I thought that a long-ago read & critique workshop I led would be the death of me—literally. This post first ran in 2014.
From the early ’90s to the mid-’00s I facilitated numerous read & critique workshops in my home. At its height I led three of them every week, in addition to the gazillion other things I did to earn a living. As you can imagine, working closely with so many writers for nearly fifteen years can lead to some interesting stories—and I don’t mean the ones they read in the workshop.
So what should I write about for starters? Some stories are humorous, like the guy who tried to read a steamy sex scene, stopped halfway through and fell apart laughing. The group joined him, and it went on like this for a couple of minutes.
Some stories are poignant. One woman wrote a novel based on a true story about when she was a teenager in the ’70s. Some members of her family died in a mass murder at the hands of two psychos on a killing spree that covered half the nation. On the night she was scheduled to read that scene, all of us volunteered to read it for her. She refused, and somehow she got through it. We did no critiquing afterward—most of us were crying.
Some stories are romantic, like the couple who met in one of the workshops in the ’90s, got married soon after, and remain lovebirds to this day.
But my choice will be a scary story—what else? Scary for me, anyway. We were two sessions away from what had already been the most difficult workshop I’d ever facilitated. One of our long-time members had been arrested, was scheduled to be tried, wound up in prison, and then died not long after his release. This guy was a solid writer, a strong read & critique participant, and a good friend to many, including me. We dealt with it as best we could and moved on.
Everyone in the group had been with me for a long time, save one fellow—we’ll call him George. A decent writer whose critiques were usually spot on, George’s only fault was missing some of the sessions—nearly all on nights when he wasn’t scheduled to read. He missed a number of the sessions in which we did fewer reads and more dealing with our loss.
When George showed up for the next-to-last session—oblivious to what we’d been through as a group—I immediately knew that something was wrong. He was verbally abusive to those who read their chapters, took no critiquing when his turn came around, and stormed out of my house before the end of the session. (Alcohol? Drugs? Who knows…) Afterward, most everyone in the group told me that if George was coming back for the next workshop in the fall, they were not. I told them not to worry, that I would talk to him at the last session the following week and inform him that he would not be invited back.
But understand this: I am a wuss, and I dislike confrontation. I also write horror and such, so all the ensuing week I imagined every scenario in which George would murder, disembowel, and otherwise mutilate me when I bounced him from the next workshop. So, like a true coward, I placed a phone call to Deputy Dave.
My good friend and former workshop participant, Dave Putnam—now retired—was at the time a deputy sheriff for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. (He was also one of the aforementioned lovebirds.) Though one of the nicest people you could ever meet, Deputy Dave was an imposing figure that you definitely did not want to piss off. I explained the situation, asked if he would come down and sit in. He said that he would, and that he would be packing.
Still, I felt uneasy, even more so when the following Wednesday rolled around. On the way home from my day job I stopped at the post office to check my box. Guess what, I found a letter from George. He would not be attending the last session that night, and count him out for the next workshop; just wasn’t getting what he needed, he said.
You know the old expression about the weight of the world being lifted off your shoulders? That’s how I felt as I left the post office and practically did the Snoopy Dance in the parking lot. It was too late to intercept Deputy Dave on his way down to San Diego, but everyone enjoyed his participation in the last session, and we all admired the Dirty Harry special he was packing.
The two incidents in that grueling workshop nearly soured me with regard to doing more of them. Fortunately we took a summer break, and during a one-day read & critique marathon I felt the energy returning. I then did something that I’d never done before: I recruited a member.
Hank Garfield was one of the most promising writers with whom I’d ever worked, besides being a great guy. He would go on to publish a number of horror and historical novels with St. Martin’s Press and Simon & Schuster. Hank stayed with the workshops for a year or so before moving back to his native Maine. The workshops continued for five or six more years—with no Georges on hand.