In search of a writing community

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Oh wow! Writers in their natural habitats!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about loneliness and the transition from college life to semi-adult life. Short summary: It wasn’t going very well. My way of coping, of abating that loneliness, was to write. Interestingly enough, after I published that post, a stranger on Twitter suggested that writing could also be the cause of loneliness. I suppose this person is half-right; when you’re doing something you love, you’re in the moment, and you can forget where you are. But I don’t want writing to prevent me from meeting people; I decided that writing should help me meet people.

I immediately began my search for writing groups in NYC and Brooklyn, and let me tell you: The quest was exhausting. I left my first meeting feeling utterly disappointed. I was the youngest person in attendance, and felt as if the older members devalued my opinions. They were also creepy.

Then I attended a Gotham Writers’ Workshop course in downtown Brooklyn, which turned out to be a much better experience. I felt included—perhaps it was because the instructor sought to make all writers feel comfortable. Despite this, I’m not sure I’d want to pay $20 for another course. The instructor only allowed us to offer positive feedback. I’m all for positive energy, but I wonder how we’ll improve as writers if we receive only positive feedback. Perhaps I am used to seeing my writing be brutally torn apart, thanks to my journalism experience (starting with the time I got a 76 on my first journalism assignment in Dr. Simon’s freshman news writing class…but that doesn’t really matter…)

Anyways, guys, I’ve finally found a writers’ group. It’s been around for twelve years, with a solid core and a welcoming attitude toward newer members like moi. I’ve attended four meetings so far, recently returning from a session last night, and I feel like I can belong here eventually. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the other writers. There’s a writer who is a financial analyst by day and a horror screenwriter by night, a former Silicon Valley techie working on a (surprise!) technology thriller, and a librarian writing the next big teen novel (sans vampires).

Here’s the drill: we chat for a few minutes and then take an hour to work on our writing. After the host says stop, we spend two and a half hours reading and critiquing each other’s works. Three types of readers usually show up to these meetings. There are the immediate volunteers. This person is confident enough to be the first to read. Or, this person is overly confident and likes the sound of his or her own voice (ew). There are the reluctant sharers. They look around and see no one volunteering. They decide, after a sigh, to read. There are the oh-god-don’t-look-at-me non-readers. They usually sit in the corner and frantically shake their heads when asked to read. They don’t share in fear that they might be horrible—but by doing this, they might be brilliant writers, but we’d never know it.

I can be any of these three types of people, but I tend to be the reluctant reader. I’ve always been a self-conscious speaker, because I stumble over my words. Good thing I can practice at these meetings! It actually helps to listen to myself. For example, if I struggle with a sentence, I make sure to mark the spot and see if I can smooth it out later.

As much as I love writing and reading my work, my favorite part is the feedback session. Over the years I’ve received countless writing advice from trustworthy writers, and I like to absorb all that I can to become a better writer. Naturally, I want other writers to feel like they’re receiving constructive feedback—something they can use and not just think about. At the last group meeting, our critique got intensely detailed. For about twenty minutes, we pondered if it was right for a particular character to drink Bass Pale Ale. Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but we were all serious! Is this character really a Bass guy? Or would he drink Guinness? Decisions, decisions (As a non-drinker, I tried to play along).

I do worry, however, that some feedback will go unheard. Writers can’t help but feel a small stab whenever they receive critiques. There are some who can swallow their pride, and there are others who feel the need to defend their every word. I’m sure people have felt the frustration of explaining a critique only to find a writer completely intolerant to the idea that maybe – just maybe – they have committed a fault in their writing. Because of this, I sometimes prefer writing feedback, rather than giving it to the person upfront (yay reader’s reports!)

I’m so excited for more writing sessions!

In effort to become more social on the web (I hear writers need to do that these days), here’s a question to end this post: writers, what do you think of writers’ groups?

 

 

 

 

Catharsis through creativity

Dr. Bogusia Skud. Photo by Loan Le/The Mirror

Dr. Bogusia Skudrzyk, associate professor of counselor education, in a small group discussing the steps in acknowledging grief. December 4, 2013. Photo by Loan Le/The Mirror

After 26 people died in a senseless shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, community members started placing teddy bears, flowers and small gifts near the site to honor the victims. Bob and Josie Schmidt, town residents for 31 years, recalled visiting the makeshift memorial on a rainy, cold day.

“Everywhere we went in town, we were reminded of what happened; it was beautiful and touching, but it still reminded us of the pain and the loss,” said Bob Schmidt, an adjunct professor teaching Fairfield graduate classes for counseling education.

Deeply affected by the sorrows that couldn’t seem to go away, he and his wife, Josie, a retired teacher who once substituted at Sandy Hook, composed a song to express their grief. Yesterday, they performed “Rain, Rain, Rain” during a workshop at the Fairfield University Bookstore and discussed how creative outlets like literature and songs can heal people after devastations.

The Schmidts led the first storytelling workshop last year. Today, Newtown continues to heal. “We are starting to see the town as the beautiful place we love,” Bob Schmidt said.

As a member of the Sandy Hook Crisis Response Team, he volunteered at a crisis center and said that seeing people come together “helped me get my balance again.”

According to Dr. Bogusia Skudrzyk, who also spoke yesterday, the healing process after tragedies doesn’t always have to be personal. “We must allow ourselves to be around people who care for us.”

To start the healing process, the cause of the pain and sorrow must be confronted. Some people might believe that grief must be overcome immediately. “There is so much pressure around us that makes us pretend that nothing [bad] happened,” the associate professor of counselor education said. But grieving has no timetable.

Skudrzyk also disagrees with the myth that showing sadness is a sign of weakness; she encourages people to be open, like children “who are strong enough to admit their feelings.”

Josie Schmidt believes that acknowledging grief and its causes leads to “an appreciation of the beauty of everyday life.”

Catharsis can happen with words on paper, a brush against a blank canvas or notes strummed on a guitar – creativity opens the path to healing and people can choose whatever route they feel comfortable with.

Eventually, attendees were asked to draw four trees, each representing a different season, and then break up into smaller groups to discuss their drawings. The attendees – some strangers, some classmates from Skudrzyk’s course on multicultural issues in counseling and education – started exchanging stories about parents, siblings and friends who have passed away.

Jeff Burgdorfer, a Fairfield graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling, associated the seasons with the beginning of a healing process.

He said autumn represents acceptance of the “inevitability of death … which gets you into the state of mind to appreciate what you have in the moment.” Winter provides a time for reflection while spring means hope.

“Josie and Bob created a beautiful healing atmosphere through their generosity of themselves and their music,” said Kristen Baxter, who takes classes at the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions.

Closing the workshop, Skudrzyk compared life to an ocean; a community helps others “go through the tides of an ocean that can take anyone off-balance.”

Attendees discovered they have gone through similar experiences and stages of grief. After the workshop ended, people stayed behind and continued their personal discussions. This, according to Skudrzyk, exemplifies how a community can overcome the clouds of grief and sorrow. And like the lyrics of the Schmidts’ song “Rain, Rain, Rain,” she too believes that “together we will chase away those clouds.”