You come into your writing group full of great intentions and are delighted to find kindred souls, people who do this brain cracking work of writing and for a long time you glide along with your fellow scribes. You look forward to reading your work and getting the feedback and now you have a thick skin and are able to ferret out the good criticism from the bad and you all sort of move along at the same pace and then suddenly like high school, you graduate...you get published.
For me it wasn't such a draconian moment. My publisher was tiny and in Chicago. Still, I brought the galleys with me and showed them around and it was then I felt a sea change. Everyone nodded and murmured congratulations and then the group fell into its old routine. I was in the middle of editing the galleys so I hadn't really written anything new and I read some of the novel. The comments were muted, some were complimentary, but I felt I had brought a gun to a knife fight.
So I took a few weeks off and worked on my galleys. When I returned I was exhausted and hollow eyed and only had my novel to read again. I sat and listened to the same works in progress, the bits of poetry, short stories, fragments of novels, then it came to Robert's piece. Robert wrote non fiction for a small magazine in the city. He tried to write fiction but it never worked. For years we had listened to Robert read these words that were like boxcars in a line but there was no ignition. We had all been in a secret conspiracy with Robert, who was a very nice guy, to give him a pass and not really criticize his work.
But this time I felt we were doing Robert a huge disservice. For two years I had been listening to Robert's bad fiction and for two years I had said nothing. He was a lifer. They existed in groups. People who came for the social aspect as much as the writing. And so you laid off. But l had changed. Something about working on those galleys with an editor had pushed me to the next level and I couldn't go back. So when it came to me, I blasphemed. I commented on Roberts work.
We are doing Robert a big disservice here. I looked around at the group. We haven't been honest with him...I paused. We haven't told him his fiction doesn't work. Someone dropped a pen. Someone coughed. I have violated a group taboo. A little man named Pee Wee who was also a lifer piped up. You have no right to judge Roberts fiction that way. I looked at him. Are you kidding? That's why we are here. No, Pee Wee persisted. You are assuming you know good fiction and Robert doesn't and you have no right to tell him he doesn't know how to write fiction.
And it was then I knew I was done. The group that I had been so much a part of for years was suddenly irrelevant. I couldn't stay if I wanted too. So I sat through the rest of the readings and said nothing. There was no point. I never went back. It was much later I realized my crime wasn't that I had criticized Robert's writing, it was actually something much deeper and much more serious-- I had stumbled into becoming a professional.
William Hazelgrove's latest novel Rocket Man is due out in the fall.