Friday, March 5, 2010

Choosing the right listeners

I belong to a lovely group of writers. Three of us have been meeting once a month to read for nearly a decade off and on. The two newer members are great people and good writers. It's always a pleasure to hear their stories and spend time with them. And I realized last Wednesday, with a twinge of sadness, that they are not the right listeners for the drafts of my current novel.

Our group, Wacky Women Writers, wrote brief personal essays for the first years of our gathering. We were using a book called Spiritual Rx by Frederick and Maryann Brussat and we'd pick a topic, like kindness or silence, and write a little piece about it. Each of our essays was relatively brief and we delighted at the variety of takes on a single topic. Then we began to branch out, and three of the four of us started writing books. But they were all still memoir-related and so the little essays continued, although the subjects varied.

Now those books are long done and the group has reconfigured; three of us are writing fiction and two are writing personal essays still. My first novel, about painters and witches and growing up, worked okay in that group. The chapters, while clearly interconnected, had a stand-alone feel to them and the subject matter was gently emotional, gently transformational. The characters were loveable and the listeners could identify.

My new novel is dark and intricate; two stories run parallel, there are lots of small clues hidden in the chapters, and some of the characters are awful human beings. So when I read two chapters (Chapters 12 and 13) the other night at our meeting, the reading went flat, or rather the listening seemed to. One group member, who'd lived through her own difficult experience, was plainly uncomfortable. The others were polite. They didn't get the point of some of the details; they couldn't remember what the earlier chapters were about or what had happened--it had clearly been too long since they'd heard them. They were complimentary about my style, word choices, turns of phrase, but I could see they weren't intrigued and their comments weren't able to be helpful. I was clearly reading to the wrong group.

So I can see where the need comes in for a weekly writing group or class where members follow the story as it evolves, who share knowledge of the genre, who are looking for more than a shared personal experience.

I think I'll go back to writing short pieces for WWW and sharing bits of my life. That's what they're best at responding to and there's a place in my writing for that too. And I can look for the right listeners for my novel as it progresses.

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