Was it twenty years ago that I joined my first writing group?

Maybe it was nineteen.

And it was a group/workshop that was offered through a local community college so I’m not even sure if that counts.

But I attended every week.

My kids were small, my oldest was five and the twins were two, my hubby would watch them for my night out at the workshop.

It felt so strange entering this world of children’s literature.

How I looked up to the other people in the class. They seemed so sophisticated! And here was I, nothing more than a housewife, babysitting up to eight kids a day to help make ends meet.

What must they have thought of me? This strange lady wearing a strange mix of Western and Eastern clothes.

Back then I tried to ‘blend’ in.

I wore long shirts and pants thinking that it would make me look more acceptable. Instead I only felt less comfortable, and I continuously worried that if I reached for something, my shirt would ride up and reveal more than I wanted.

Writers workshops often contain a hodge podge of characters. Many of them look a bit like beatniks. Many of them are a bit flaky, many of them are radical and many of them have no intention of writing anything but like to hang around others who write, for social reasons I guess.

It’s a general rule that the arts tend to attract some pretty, ahem, *unstable* individuals. There are people who are writing as therapy for abusive childhoods.

I remember attending a panel discussion with the brilliant author Alistair MacLeod at the Vancouver International Writiers’ Festival. He touched on this in a very humourous way.

I suppose it would have been wise to keep quiet and not make any waves.

And I did so, for a while.

But I figured if anyone could take alternative points of view, you would think it would be a writing course. I idealized writers. I thought they must be the most open-minded people in the world.

And I’ve always been rather opinionated, so I couldn’t keep my mouth shut when I had something to say.

It should come as no surprise that I was eventually asked to leave.

It was after I argued with some criticism.

I wouldn’t have argued (it’s very bad form!) except that I knew the piece I was sharing had merit and I couldn’t believe that they could not recognize that.

You see, I wrote a story called The Bee. It was about a girl who comes out of her house to see a bee crawling along the door frame towards a spider web.

She takes a stick, blocks the bee’s path so that it turns around, then runs back inside to fetch something. When she comes back out, the bee is stuck in the spider’s web, frantically trying to escape.

Life and death in the hands of a child. Should she save the bee or should she allow the spider to have its meal?

In the end she saves the bee, puts it on the porch and tells it to fly away but it doesn’t. While she’s inside getting it some honey she hears that her older sister has come home. When she comes out to the hallway her older sister is wiping something off her shoe.

I prefaced this story with, what I think, was a rather clever covering letter in which I said that ever since I was a little girl I’d always wished just once that the coyote would catch the road runner. Why do we demonize the predator when he’s only acting out of hunger?

I sent that story out to a number of different publishers, and got some very personalized rejections.

When writers are first starting out, they clutch at anything to make them feel like they’re making progress. I’ve seen newbies parse rejection letters, or little scribbles by editors on rejection letters, to see if there was any type of encouragement in them!

But one of the rejection letters was extremely encouraging. It was from the senior editor at a textbook publisher who only published anthologies of work that had been previously published. She said that she could never accept new material but she’d seen such promise in my story that she’d passed it to her junior editors, told each of them to comment on it, collated the comments and sent them back to me.

Editors  never do that! Not unless they really see something in it!

Armed with that information I took my story to the writers group to see what they would say.

They tore it apart.

And this time I argued with their criticism.

I didn’t tell them about the letter I had received. I thought it shouldn’t matter. If they knew what they were talking about, they should be able to see merit in the story.

The next day the instructor called me up and asked me to leave.

I still feel it was unfair, and yet in many ways it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I was so desperate to get published at the time, that I saw the feedback of the group as instrumental in achieving that goal.

I thought if I can just impress these people enough, then maybe that means I will impress an editor and get that *acceptance* letter that I so craved.

In fact it was probably their acceptance that I craved the most.

That can happen in a group.

You can value their opinion so much that you start writing to please the group, not realizing there could be other dynamics at play.

When I was asked to leave, I was devastated.

I felt hopeless, and yet when I’d dried my tears, something inside me knotted up hard. And I was all the more determined to make it.

To do that, I needed the quiet of my own thoughts. I needed to push aside distracting group dynamics and focusing instead on writing something that moved me.

We do need feedback. Writers groups can help many people. Just be careful that you don’t substitute their judgment for your own.