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Tuesday, 7 June 2011


I first got involved with writers’ groups in the early 1980s, which was when I started taking my writing seriously, rather than doing it in secret. And one way or another I remained involved for the next twenty-five years, initially as a member, clutching my typescript (occasional a longhand manuscript) and sweating against the moment I would be called upon to read aloud. Later, as a teacher or leader, I sweated against the times when I really would have nothing intelligent to say in response to some incomprehensible poem or rant - even though I was being paid to do so. 

I’ve sat in the back-rooms of English pubs, shivered in barely heated attic rooms above snooker halls, and turned up early, week after week, to set up seats around a table in many a village hall or school-room. I’ve conducted discussions with two or three die-hards on a frosty November night in the peak `flu season, and sent out for extra seating when as many as twenty-three showed up in a room designed to accommodate twelve. And I’ve attended classes taught by internationally celebrated novelists in comfortable, brightly lit rooms at the Universities of New Mexico - and East Anglia, where I took my M.A.  

After the Master’s, when I started teaching my own classes, I was so broke - after five years as a student with two young children - that I had to cycle 21 miles each way for the first three weeks of my new (evening) class. Only when I had sufficient students and knew the thing would run, along with three or four others I’d floated, did I take the risk of buying a car to replace the previous heap of junk. It cost me about $500 and lasted – as they all did back then – twelve months, until the annual roadworthiness test was due. I’m proud to say that the Hornsea group, the one I cycled to, out on the chilly east coast of Yorkshire, is one of a pair I set up in the late eighties that are still flourishing.

So I was intrigued by the informal gathering in the Sand CafĂ© on Sunday. Who would they be? How serious were they? What would they be writing? The invitation had come by way of Kitty, who, I learned later, is a closet poet. Not that she was there: she had other fish to fry, in Las Vegas –and we await a report on that. Have you heard the new saying: ‘What happens in Vegas stays… on Facebook.’

I hadn’t realised that I was a lunch guest of Bob Moreland and his wife – and I would  put her name down but I’m not sure how it’s spelled. Neither had I realised that the meal was just the preamble. All morning, at the branding, I’d been imagining tall, slim ranchers in jeans and boots, dusting down their spectacles and declaiming in verse over coffee and cinnamon rolls. But no, that’s not how it was to be. We finished lunch, piled into cars and set off eastwards along Highway 20, turning north then east again on a ranch road – and a paved one at that - and heading several miles to the Morelands’ place. Bob, I learned later, is the uncle of Ken, who took me and Phil to hunt morel mushrooms a few weeks back.

We assembled around a long table in what I guess was the dining-room. Certainly food and drink arrived in due course. I should say there were a dozen or fourteen of us, ranging in age from really quite young to… old enough to know better. There were copies of a special Beef Issue of a local newspaper which had published some of Bob’s reminiscences – and, idiot that I am, I neglected to take one away with me.

We began with introductions, exchanged bits and pieces of information and then got down to reading a few things. It was all rather like home, except that everyone was incredibly polite. By that I mean that nobody offered any criticism of what was read. That’s not to imply that the poems, stories and reflective pieces that we heard were in need of critique, simply that at home a typical meeting would comprise perhaps one third reading and two thirds comment and analysis. We’re very keen on it; we invite it – although I always had a rule that before you launched into the supposed failings of a piece you had to say what it was you liked about it.

Criticism, however constructive, can be painful to hear. I have been wounded on more than one occasion. I have seen people collapse under it. But I am a great believer in the group dynamic. I always advise new writers to join a group. First thing, I tell them, you’ll be exposed to other types of writing. You’ll learn what else is possible, things you might not have considered. Secondly, as well as having your own errors pounced on, you’ll watch other people make mistakes – and look out for them in your own writing. Basically, your learning curve will steepen. In some groups I’ve been involved with, the most useful members were not necessarily the best writers, but the  people who dared ask the questions: what’s working and what isn’t, and why? That gets the discussion moving.

But at this event I was a visitor. I behaved. I heard poems about grade school – from a grade school pupil; I heard one of a planned series of poems based on the same two characters; and an extract from a story – which will be self published –about the travels and work experience of a young cowboy in the 1880s, around western Nebraska. There were other offerings, but the one that will stick in my mind the longest was the true story of a young Hispanic-Native American child who was abandoned by her mother, never knew her father, and was then raised by a kind, elderly, loving but very poor couple, in a house with no electricity or running water. And then one them died.

The story had a happy outcome. The old man brought the youngster to the home of her grade school teacher, and she and her husband adopted her. Both the girl and the adoptive parents were there in the room, and a few eyes were being dabbed before we were through.

On the way home I found myself thinking about the many ways in which people are gifted. Some have a talent for ball games; some have fine voices, or an artist’s eye, or are fleet of foot, or have a way with words. And others are blessed with a different type of gift, a truly amazing story which will most likely inspire them and everyone they know throughout their lives.

I need to comment on the picture at the top of this piece. I’ve been trying for two months to get a halfway decent shot of the turkey buzzards that circle over me as I walk the hills around here. I doubt I’ll do better than this.