There’s a woman in my writer’s group who is constantly putting the rest of us down. She’s the only one who’s published and it’s like she thinks she’s better because of it. I mean, why join a writer’s group if you’re going to spend it disparaging the others? For example, she told me my writing style is somewhat old fashioned — I use the word “nay” sometimes to mean “no” and the word “lest” to mean, well, “lest” and was told I shouldn’t write like that if I don’t speak like that. I told her tough shit that’s how I write; it’s not affected because it comes out naturally. That’s how I write.Anyway, as a group we’re reluctant to give her the boot because she actually gives constructive (if caustic) criticism. What do you think?
Writers Can Be Cruel to Be Kind
Dear Writers Can Be Cruel to Be Kind,
Why, yes, they can! I was in a writer’s group once where I was frequently told, “You need to cut the first part of this piece, because it’s really just you getting warmed up.” Oh, it hurt. It most especially hurt because I knew it was true. Still, there was always that split second where I wanted to scream “Fuck you! This is a work of goddamn genius and it runs circles around this drivel that you force upon us each week!” Allow yourself that split second. And then listen. And then eat!
I think we can all agree that the best and most productive part of these writer’s groups is the food. I’m partial to soft cheeses and olives to start, and then I like to move on to the sugary side of things. Sure, I could seriously be done with cupcakes at this point, as could we all, but I love dessert, and one week someone brought this raisin bread pudding which I would have burnt my whole manuscript for another bite of. But anyway.
Here’s a question: Has anyone in your group ever brought up your issues to the woman-in-question herself? Before I continue, I’d just like to point out that there is a good chance she doesn’t know how she is coming off and maybe she thinks she’s being helpful. She would especially not know how she’s coming off if no one has ever told her, if you all just sit around and talk shit about her when she excuses herself to the restroom.
But, in fairness to you all, and in my experience, in any gathering of writers – a class, an informal group, a panel discussion at a pain-in-the-ass annual writer’s convention – there’s one grump who somehow believes it is her or his duty to “tell the truth,” by which they usually mean it is their duty to be a raging asshole and make their fellow writers feel like shit about the work they hold so dear. On one hand, we need people like that, because too often writers can fall into a bad pattern of circle jerking and that’s really unproductive for everyone. On the other hand, these sour folks can cast a dread over a group and make it a bit nerve-wracking for anyone less outspoken to advocate for their or anyone else’s work-in-progress.
But I don’t think that’s your trouble; clearly you are able to speak up for yourself and your writing. I am super proud of your response to this naysayer. Fury positively swoons at a well-placed “tough shit!” This woman sounds rather tedious, zeroing in on the flaw of each piece. A lot of very sad people like to build themselves up by putting others down, and this could eventually drag the whole group down, because it’s, well, a drag. So, depending on her other character traits, at some point the rest of the group needs to decide if it’s worth keeping her around. Does she have any positive qualities? As she is the only one of your group who has been published, does she have an abundance of talents or tricks you could all learn from? Does she have contacts she’d be willing to share? Does she, perhaps, bring really kick-ass snacks each week? A carefully chosen hummus spread is worth a lot, you know. (If she consistently brings cupcakes, boot her ass!)
As far as the “you’re not writing how you speak” bit of idiocy, I offer this: I know a man who was told this very thing in one of the first workshops he took in college. He ignored the advice, and, decades later, still doesn’t write how he speaks. He also has won a ton of the most coveted literary awards out there and he wrote a best-selling book. So fuck that advice, because we’re supposed to write however the hell we want, as long as it’s good. “You’re not writing how you speak” is not criticism; it’s just dull observation. If this is the sort of wisdom this woman in your writer’s group has to offer, I don’t see the point of keeping her around.
Now, all that said, what if this wet blanket is actually quite spot-on? What if her “putting the rest of us down?” is just her offering her best advice? What if she thinks your “yays” and “nays” are incorrect because your characters are high school students in present-day New Jersey or something? What if she’s right? What if she thinks she’s better because she is better? What if you just tell yourself she is stuck-up because you’re jealous of her success and talent? Wait up, there! Don’t just laugh this off! Think about it! Are you jealous of her success and talent? Admit it, it’s okay. We all feel that sometimes. Now use those feelings to spur you on, spur you on to write something she might actually like, spur you on to even greater success than either of you have ever imagined.
In the meantime, pass the snacks!