When Writing Groups Go Bad: The Cat Man

I should have known better, but I was somewhere between desperate and lonely, that place writers who want to be read often find themselves and which leaves them susceptible to the power of assertive critics. Sure, giving the story you slavishly worked over for days to someone who is never going to read it often comes to a disappointing nothing, but its just a sin of eagerness. Giving your mailable self over to a self appointed arbiter of taste is another mater.

I met the Cat Man at a local writers group after the night’s speaker had spent 45 minutes explaining the best way to do goal setting. My least favorite thing to hear about in writing groups. The Cat Man was an older fellow with white hair and glasses, and wore a button down collar and white sweater. He came right over to me—I was the only stranger—and introduced himself. He told me within 30 seconds that he hosted a writing group at his home. He had done it for years and had had helped the writing of a local author whose books I had vaguely heard of. What he didn’t do, was write. I should have thought that was a bad sign, but I’m not particularly tied to the notion that everyone in a group needs to participate. Anyway, it had been a couple years since the last group so I was more than eager.

The next week I arrived at his home around 7. It was an old craftsman and was well taken care of. I knocked and he let me in, recognizing me from the week before. As I walked into the house, though, I was overcome by the smell of cat, or to be more precise, litter box. I don’t hate cats, just that smell. I’ve never understood how people can live with that, but I ignored the smell as best I could and entered the dining room where two other writers were waiting. When I took a seat his wife asked if I wanted coffee.  It seemed like a good sign, especially since she looked like a kindly grandmother, and picturing them both together they were quite charming.

After the coffee came, we all traded stories and I read the two pieces of fiction from the other two, while he read all three of ours. Normally, I like to know something about the people I’m trading writing with, so I can know if it is really going to be interesting. With this group I didn’t have any option but to read. It was one of the most painful 20 minutes of reading I’d ever done in my life. Not only was their writing uninteresting, it was so badly written that I think a tenth grader must have written both of the pieces. I’ve read uninteresting things that at least held together, but this stuff was in such desperate need of work.

My mind quickly wandered. I hoped I could make it down to the Trader Joe’s before they closed to buy a case of wine since I’d just gotten a raise and I wanted to celebrate. I couldn’t leave, though. That would have been rude. So I waited until the Cat Man finished marking up our work.

When we finally got to the criticisms and talked about the other writing, he mostly said good improvement. I don’t even want to think about what those writers had written before. It was obvious that he was shepherding along his foundlings and they were slowly becoming what he envisioned. When he came to mine, I knew we would be in conflict. He had begun punctuating my first paragraph and chopping it up into small pieces. Sure the sentences were long. I knew that, but that was part of the deal. He looked at me and said, “these sentences are too German. They don’t work in English.”

Too German? What does that mean? And, really, what’s wrong with a little German flavor now and then? His criticism is the kind that ticks me off, because it doesn’t ask the question, does this work? Rather, it asks, is this in Stunk and White, because that is the limit of my thinking. I wasn’t going to pay much more attention to him, because he obviously wasn’t going to be helpful. What I want in a critic is to know what they see. I know what I want to happen, but is it there? It is the hardest thing for a writer to do. Instead, I found a fellow who subscribes to those tired dictums, such as, always use Anglo Saxon words instead of Latin and French imports, but I like to eat beef instead of cow, and I’d rather live in a mansion than a house.

My mind had already shifted back to the case of wine at Trader Joe’s, when he said, “you shouldn’t be so serious.” Serious? Now he had lost me. Why should I be funny? I’m not a comedian, so I seldom write comedy. It wasn’t as if I was writing about a Dickensian work house, either. On your first encounter with an author, especially his first four pages, you should refrain from suggestions on the weight of material. If you are going to be helping the writer through to the next level, you need to know what the writer is about. There will be plenty of time for readers to say someone is too serious.

Needless to say I left as quickly as I could. It was too late to get my cheep case of wine, but at least I didn’t have to smell that cat box, which I never got used to. When he emailed me the next week to ask I was coming, I politely declined. I wish I had said, “I’m sorry but I’m moving to Germany where they will understand me.”