The Maine Review, September, 2014

Crits and Cabernet

My writing group just left, and not a moment too soon. Five more minutes, and there would have been blood on the floor.

"I understood your protagonist’s motives, I just didn't believe them."

“Was the rampant sentimentality intentional?

“Your premise was wonderful, I just think you need to rewrite your novel from a first person point of view."

But the biggest grenade is always hurled from the same saccharine launcher: "Your work has really matured!"

When I hear those words I want to curl fetal on the floor. I know what's coming next: a “but” big enough to reduce the chair I cower in to kindling. I look up from my notebook and force myself to make eye contact with my tormentor, scrambling for the questions that will show him how much I value his insight into the fatal weakness he’s exposed in my theme.

I paste a sympathetic smile when he shares the story of his similar struggle, the one he endured just before the breakthrough that got his name in print. I furrow my brow and scribble while he offers tips on creating the kind of plot tension and character catharsis that had his cell chirping for two weeks straight with the tweets of his five-star Amazon reviews. When he finally shuts up, I nod wisely over my doodle, trying not to drive my pen through the page as I scribe the last lines of a dagger slicing through his big, fat cartoon head.

But, believe it or not, I love this guy, and every one of the other scribes parked in my living room each month. Maybe I’m just some kind of emotional masochist. Or maybe I’m trying to become something more – like a writer.

If so, this crew is my best bet. I’m not stupid. I need them. I’ve got plenty of people to chuckle at my witty emails or swoon over the lyric epistles I pen about my camping trips with the kids. (Dad and Mommy come to mind.) But I can’t depend on family and friends to give it to me straight.

This gang never fails to deliver. Still, dishing and digesting opinions on the slices of our souls we’ve laid upon the page makes an appetite for our dinner “parties” a decidedly acquired taste. I do what I can to make them palatable: mop the floor, light a candle, plate some penne for their thoughts. But I don’t offer up the iPod - my carefully curated playlist is absolutely sacrosanct. I’m simply not sure I could make it through our evenings without Neil and Joni to cushion the blows.

And my guests are certainly generous with their anesthetics, though not everyone tips the bottles they bring. I certainly do. To my taste, they pair perfectly with our strange stew of pasta and polemics. Nothing takes the edge off a page full of line edits like a quart of Cabernet.

It’s a long evening, so I pace myself. We serve up stories of the writing life with dinner, passing plates and sharing secrets of how we manage to balance our obsession with the needs of work and family. It’s our chance to build our bond, to join in chorus to curse the serpents who snake through slush piles or praise the peer who’s managed to score a personal rejection slip. After that, united by the shared pain we pay to realize our common mission - to write our way to our fullest lives - we’re ready to move into the living room.

Where we rip each other to shreds.

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