When I was grinding it out in Chicago trying to find a voice I saw an ad in the Chicago Tribune for a writers group on the West Side and decided to give it a try. I had been working like a monk for years on novels and short stories getting nowhere fast except for pasting my room above a Thai restaurant with form rejection letters. So on a hot summer evening I buzzed down Diversey Avenue on my motorcycle to an apartment on a ramshackle street of two flats and buzzed the door that had a small sign WRITERS GROUP UPSTAIRS. No one answered and I went up the creaky old stairs to a room with ten chairs in a circle and an old man with no teeth and long white hair. He extended his hand: "welcome to the group!"
The writing workshop methodology was simple. You read your work to the group and they critiqued it. Simple and brutal. I listened while people were hacked down, some praised. "I like the way you use color." Or the dreaded silence. If somebody read something really awful then the silence moved in and Paul had to say gingerly, "ok comments, let's hear some comments." And then someone would break the ice and the hacking would begin. When my turn came I could feel my heart as I stood up with a short story I had been working on for the last few months.
I cleared my throat and began and read my story. It sounded horrible out loud. A real litmus test. When I finished I heard the awful silence. Paul looked around. "Comments, Comments?' A man named Peewee started off. What's with all the snow? My story was set in winter and snow was integral to theme, plot, setting, it was the iceberg under the water that moved in the background. The avalanche began immediately. Everyone wanted to know why I described snow in such detail and that I should really cut the first three pages. I explained my use of symbolism, the innocence engendered by snow. Snow as a metaphor for the human condition, secretly swearing to never return to this hot, one room hell hole.
I was depressed for several days after that and walked around telling myself I was well shut of writing groups. What a bunch of losers that they could not understand the central theme of my story. Setting told the bigger picture, had they never read Hemingway? Finally, I sat down and decided to give my story another read. I sat silently at my desk, reading my masterpiece the cretins had not understood. I finished and stared out into the dusky twilight. I looked back down at my story. "What's with all the snow?" I muttered.
William Hazelgrove's latest novel Rocket Man is due out in the fall