Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anatomy of a Critique Group

When I realized that I didn't fit in corporate America, I set out to discover life after, or parallel to an acting career. My interest in writing began in Dr. Joeris' eleventh grade English class. We had to keep a daily journal, with assigned topics she wrote in her perfect script on the chalkboard. She called us little ones even though she wasn't bigger than a sparrow, with her chignon bun affixed to the back of her head.

Prior to Dr. Joeris' class, I didn't disdain writing, I just knew I'd move to Los Angeles, establish a name for myself and then move on to New York City where I'd perform on stage. With each succeeding high school and college audition, I became increasingly frustrated with the roles I were offered, and thought I could write something more suitable.

I tried my hand at semi-autobiographical plays meant to dissect and understand my immediate world. My first attempts were rebellious and angry, rather than focused or poignant. Those early drafts have either been shredded or buried in a foot locker in my aunt's house down south.

My early years on the East Coast, I did everything but seriously write - I knew I'd be a force on stage, commanding nightly standing ovations. Why should I write when there were others who could create memorable roles for me?

I've a kept a journal for several years and have read and/or worked through the Artist's Way, The Forest for the Trees, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Faith of a Writer. These books were my foundation for searching for other writers in New York to form a writer's group.

My earliest attempts at forming a writing group were temporarily successful. It was a mixed genre (plays, screenplays, angst-ridden fiction) group that rotated meetings among member homes. I personally didn't like trekking out to Queens, but did so because of the group that I formed. He tried to be a gracious host, but personality differences eventually caused him to drop out. Or was it laziness to travel to other boroughs?

My original intention was to create a Modern Day Harlem Renaissance. What resulted from my efforts was a group of lazy, recalcitrant, and moody people who periodically thought about writing, and actually wrote less. Dramatis personae aside, I felt as if I were in a whirlpool, ever sinking as laughing sharks circled above, perhaps waiting for the whirlpool to reject me as its latest victim.

The traveling band of writers disbanded after barbs, volatile e-mails, and vicious gossip were exchanged. I was dealing with people who didn't know how to play in a sandbox. The narcissists outweighed the meek lambs. I went into hiding after that debacle, thinking that I'd had enough with creative circles.

My sabbatical was short-lived, and I was off and running again, but the second time, I'd improve upon the first group. I'd primarily host the meetings at my apartment, with occasional meetings in office conference rooms and other public places. The problem with hosting groups or parties is the cleanup afterward. Bringing together writers took on toll emotionally. Everyone didn't share my vision of a writing community, as opposed to skeet shooting at traveling carnival.

After several years of anguish, frustration, and phone gripe sessions with my mother, I read a few more books on craft and researched the inner workings of successful writing groups. Two books there were instrumental were bird by bird and Immediate Fiction. Clich├ęs aside, the third time would be a charm.

I created guidelines, critique forms for fiction and screenplays to hopefully reduce personal attacks. I required membership fees to weed out the transients, slackers, and to pay for workshop materials, website, and other incidentals.

The disclosure on the critique form reads: Stories can be improved only by identifying problems. The purpose of writing a critique is two-fold: (1) identify the weaknesses in the piece and, (2) offer some constructive advice to the author that might lead to some improvement in the story.

Armed with this statement, one would think a person would offer quality feedback, not aim torpedoes at a writer whose work they envy. On the surface fiction writers are different from screenwriters and playwrights. It comes down to discipline, commitment, and focus.

I was all set to dish on the immature and nasty people who masqueraded as adult writers that swept into the groups only to disrupt the flow, but it does no good to badmouth them. I don't want or need the karma. I've been blessed with a few core members over the past two years, and recently created a new graphic novel and comic book writing division. God has been good to us.

What have I learned so far? Always trust my gut instinct and not feel desperate for writers just to ensure a desired head count. If I didn't like a person in the initial interview, I should've ended the conversation by saying, "Thanks, but I don't think it's going to work."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Group Mentality

I grew up in a large southern family, the oldest of three children, and I've accepted that I'm a teacher, mentor, big brother, and father to many people. I know how to function alone, but sometimes left to my own schemes and thoughts, the world would be a different place.

Why plot world domination or wish for magical powers like Harry Potter or Dr. Bombay from Bewitched? With a wave of my hand and an incantation, I'd rid Africa of its ails, and bring back my dead relatives.

And then I think of what I'd do with magical powers when people piss me off. I've this fantasy role I want to write and perform on screen, the stage wouldn't contain my imagination. I'd play this diabolical character with a shaved head, long black fingernails, pirate's shirt, loose pants for my wand and gadgets, and an obligatory high-collared cape. This character is borne out of frustration and impatient times with people, if only temporary.

For as long as I can remember, I've been in a clan or group. In elementary and junior high, I was a member of the honor roll and performing arts clique. The honor students were given preferential treatment, and pity on other students who weren't as lucky. They were ostracized and cast aside. In some instances, the honor students had better clothes, homes, and parents than the others.

All honor students weren't performers, favoring books and studying over exhibitionism and competition. Some successfully navigated both worlds, while a few fell out of grace in one of the groups. An emerging comedienne's schoolwork began to suffer because she favored making us laugh rather than study.

My two cliques weren't impenetrable, but I know there was a feeling of exclusivity or snobbery within and without. I'm not passing judgment these many years later; just reflecting on where I started and where I want to go.

It was our natural abilities to excel, and we were grouped accordingly. Perhaps some of our parents didn't know what to make of our teachers gushing and fawning over us. There was pressure to always perform on the same scale academically, on stage, or in the glee club. I didn't know it back then, because it wasn't part of our vocabularies, but that was peer pressure.

We competed in the math club, for parts in the school play, for the spiritual or gospel solo, and for the teacher's attention. My kindergarten, second, and fourth grade teachers liked me. There was one teacher's pet in first grade, and I popped her on the knee that she'd hurt over the summer or weekend before. The timing is vague and unimportant in this retelling. I remember being paddled for my aggression.

Well, my mother didn't like my being spanked or paddled by anyone else, and made an appearance at school to inform said teacher of her boundaries. Perhaps that's why she didn't like me? It's funny now, but surely wasn't as I leaned forward to get paddled. I'm trying to remember if I hopped atop a desk.

* * *
There's an interesting group dynamic oftentimes seen in the animal kingdom. All groups have an alpha male and female, and must appease the leader to enter the fold, or suffer the consequences. Humans are no different than animals in this regard.

It wasn't until junior high and later than I became an alpha male in the groups I belonged. I wasn't shy in elementary school, but did my best to stay under the radar because my aunt worked in the front office, and would report any infraction to my mother by day's end. Having my aunt at school was a double-edged sword. My mother informed all teachers to allow her to chastise me should I misbehave. I didn't necessarily flaunt this with my first and third grade teachers (my second grade teacher also taught us in the fourth). My fifth grade teacher couldn't stand me! She was very butch and so wanted to pick on me, but knew my aunt would be all over her. She'd punch the boys in either the upper arm or chest when they said or did something she didn't approve of.

Did I relish the fact that she couldn't touch me no matter what I might have done or said? Short answer: Yes!

She was too masculine to be a woman, with her curly chest and chin hair she proudly displayed.
The women in my family weren't and aren't girly, but they look feminine. I've never been one to roll around in the dirt, and to her mind that wasn't normal for a boy. We'd return from recess and I'd be still clean. One day, I don't know what got into me, but I made a concerted to get dirty while playing kickball or dodgeball. She was so happy that I was dirty. She beamed like a proud mother. I was normal for a day, but wasn't looking forward to going home. My mother was famous for saying things like, "I send you to school looking decent and you come back looking like a hobo."

It's in groups that we discover who and what we are. Everyone has an integral role to the group's success or failure. Parents and teachers, knowingly and otherwise teach us to be a certain way before we form peer groups. Different personalities are nurtured or ignored according to the adult or peer in charge. I've always been a leader or co-leader in all my groups to date. I was recently profiled in the NY Times Style Section for forming and doing my best to maintain a group.

I have come full circle from the precocious tyke in elementary school who felt invincible because my aunt was in the front office. It takes courage and bravado to form a group, and I'm grateful to my mother and aunt who unknowingly taught me to take risks in life, and not be a weakened gazelle stalked by a predator, waiting to be eaten.