A few months ago, I attended my first writing group, and I instantly realized that I had no identity. Because I was a newcomer, all the seasoned, confident, group members – many of them published – were asked to introduce themselves, which only some of them did. The group, so accustomed to each other and seemingly unused to newcomers, had a hard time staying on task as the leader prompted each of them to share their names and writing genres. Even before the meeting officially began, the man I sat next to asked me what I write.
“Ahhh, … essay, … some memoir,” I responded. My answer sounded more like a question than a statement and I was sure I looked intimidated, unsure of myself.
“Do you mean essay, memoir, or memoir essays?” He continued.
“Um, … All of the above?” I fumbled for an answer again, the student who thinks the teacher is asking a trick question. Thankfully, he gave me a break, anddescribed the mix of writers’ that attended this particular weekly session. I was silently grateful that the meeting began before I could be further flustered by his polite attempt to match my face to a genre.
Becky (Facilitator, anxious to get the meeting moving): “Tom, why don’t you start us off?”
Tom (Pleasant, bald gentleman, whose well-groomed salt and pepper facial hair makes me wonder if he invented the goatee): “Sure. My name is Tom, and I am writing a novel – a dystopian thriller that takes place in the Bay Area.”
A what? I thought, but nodded and smiled as though I knew exactly what that was.
Joan (Disgruntled woman that looked of retirement age and wore a tired facial expression): “I don’t want to read tonight. In fact, I might never read here again after last time.”
Becky (Slightly snappy, losing patience): “This isn’t about reading. Do you want to introduce yourself?”
Joan (Confused, still oblivious to my presence): “No, I don’t. Why would I?”
I really don’t mind if she doesn’t introduce herself. I mentally attempted to head off the awkward conflict.
Becky (Exasperated): “There’s a new person here. Can’t you at least introduce yourself?”
Joan: “Oh. Well, I guess. I’m Joan.”
Boy, is she grumpy. I smiled, unfazed by her bitterness – it reminded me of a relative I’m fond of, so I could easily look past it.
Becky (Rolling her eyes as she gives up on Joan): “OK, Liz?”
Liz (Late twenties, bubbly, all smiles): “Hi, I’m Liz. I write YA, and have a novel coming out next February.”
I’ve always wondered what motivates people to write YA. Maybe now I’ll find out.
Mike (40s-ish, excited): “I have a new piece tonight. I’ve been working on a Sci-Fi short story.”
Wow, talk about diversity.
The introductions continued, and in addition to the YA (Young Adult for those that don’t speak in writers’ code), dystopian (Wikipedia says a dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian), and Sci-Fi writers, I learned I was amongst a group that included writers of historical fiction (one WWII novel in progress, another set in the time of the Spanish Conquistadors), Western (which I would soon learn involved drunken cowboys reading their destiny as inscribed on the worms found at the bottoms of bottles of mescal), creative non-fiction, a rather vocal reviewer whose genre I cannot remember, and a poet. Then we got down to business.
Various members of the group read from their works in progress, and each had a fifteen-minute time slot for reading and taking comments. As we listened and read along, the rest of us made notes. We corrected grammatical errors, noted misspellings and typos on the printed pages and passed them back to the author at the close of each reading. Spoken comments were kept to major points about things like characters and writing tone. A novelist suggested that a short story be turned into a novel. The poet recommended a prose piece be edited into a poem.
Luckily, new members aren’t allowed to read until they’ve attended three sessions. I’m not a very outgoing person, and it took some courage for me to attend the group at all. In fact, I’d been tossing around the idea for three months before I actually went. If I were expected to read, I surely would not have come, and if my attendance represented one step forward, then the unexpected genre identification drove me at least three steps backward.
I listened intently to each speaker, though, and felt satisfaction when another member of the group brought up a point I’d also thought of. If I had no identity as a writer, at least I was capable of reading. The comments were all over the board. There were some words of encouragement, but also some blunt criticisms. In all, the readers took their lumps pretty well, though Becky did have to stop an exchange or two when a writer and reviewer disagreed.
Periodically, Becky leaned over to whisper to me, providing backstory. Her comments were about logistics – authors weren’t supposed to respond to reviewers’ feedback. They could follow up later, if they really needed to, but fifteen minutes flies by. The group had to be repeatedly rushed along like children unwilling to brush their teeth before bed. She told me it’s always a good idea to bring copies because reading spots open up if scheduled readers don’t show – which happens especially on rainy nights, like that one.
Rain or not, I couldn’t see myself reading my work in front of this group. Perhaps my hesitation stems from my introverted character, or maybe from the fact that I’m fairly new to writing. Though I assume the authors probably don’t cling to their genres as tightly as the introductions suggested, each person read or commented with confidence (except perhaps Joan, in her wound-licking state of mind). The investment they had in the pieces they shared was evident, and each clearly had a writers’ identity. I couldn’t imagine emulating their performances with any semblance of grace.
I don’t know that I really have a genre. Because I don’t write fiction, perhaps it’s fair to say my genre is non-fiction. If I agree with that statement, though, it sounds as though I’ve made a definitive choice, which I haven’t. And that’s not to mention that like fiction, which runs the gamut from dystopian to romance to just plain literary fiction, non-fiction, too, breaks out into any number of subcategories – memoir, essay, biography, and journalism, to name a few. Examine the category of essay, and the world of identification opens up all over again. Lyrical essay, personal essay, nature essay, travel essay – the list goes on and on.
Since I began writing in earnest, not quite a year ago, I’ve simply written about whatever is on my mind. I’ve written a lot about my life, though I have yet to produce more than a couple of finished pieces. Perhaps that means I write memoir. I’ve also written a million papers on leadership as I wrapped up the final year of a Master’s program. That could mean I’m an academic writer. I write articles for my professional blog. In this case, technical writer might be the best label. Then there are the posts for my personal blog, which range from stories about work to short pieces that come from writing prompts. Maybe that means I’m an amateur.
Critics of creative non-fiction and memoir say it is weak in comparison to fiction. They believe that only great minds can tackle fiction, so alternatives are seen as inferior, conceivably because we write about what we know, not what we imagine. Sometimes, I almost agree with them. There are moments when it seems an impossible feat to create a world out of words, with imaginary inhabitants, events that shape their lives – offer them pleasure and pain, force them to struggle, but then grow – their personalities emerging slowly on the pages, like a fine piece of glass arrives at the hands and mouth of a master with fire and a blowpipe.
Then I think about my writing. I often don’t know where to start, and I rarely know where I’m going before I get there, but I strive no less to provide the rich experience I’m sure a fiction writer aims to deliver. And although I’m not writing fiction right now, I do not preclude myself from doing so at some point. If I do, who knows what genre I might choose? Surely, I don’t. I can’t even say what I’ll write about tomorrow. In truth, I write to figure out what I have to say, and perhaps that’s why I don’t yet have an identity. First, I’ll focus on finding my voice. Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell you what I write.