Monday, February 16, 2009

Writerly Courage

My new e-friend, Kathy of the 10 Minute Writer blog will be "recording a radio seminar for Cindy Rushton’s Ultimate Writer’s Expo. [Her] topic is Picking Up Your Courage: How To Answer The Call To Be A Writer When You’re Scared Out Of Your Wits." She asked her regular readers to contribute a story of "writerly courage." As I read her post, I immediately thought of when I first started attending the writing workshop in our small town a couple of years ago (the group that I now facilitate), and my paralyzing fear of sharing my work with a room full of strangers. So here's the story I wrote for Kathy in the comments section of her blog. She wrote me this morning saying that she'd like to use it as it is, word-for-word. (JOY!)

I saw the notice tacked to the post office bulletin board — where all important items in our small town are advertised. Among the pleas for the return of a cocker spaniel that answers to “Blackie,” a photo of adorable tabby kittens “free to a good home,” and a new Bible study starting at the community church was a folded white page with black hand-printed words, all capitals: “WRITERS MEETING. 6:30PM TUESDAY AT THE LIBRARY. EVERYONE WELCOME. DAVE 473-XXXX”

I stared at that notice, reading it over three, perhaps four times. When I realized that I was holding my breath, I let it out in a rushing sigh. Did I even qualify as a writer? I went into the post office, unlocked my box and retrieved the collection of advertisements and bills, passing back by the sign as I walked down the sidewalk and back home.

The idea stayed in my mind all week. I finally called up Judith, my older friend who really IS a writer (of some note, may I add) and mentioned the notice to her. She enthusiastically agreed to attend the meeting as well. I felt the fear begin to slip from my shoulders as I sighed, glad of company on this venture.

One week later Judith came by in her little hybrid and picked me up. We chatted on the short trip to our town’s library, entering the small community room together. My eyes widened as I mentally counted the group present. Ten. That was a HUGE number of people to appear in a small town. I settled into a seat next to Judith, content to hide, both literally and figuratively, in her shadow. Dave, an English teacher from the high school, asked us to introduce ourselves and state what kind of writing we did. Unlike Judith’s warm, confident introduction, I stammered and spoke far too quickly, as I do when nervous. But it was an auspicious beginning and most of the attendees seemed ready to return the next month. We set a date for our next meeting, and chatted a bit in groups of two or three as we walked out to our cars.

The next month the nervousness, even fear, returned. As asked, I had brought along a short poem I had been working on, knowing that I would have to share my work with the group. Knowing only Judith well, I wasn’t sure how the group dynamics would work. Would they be positive yet unhelpful, with “good’s” and “I like it’s,” or would they tear my poem (and my shaky confidence) to shreds littering the floor around my feet?

Well, the group seemed kind enough, and several people were extremely perceptive in their comments to the other writers who read their work. They were affirming yet pointed out what one of them, a retired junior high teacher called “speed bumps,” issues that could be improved in the piece. Yet, my stomach still tumbled and I couldn’t speak much in response to the work presented to the group. Judith read hers, a short scene from her novel set in the plains, pithy and insightful regarding human nature and the inability of her characters to hear or see each other. And I was to be next after her. Great.

I took several deep breaths, willing myself to not speed through the poem as I knew I probably would, simply from knee-knocking terror. When the comments regarding Judith’s novel excerpt stilled, I distributed my copies to the group with shaking hands. I didn’t look up at the group as I read my few halting lines, my trembling hands squeezed between my knees to still them. I tried to read the words slowly and achieved a not-quite-as-fast-as-I could-have-read-it semi-victory.

I finished reading and forced myself to look up. Here it was: the first feedback I have received on my writing since I graduated from grad school. The comments were kind, helpful, pointing out what worked and what could use more effort to improve the imagery, the emotional forcefulness. As the comments petered out and the next writer passed around his copies and began to read his story, I felt the terror that had been building in me since the very first day I read that sign on the post office bulletin board whoosh away from me. And I realized that I was smiling.

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