Voice from the Past

534392_471646666199537_383056311_nDorothy Cannell with a tale of remembrance and caution: A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Norm, a member of a writers’ group to which I also belonged more than thirty years ago. I was delighted to hear from him. His reminiscences brought back a flood of heartwarming memories of our every other Thursday meetings covering a period of five or six years. We called ourselves the Shagbark Scribes. I’m not sure why, but someone suggested it and everyone agreed. For a long period we were all about enthusiastically supporting each other whether we were writing for the enjoyment of it or hoping to get published. Norm asked me if I remembered when the ‘rot’ set in and I wrote back to say I certainly did.

The group was founded by Ivan Sparling who taught creative writing at the local community college. Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 5.22.28 PMOur meetings were held in a classroom. He mailed invitations to likely people who had attended one or more of his classes, as I had done. At the end of the session I’d taken with him he’d told me I should write professionally. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but without his encouragement I’m not sure I’d done more than continue to think about it.

Joining the writing group set the seal on my commitment. It provided me with self-imposed deadlines – must complete something to read for each meeting. But of even more importance was the confidence boosting that came from being a cheering squad for each others work. Critiquing always came from the wellspring of desire for each of us to succeed. The Ivan Sparling approach. He was our core. His mentoring never heavy handed. He continued with us for several years after his retirement from teaching until his wife’s ill health necessitated his saying goodbye.

I’m not sure how much later the ‘rot’ and negative change that Norm mentioned occurred. It came in the person of a new member who had the status of being a published writer (something the rest of us had not yet achieved) having sold one story to a mystery magazine. Suddenly, he was our self-appointed leader, setting assignments rather than leaving us to bring whatever we wanted to read. And he proceeded more often than not, before anyone else opened their mouths, to shred our efforts. None of us balked. I suppose we were too dazzled by his ‘Success’, assuming he knew and we didn’t. One occasion springs to mind on my account. We had been instructed to write four pages that included a number of elements, the one I remember being a ghost. I had a ghost story in mind for sometime and set to work intent on getting part of it down, but became so caught up in it that I completed a nine page short story. Amazing for me, considering I’d never written one less than twenty.

I took it to the next meeting and when my turn came explained to our illustrious leader that I’d gone over the allotted amount but requested being allowed to read the first four pages. Permission was granted to real all nine. When I finished he eyed me over steepled fingers and uttered this pronouncement, “Dorothy you were instructed to write four pages, you wrote nine. Where there is no discipline there is no art.”

Silence from all sides. I shriveled. Went home, tossed the story in the back of a drawer and for at least a week considered never writing again. Forward a few years. By then I’d written three books. My agent phoned and asked if I’d like to write a ghost story for a magazine. I told her I had one, if I could find it.

A few weeks later my husband came home from work and I greeted him with a statement. “Remember that story – the one when I was told where there is no discipline there is no art? Well, there probably still is neither, but now there is $2,500!”

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 5.27.00 PMThe reason I’m passing along this bit of smugness is as a caution to fledgling writers to share their work only with people who wish them to succeed, not ones whose own egos demand setting themselves up as experts.

Luckily there are far more of the other sort. I remember Norm with deep affection. Glad to hear he’s still writing.

Good luck.






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2 Responses to Voice from the Past

  1. Barb Ross says:

    I’ve had the unpleasant task of “firing” people from our writers group of nearly twenty years. Sometimes they were relentlessly critical (without earning the right to be), sometimes all they wanted was for us to tell them their work was perfect and no word should be changed. Sometimes they wanted to critique without ever submitting their own work, which as some writer (I forget who) has said, is like sitting with your clothes on in a circle of naked people, criticizing their bodies. And sometimes they were just the kind of borderline personality that wants to create drama and division where there is none.

    Thankfully, though, the culling has been worth it, so I can spend time with open-eyed and frank, but supportive writing friends.

  2. Marian says:

    What a dreadful experience, Dorothy. Love the eventual success of the maligned short story. Until recently, when I joined a writing group with all the right helpful and supportive dynamics, my critiques were only in writing class groups/workshops. All helpful excepting for one awful critique session which included an absolutely appalling woman. I wish Barbara had been around to fire her!

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