A typical meeting of the writing group starts at two o’clock on a Monday or Tuesday at the Queen’s house. There are four of us.
Eeyore – in charge of doom.
Dylan – anything goes.
Muttley (me) – in charge of disruption.
As we approach the door, we all stop to admire the garden. Hollyhocks, black pansies, trailing clematis and shrub roses, all line the route to the porch. It’s hard not to feel envy. The Queen has fingers greener than the Hulk.
Once assembled, we share news. Of family. Of films seen. Of food eaten. Of builders. Of fellow Bristolians. At some point the Queen guides us onto matters of writing. We are reluctant, like a book group where no one has read the book. Dutifully we report any happenings. This element is short. We move on, taking it in turns to read aloud our latest work. There should be a method in deciding who goes first, but no, we argue about it. Every time.
Eventually, one of us sighs, brings out a few sheets of A4 and the process begins. One voice. Three scribblers, pens at the ready. We mean well, all four of us, truly we do. But it might not seem that way. The reader, sharing her tortured words with us, is rewarded by giggles, sly glances, outbursts . . . There is a rule that we don’t interrupt, but we break it gaily. Whether it’s Eeyore’s made-up words, my endless internal monologues, Dylan’s love for continuous present or the Queen’s arty descriptions, we let rip. Small tears and then often huge great gashes. The problem is that we don’t agree. Hardly surprising if you consider our books. We have a plotter, a dreamer, a lover of tangents, a repeater, a spiritualist, a pragmatist, a weaver, a schemer, a joker . . . We like first person, third person, omniscient, accents, fantasy, reality, the past, the future . . . We all think the pace is too fast, too slow, non-existent . . . We’d all write the scene differently . . . although not necessarily any better.
The feedback is only about a quarter useful – we ignore the comments we don’t like. (They’re the same every time anyway – old dogs, new tricks.) However, the relationships, support and conviviality are invaluable. Tea and sweet things add to the pleasure.
When we’ve all had our moment in the spotlight, we try to arrange the next meeting. This takes some time. The Queen likes to holiday. Dylan has a roundabout to play on, Eeyore doesn’t know when she’s free, and I cannot plan ahead. But we manage, noting the date, and then emailing the Queen a week later to ask what we agreed.
I was invited to join the group after a random chat in an aisle at the supermarket. I barely knew the Queen, and had never met the others. The first few occasions were nerve wracking. Not only did I have to produce a few hundred words I could bear to read, I had to try to make clever comments. I failed at the latter, but they let me stay. Three and a half years later, I still look forward to going. In a world with no structure, the discipline of stumping up the next chapter – because turning up empty-handed is just not the deal – has been a huge part of getting my latest book in shape.
It’s a lonely business, but less so, thanks to the camaraderie in the kitchen of the house with the garden to die for. Long live the writing group.