The Ellensburg Writing Group

Winter, 2008

There I was, surrounded by five other writers in a D&M coffee shop on a Wednesday night. They had all read my short story and were deciding who should speak first. We’d been meeting each Wednesday for the last few months, and I’d already given them a few short stories that had been put through the wringer.

We were all men between the ages of twenty-two and forty. John and I taught English as a Second Language at the local university in Ellensburg, Washington and both leaned toward a literary style. Dave wrote fantasy and taught at a community college. There was also Ben, who called himself a graduate student, but his non-fiction suggested that he mostly roamed free like a drifter. Matt and Jeremy were the other two, both being students at the university and wrote in multiple genres. Before this group, we were all writers working in isolation, free to write anything we wanted without direction. That kind of freedom is nice in moderation, but there is always that uncomfortable moment when you know you’ve taken your work as far as you can take it, and it was now time for it to get sliced, diced, tossed around, and, inevitably, judged.

“I’ll go first,” Ben said, plopping the story down on the table. “Is this true?”

I stayed quiet, because that was the only unspoken rule when getting critiqued: Don’t answer any questions or try and defend your work in any way. It was a good rule. That way the discussion about your story happens naturally, without interference from the creator. Still, what Ben said was music to my ears, because I had built the short story, about a strange ritual at the top of a volcano, to sound like non-fiction.

“The first paragraph is like one giant hook,” Dave chipped in. “It really works…but…”

Oh no. There it was. The dreaded three-letter word. B U T. It had found its way into rejection letters from agents, magazine editors, and publishers. The moment that word is spoken or read, that perfect crystal cage I’ve placed my story inside is shattered into a thousand pieces. I’d been conditioned to expect it, but (oh there it is again!) it always contained a tingle of pain, as if my story had just lost its innocence.

“It doesn’t feel like a story. It just feels like a bunch of scenes that fit together, but…I don’t know.”

“It’s a story,” John said to Dave, as I took a sip of coffee. “But it’s broken apart. Maybe on purpose?” John looked at me, but I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face.

“I kind of liked that,” Matt said, however I knew not to get hopeful again. Matt loved anything experimental or non-linear. “If it was just a conventional, A to B story, the ending would kind of lose its impact.”

“Yeah, about that ending…” Jeremy said, smiling. He threw the comment up like a softball waiting to get crushed by someone else.

Dave cracked it over the fence. “So does the main character want to kill himself, or is he trying to change?”

There was division on this answer. I’d left the ending ambiguous on purpose, so I’d expected there to be different opinions. What concerned me more was the general question that I’d asked almost everyone who had read a story I’d written: Were they satisfied? And so, I violated the unspoken rule just for a moment and asked them.

Their responses were No, No, kind of, yes and no, and Yeah, sure.

Not exactly what I was hoping for.

Each person had written comments, along with line edits, and at the end of the meeting, I took home five copies of a short story that had lost its newborn glow. I set it aside for a few weeks, too unconfident to mold it into something else entirely. I worked on other projects, and we continued to meet each Wednesday for the next three months. We learned each other’s styles, we saw stories transform and find new perspectives, and, most importantly, we enjoyed talking about this incredibly lonely profession. When summer came, life jumped in and broke up the group. Dave and his wife and two children moved to Minnesota, Matt graduated and moved west over the mountains, John got a job in Pennsylvania, Jeremy moved to Idaho, and Ben backpacked, somewhere.

Three years later, my wife and I found ourselves in Leysin, Switzerland. I’d written the story in 2007, the writing group edits happened in 2008, and after making a couple of my own changes, I’d submitted it to over twenty magazines. Unanimously rejected, of course. So in August of 2011, I found myself lazily going through a box of stories I’d gathered over the years, and, lo and behold, there were the five copies, paper clipped together. I had a free weekend, so I decided to take a deep breath and re-read all of their comments, this time with a clear mind.

I relived those Wednesday nights—the good times, the advice, the hours of conversation. I thought about Dave, John, Matt, Ben, and Jeremy, and I took pieces of all of their feedback and retooled the story (The title? Mihara). I sent the new story off to a magazine, and three months later, after years of rejection, it was accepted for publication. The longest story I had ever had published at the time. And it all happened because six guys decided to sit in a coffee shop every Wednesday and talk about fiction.