"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What should be the writer's goal?

I've been trying for years to find a critique group that works for me. I admit, I may not have been trying as hard as I could. After all, I get a lot of mileage out of my two yearly writer's conferences, and I have writer friends who like being my beta readers. Still, I keep hearing of people who are in these fabulous writing groups and I can't help but long for that sense of cameraderie.

This week, I saw a meeting advertised in my Meetup.com group - I don't know why I'd never seen it before, but it struck me that it was a good time and good night for my schedule. I printed off copies of my first chapter and headed to the coffee house.

One aside before I get into the story I'm telling: I've been losing a little more weight and feeling a little happier about my size, so I wore a silk blouse I haven't worn in a long time because it fit so nicely. When I got to the coffee house, I found it has two rooms, the small room where you order stuff, then the big room with lots of tables that's kind of an enclosed patio. The order room was so insanely hot that by the time I got my tea, let's just say I was moist. I quickly moved into the bigger, cooler room, met the people in the group, sat down at the table and - suddenly smelled an odor. A human odor. The garlicky smell of body odor. So my first thought is, OMG-IS-THAT-ME? Did I somehow wear a silently stinky blouse to this gig, a blouse whose odor was released as soon as heat hit it? Not a good first impression. I'm OH-SO-HAPPY to report it wasn't me, but I spent most of the evening sitting as quietly and as downwind as possible.

Now that I've given you TMI, here's what I really wanted to talk about: I mostly liked this group. They had a lot of good writing, some good critiques, and were very welcoming. Then something happened that, while it didn't turn me off, left me with some serious headscratching.

A couple of the women at the table shared the same ethnic background. As one of the women passed around her work to be read, she apologized for the cultural bent of the piece and told all the newcomers that the rest of the group "puts up with her" cultural references. Here's the thing - I didn't find any of her references particularly obtuse or confusing. I understood it, to the point of asking if I had missed something.

"Well, they have *this style furnishings* in their home," the other woman replied. "And the way the mother said *that line of dialogue*." (I'm using the *'d phrases to avoid discussing the exact ethnicity.)

Um, okay. The decor was cultural. But the mother sounded like almost any mother I know, even me. The theme she had written about was universal. I felt like I got it, got what the piece was saying, and they were trying to tell me I couldn't have gotten it because I wasn't of that culture.

So my question is this: should a writer invite all readers into their cultural world and investigate issues that are common to everyone, or should a writer limit their work to readers who know their culture and can step in line with the characters?

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