by Robert Young
Mere mention of Craigslist to neophytes and punters always generates one of the following responses: 1) Oh, yeah, I bought a couch from there when I moved…it had bedbugs. 2) I like to read the Personals, but only to laugh at all the lonely people. Men are so disgusting. 3) Did you hear about the Craigslist Killer? I think they’re making a movie.
What fear-peddling media fail to acknowledge is that Craigslist users post an average of 50 million ads per month, and the site gets 30 billion page views in that same time span. Thus, the chances of responding to a Personals ad that results in meeting Dexter or Patrick Bateman for coffee is roughly the same as getting gummed to death by a manatee while snorkeling. Also typically overlooked is that the site can be a fine resource for organizing all sorts of activities, like say a writing group.
My initial call for writers resulted in a dozen would-be wordsmiths (a shocking number) showing up on a Monday evening at Starbucks in Mt. Pleasant, a bland, well-to-do suburb of Charleston, South Carolina. There were ten women and two men not including myself. A fairly typical demographic in the literary world. After everyone had straggled in and settled, I asked how often the group would like to meet; once a week or bi-monthly? Kate, the bellicose lady still adding new chapters to an already 500 page historical romance, wrested control and called for a show of hands to meet every week. When I didn’t raise my hand, since I had posed both options in the first place and thus was fine with either frequency, Kate said with a laugh “Well I guess we’ll all be back here next week…except for Robert.” A few people even said they’d like to meet every day. This included Mara, the bored hipster girl who periodically stepped out to smoke clove cigarettes; and Rose Ellen, the septuagenarian who decided she was a writer despite having never written anything. She merely tapped her head and said her novel was “all up here” just waiting for the day she’d put it down on paper. She had kept it stored away in her own head for “thirteen years and counting.” At some point before the meeting had formalized Rose Ellen revealed her disdain for the “pro-environmental agenda of Little Nemo.” I struggled between the need to be a good host and the burning desire to unleash my inner Paul Watson.
I only remember a few others from that initial meeting and typically they were the loudest and most opinionated. Daniel was an imposing man in his 60’s with an actor’s flamboyance and an aging writer’s temperament. His hair was still strawberry blonde, his shirt still Hawaiian print, and his manner still solidly Easy Rider. Within minutes he was in a heated debate with Thea, a pleasant black lady whose only writing credit seemed to be a personal blog. They were at odds over the intrinsic worth of the Grapes of Wrath. Thea was a big fan. Daniel, who might have starred in a film version had Roger Corman ever decided to take a stab at legitimacy, was decidedly not. I tried to mediate, but to no avail. At least they were arguing literature. The rest of the group had splintered into multiple conversations about everything but. This included an impassioned invocation regarding the medicinal properties of blueberry scones (presumably for people who actually wanted to add more gluten to their diet). As the meeting adjourned the Kate handed out copies of a dense, impeccably boring chapter from the middle of her novel in-progress that would prove equally hard to digest.
When the next Monday arrived I found myself staring across the table at two people: Daniel and Leroy (the only other male who attended the prior week). Not a single one of the ten ladies who had voted to meet every week showed up. Not even Mara, the hipster girl who said she’d be happy to meet every day because she had “nothing better to do.” Apparently she had found something. I was perplexed, but it didn’t take long for Daniel to roll out conspiracy theories that the rest of the nascent group had organized and excluded the three male members. Surely they were all meeting in a testosterone-free zone at Kate’s villa, laughing it up over carafes of wine and healthful glutinous scones. I didn’t buy it, but I did agree that Daniel’s sour grapes of wrath had surely alienated Thea. Only when I checked my email later did I see a message from Kate stating that she couldn’t make it but we were all free to email her our critiques. Since the group never purported to be an email-only copyediting ring, there wasn’t a chance in Hell I’d be doing that.
Daniel and Leroy couldn’t possibly have been more different. Daniel was a gruff, hard-drinking with bold man’s man demeanor that all but demanded he write straightforward commercial fiction. He cited Elmore Leonard as a primary inspiration and said that every novel must open with a place and setting so that the reader was immediately comfortable and oriented. Everything I would subsequently read by him would open with either the description of a sunrise or a sunset, typically over an expansive mountain range.
Leroy, was small, bordering on fragile. He alternated between a scarf and a baseball cap with a Pac-Man logo on his shaved head, and was good-looking despite his only visible nourishment coming from cigarettes. He also happened to be a brilliant writer of literary fiction based in magical realism. His short stories were always comprised of ornate prose and cleverly drawn characters with opaque motives and mysterious phrasings. He had studied Classical German Literature in college and was a devoted reader of Borges, Thomas Pynchon, and Gunter Grass.
Our second meeting revolved mostly around what had went wrong with the first meeting and the dramatic rate of attrition. Over the past three years of running a group, I’ve learned that there is almost no correlation between the level of enthusiasm someone may show in an email and whether they will show up for their first meeting, or certainly have the stamina for regular attendance. And there was a sense of relief in jettisoning most of that initial crowd not only because many weren’t writers but also because a group of a dozen is in my experience too unwieldy and inefficient.
The three of us met for a few weeks, each distributing novel chapters or short stories for review. Leroy was a thorough critic, and while his verbal critiques sometimes devolved into tedium, his margin notes and attention to minute detail always proved invaluable. Daniel was unsurprisingly a lot less thorough, made no notes, and offered up criticism that could best be described as impressionistic. But he was very encouraging and when he found a line, phrase, or piece of dialogue he liked he noted it in a way that made you feel like a Pulitzer nomination was forthcoming. However he often looked wounded or worse when the same generosity wasn’t reciprocated regarding his own work. Surprisingly the dynamic between the three of us worked well. While a group of three is hardly optimal, I can tell you that three relatively prolific and dedicated writers who actually show up on a weekly basis are infinitely more valuable than a dozen wannabe’s who rarely write, have no stomach for criticism, and frequently cancel due to dinner plans and events. Life inevitably intervenes and I wouldn’t expect anyone to never miss voluntary meetings where no one is paid for their attention and often have their most personal aspirations publicly eviscerated. But if you miss more than you attend you’re probably wasting everyone’s time. Especially on weeks when you’ve handed out material for everyone to read and critique and then you’re a no-show for your own party.
Still the group didn’t truly come into its own until native Kentuckian, Angela Nicole arrived. Nik, as she liked to be called, showed up with her own soup bowl-sized coffee mug that she used in lieu of wasting disposable cup after disposable cup (complete with the corporate coffee shop’s liability-preventing girdle of cardboard just in case your paper cup was too hot for thin-skinned palms). Nik wasn’t remotely self-righteous about this. In fact she never mentioned it until asked. She was just making an effort to do the right thing and it was safe to assume that she would neither be complaining about the environmental agendas of Pixar films, nor dismissing Global Warming as a hoax. The inconvenient truth is that it is almost as important to share at least vaguely similar political views with writers in your group—typically writers who list Glenn Beck among their favorite novelists coexist poorly with those who read Noam Chomsky—as it is to share some similar aesthetic thrust—writers aspiring to be the next Jonathan Franzen or Paul Auster rarely gel critically with those hoping to emulate Stephanie Meyer’s twisted success or Jodie Picault’s whiny prolificacy. In such an environment someone is bound to get an emotional stake through the heart.
It certainly helped that Nik, possessed of multiple degrees and somehow having a mind for both science and literature, was also a crackling good writer of creative non-fiction who taught us all a lesson in both economy and impact. One of the first stories she submitted to the group artfully recounted a snowy Wisconsin night when a homeless man stumbled into the street in front of an oncoming car, her car. He was struck and killed and the crestfallen driver was left to grapple with her feelings as a jaded police officer took down a report on the shoulder of the blood-stained road. Three years after reading the story I’m still haunted by the image of the shaken author shedding her clothing on her bathroom floor only to realize that the powdery substance covering her crumpled clothes was actually residue from her shattered windshield. She subsequently broke down in the shower and the tragedy proved a catalyst in the dissolution of an unhappy marriage. And all this was detailed with no histrionics or audience-manipulating sentiment in the span of a piece that barely clocked in at 2000 words.
By the end of our first meeting with Nik, Daniel was raving about her talent and intelligence, adding that she was “quite a looker too.” Just a few weeks later with the additions of lithe college student, Jessica, who sweetly handwrote copies of her short poems to give out to everyone in the group; and Louise a charming lady who oddly wrote poems only in Spanish despite English being her first language, we found ourselves in a brutally frank and heated debate over pornography with Nik the primary target of all the heat. Most of it came from Daniel and myself although our reasons couldn’t have been more different. The debate, which took place at a table on the coffee shop patio on a pleasant Spring night, was loud, engrossing and largely the result of a totally illogical assertion by Daniel; and a completely wrong presumption of prudishness on my part. The story revolved around a typical coming of age moment with two adolescent girls (Nik and her best friend at the time) uncovering some girlie mags in an attic, with that moment then serving as a platform for some grownup ruminations about such material. The subsequent verbal war largely revolved around Daniel mysteriously taking great personal offense to an innocuous passage about “all men” masturbating in the shower. It’s something he had never done, and he confessed to taking the story to his wife and claimed she had been as outraged by the inaccuracy of the assertion as he. Honestly it wasn’t the sort of digression nor the display of critical acumen that typically strengthens or perpetuates any group of loosely associated creative types. But thanks entirely to Nik’s maturity, eloquent rationale, and near total lack of defensiveness, the rather heated tempest in a teapot effectively cauterized and bonded the group. Civility wasn’t eliminated that night, but any thoughts that one’s writing was too personal to be harshly criticized most definitely were.
After the meeting Daniel caught me coming out of the bathroom and scolded me for not backing up his assertion. “You agreed with me but then when I put it out there you left me twisting in the wind,” he said, sounding both wounded and a touch bitter. I tried to explain that I couldn’t have disagreed with his assertions more, but he was having none of it and we finally agreed to disagree about whether we had ever been in agreement over the initial disagreement.
The next week all six of us arrived anxious and on time. Nik came in smiling and unscathed, soup bowl-sized mug in hand and sporting comfy pajama bottoms and slippers. Daniel was excited to present the first chapter of one of the four novels he had stored away in his office desk drawer. I glanced at my copy. The story began with a Montana sunrise.