, trying to capture in words what Henry had meant to us, to the group. One person in particular wrote a beautiful prose poem, describing Henry’s arrival in Heaven and his reunion with Barbara. When she read it to us, it was a very emotional time. His family will publish his memoir and have promised to give us a copy. We’ll treasure it.
The title says it all. We love each other. It’s not me, it’s not where we meet, it’s not our successes or lack thereof. It’s all due to that one Member in particular who allows us to meet in His house.
SOME THINGS I’VE LEARNED:
1) Our group formed almost by accident, but you can found one on purpose. As you may have noticed, there are benefits for writers to have a group of their peers to answer to. (For instance, my friends might point out that I ended that last sentence with a preposition!) You’ll need a room with a large table and chairs.
2) Find a location first. There are many possibilities. Libraries often allow groups to meet in their facilities, as do some churches, retirement communities and civic centers. Ask around. Somebody might want to open their home.
3) Establish a regular time and day of the week. We meet weekly, skipping only holidays. Some groups meet monthly.
4) It’s a good idea to find other writers who are of a similar mindset. In our case, we are mostly over 55—with a few exceptions. And most of us share a faith in God.
5) I try to give everybody an equal amount of time to read and will stop someone when they start to run on too long. Most people read for about 10-15 minutes
6) Provide ice water and disposable cups. Our church kitchen has plastic pitchers that I use. I bring my own store-bought cups, along with some mints to help the readers.
7) Bring pencil and paper and prepare to take notes as you listen. Then share ideas and suggestions after each reading.
8) All advice given needs to be constructive, preferably couched in a positive manner. I established this rule by example.
9) There will be absolutely NO discussion of politics. I learned this the hard way during the last election! We love each other too much to argue.
10) We rejoice with each other’s writing successes. We share tips and news, helpful websites, publishers looking for submissions, etc. We loan each other our books and give each other our email addresses.
11) We make it a point to never gossip about one another.
12) We arrive ready to enjoy each other’s work.
E.E. Kennedy the author of the Miss Prentice Cozy Mystery series about a high school English teacher. The titles include: Irregardless of Murder, Death Dangles a Participle, Murder in the Past Tense and Incomplete Sentence. Sample chapters are available at www.missprenticecozymystery.com
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