I ♥ My Writers Group!

I’ve written before about my great writers group–SWAG, Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers–about how supportive everyone is, and how I’ve made lifelong friends from being a part of it. Wednesday evening was our monthly social hour and open mic night. This was also the first meeting after we got a nice spread in the Living section of our local Sunday paper. We had a full house of readers and listeners–and lots of first-time-at-SWAG readers. It was probably the best night we’ve had with lots of thoughtful work and lots of laughs.

Why are open mic nights important? I’ll admit when SWAG’s founder, Cliff Garstang, suggested last year that we start doing readings–out loud, in front of people–I was nervous. That’s a tough thing to do, to stand up amid acquaintances and a few strangers and read what you’ve written. And that first time last April, my knees were shaking, and my throat was dry. Afterwards, I remember wishing I’d had a writers group ten years ago when my collection of short stories came out. I did three readings and book signings back then, without a clue as to what I was supposed to do, and the feedback I got was that I read too fast for people to understand what I was saying. At SWAG, I’ve learned to slow down and get across what it is I’m trying to say, and that’s an experience I wouldn’t have had without SWAG.

So, doing open mic readings among friends can help build your confidence for when you’re on that book tour you dream about being on one day.

The other good thing about open mic is you pay a good deal of attention to the exact piece you’re going to read. We get five minutes, so the passage has to be tight, succinct, which means, beforehand, you’ll do some needed editing and revising you might not normally do. That’s always a good thing.

And here’s the best part–it’s great when open mic is over and someone in the audience comes up to you and tells you he or she enjoyed what you read and begins to ask questions about your work. You feel like an honest-to-God writer when that happens. It’s great.

Building confidence, honing your editing skills, and boosting your writer ego–that’s what you get from a writers group. Find one. Join one.

Not So Bad After All

The local writers group I belong to–Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers, aka SWAG–had its first open mic night on April 13. Six local writers–self included–read prose and poetry before maybe 12 people. The restaurant we were in, The Darjeeling Cafe, is awaiting its last government hurdle before opening to the public, but we could have a private party and “donate” money for a glass of wine. All completely above board.

The small crowd made getting up in front of some perfect strangers and reading my prose easier. The nice glass of Shiraz helped, too.

My first public reading was a decade ago, when a neighbor threw a book party for me to celebrate the publication of Rarely Well Behaved. The neighbor wanted me to read a particular story, her favorite, which included the use of the n-word by specific characters. It was essential to the story, not gratuitous, but it’s easier to write that word in the context of a fictional story than to read it aloud. I solved that by reading very fast, which meant people kept asking me to slow down. Next, I had a book signing and reading at a local Barnes and Noble. Again, the audience was people I knew, and I picked a different story, but I was still nervous.

What if they hated my work?

That’s the “what if” question that dogs my writing still and is probably what holds me back from pushing my work on agents and lit mag editors. For some reason it doesn’t matter that people read my work and compliment me and find positives in what I’ve written. I focus way too much on the fact that one person may hate it. I’ve long since given up changing my writing to please everyone else and write to satisfy my creative needs, but that insecurity drags me back.

For last night’s reading, I picked a story from Rarely Well Behaved, entitled, “When Gramma Came to Call.” The story is based on a dream, and though, on the surface, it appears to be a ghost story, it isn’t. I had a certain amount of comfort with it; it’s one of the less controversial of my stories. The audience laughed at the funny parts, commiserated when it got serious, and gave me a hearty round of applause. One person stayed behind after the evening was over to discuss it. It was a positive experience. I mean, I knew no one would likely boo me off the stage–we’re very polite here in the Valley–but there’s always the possibility you’ll put someone to sleep.

I know these are the things I have to do to be considered a “real” writer–do public readings, shamelessly plug my book, submit my work to places that will possibly print it (or reject it), encourage other writers by supporting their efforts to do the same. I’m just not a person who takes rejection well, and I can hear my therapist’s voice now telling me to separate the personal and professional. That’s hard to do when writing is for every writer a reflection of self, a glimpse into what goes on in our addled little heads.

So, next month at the next open mic night, I’ll be back up in front of strangers, baring my soul, and it’ll be fun.
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For National Poetry Month, here’s one of my favorite Seamus Heaney poems:

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.