Twelve years ago I joined a writer’s group called The Writer’s Forum, which has been meeting regularly for more than 20 years now. I was a pretty green writer at the time, and as I drove to every meeting I would pray, “Please, let me say one smart thing and nothing stupid.” And I’d come out of the meeting with my mind blown that these amazing, professional writers had let me into their circle.
That group was led by a remarkable man named Jack Gilbert, who passed away in March. Many people have eulogized Jack over the last months, and they’ve all spoken the truth about him more artfully than I could.
Most of them recognize that Jack was a silent, behind-the-scenes worker, and it wasn’t until he passed that I really recognized how much of my life had been influenced by him. I wanted to make sure I shared something of it. So these are some of the practical things I learned from sitting on Jack’s gold, 1970s-era couches for twelve years…
Yes, Everything I Know About Writers Groups I Learned From Jack Gilbert
Some of these observations will overlap with my blog post How to Give Notes, because, well, writer’s groups are a lot about giving notes. But I don’t think giving notes is the main purpose of a writer’s group. (Gasp! I know!) I don’t even think that the main goal of a writers group is to make you a better writer. (Double gasp!) That should happen, yes. But I think the main goal of a writers group should be to keep all the writers writing.
Writing can be such a solitary venture (unless you’re a writing team, I guess), and it’s easy to give up or get distracted. Neither of those courses makes you any better. Only writing and writing and writing makes you better. And there’s nothing like talking to other friends who are writing to keep you motivated.
There were a lot of ways that Jack did that for the whole Writer’s Forum (if I may presume to speak for everybody.) Here are a few.
Circle of Love
Jack would usually start our notes sessions by saying, “Okay, circle of love…” and somebody was expected to jump in. Then each in turn says what they love about your script, about you, about anything that fills you up with encouragement about your project. Because — let’s face it — in a moment it’s going to feel like they’re ripping it to shreds. But the Circle of Love braces you for it, and balances it all out. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
It was easy for me to see why Circle of Love was so important on a weekly basis, but over twelve years of Circles of Love on different projects, it has had an unexpected cumulative effect. It has helped me see who I am as a writer.
Here’s one example of what I mean. Sometimes I submit a comedy to the group, sometimes a drama, even an action/adventure or two. But more often than not, someone uses the word “charming” to describe whatever it is. Charming. Sadly, it’s not a characteristic that studio execs are hot after these days, but it is a good reflection of my style. So now when someone asks me what kind of movies I write, thanks to the Circle of Love, sometimes I answer, “Charming ones.”
I happen to be in two writer’s groups because I’m a writer’s group junkie. One group meets more regularly than the other, but both groups always start out with Circle of Love. And thanks to the things the Circle has taught me about myself, and the good things people have found in my work, I keep on writing. The Circle keeps the writers writing.
Sometimes you don’t need notes as much as you just need someone to sit with you and agree that studio executive is a jerk. Or that you should be getting paid a lot more. Or to say a prayer for your spec that’s going out over the weekend. That’s what these writers can do for you – not only help improve your craft, but give you a hand up over the rocks on this journey.
In one group, we spend half the meeting telling the news, good and bad, before we launch into the script notes. Sometimes we never get to the script notes. Sometimes we meet when there isn’t even a script. We just need the group therapy as much as the feedback. With the Writer’s Forum, we go out for lunch afterward. So we stay on topic during the meeting, then we get updated on each other’s lives while we eat.
In either case, we need the support. And often I learn more from those conversations than from the feedback on my writing, because we’re all sharing info on the people, the trends, the successes and disasters of meeting, pitching, and maneuvering.
Sometimes it’s easy to fall into a fog of despair and discouragement, but if you help each other along as commiseraters and co-celebrators on the journey, it keeps the writers writing.
At the end of every meeting Jack would take out his manilla folder with the graph paper inside and write down the date for our next meeting and projects that will be presented. (Can anyone explain to me why he always wrote on graph paper?)
And heaven forbid if he would look at you and say, “When are you going to bring in the new draft of XYZ?” You would have to make up an answer and then make a mental note to get back to work on XYZ. Right away. Because Jack was keeping track, and you’re supposed to be getting it done. The manilla folder and the graph paper, along with Jack’s firm but loving reminder was keeping the writers writing.
In both groups there is a set system for celebrating success together. One group pops a cork, the other group goes back to lunch. (We love lunch, I guess.) The person who sold/optioned a spec or got hired on an assignment takes everybody else out for lunch. It can be anything from the Cheesecake Factory to Baja Fresh (for those of us who write independents).
But everybody gets treated, because when one person has a success, all the other people in the group had input into that project, and lunch is the way of recognizing that you didn’t do it all on your own.
I’ve had a few small successes during my run in Writer’s Forum, and I owed everybody a celebration. Regrettably, I didn’t get to take Jack to lunch before he went Home. So, this will have to suffice as my way of recognizing the input he had into my projects.
Thanks, Jack, for keeping me writing. And for not letting me do it all on my own.
The memorial for Jack Gilbert will be at 11:00am on Saturday, May 12, at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, 16221 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.