Writers groups have abounded for generations ever since wordsmiths have gotten assistance and inspiration from fellow writers. A couple of notable groups have familiar names attached to them: The Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s in New York listed Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley, et al, among its members. (They called themselves The Vicious Circle, probably a fairly apt nickname considering their collective sharp wits.) Another notable group of the 1930s and ‘40s, based at Oxford University, was The Inklings, where such eminent writers as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis shared their memorable works.
But alongside, if you will, these prominent groups have been countless other obscure gatherings of scribblers, some published, and some not–and may never be. Yet the association of these writers is meaningful, even pleasurable to those who attend. I belong to a group that has met every Friday afternoon (when possible) for thirty-five years at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. This group has a membership that changes periodically, though it still retains a couple of original members (of which I am one), lending a sense of continuity.
For the most part, members have been faculty or staff of the college with an occasional person from the community or a recommended student. The latter is currently represented by Paul Farmer, who is employed as a marketing analyst with HCA and is in the throes of writing an historical novel. The others now meeting include the putative chair who instituted the group, Betty Palmer Nelson. She has the distinction of publishing first with her five novels in the Honest Women Series. She is presently working on a novel of intricate relationships set in 1970s Nashville that revolves around the music business. Another novelist, Mickey Hall, is completing his third unpublished novel. His wit and engaging dialogue have consistently delighted the other writers. The Ingrams, Ray and Sarah, bring to the group diverse talents, Ray with his poems, stories, and novels centered in the back country of Middle Tennessee, his ancestral homeland where he and Sarah still live. She writes poems for all occasions and extended fiction for the younger set. But she’s not the only one who has an affinity for poetry. Widely published in numerous literary journals, Cynthia Wyatt continues to impress her fellow writers (and other readers) with insightful, memorable poems. Another poet and newer member, Betty Mandeville, writes of personal and universal feelings best expressed in poetic form. Jaime Sanchez employs his foreign background as the setting for fascinating glimpses in elegant prose of a privileged family mostly through the lens of chaotic political change. Other writers will appear and then disappear over the course of a year, but those named are the regulars.
The most interesting and significant contribution that writers groups make is the background diversity of its members. I can recall former participants like the late Humanities chair, Don Goss, a weekend pilot happy to provide accurate information on weather phenomena. Retired administrator Jim Hiett, who attended the group for several years, was a bird expert with a published bird book. Also now retired, longtime member Dan Jewell was an English teacher, but his expertise concerning country music is evidenced in his published novel, Blood Country.
From the above, you might guess that a large aggregation of well-informed members have come and gone through the years. However, another contingent has baffled the group by their unwillingness (or inability) to conform to a certain standard or whose actual writing was problematic. I remember a charming man who after writing a history book, quite a logical project as a retired history teacher, decided to write a novel about his university days. Too bad he’d never even read a novel. Members tried tactfully to suggest improvements on his many mistakes in structure, dialogue, and characterizations until he became aware of his shortcomings and left the group without any rancor. Then an erstwhile young writer joined us and announced that all novelists in the group were on the wrong track by including narrative in their prose, that dialogue only was the wave of future novels. When we ignored his advice, he too didn’t last long. The worst writer to attend and mercifully have a short tenure with the group was a fellow who was writing a sadistic, sexually exploitative novel. I remember after one reading, I could only say, “Yuk,” which might have suggested he didn’t belong in our midst. He left soon after. Amusingly, we once were entertained by a hit and run writer, recommended by someone not in our group. He came from a distance away, asked to read first, and in a non-stop drone read his entire story of twenty-five pages (we allow five to seven pages to be read aloud). When he finished, apparently just wanting an audience, he nodded at us and left, never to be seen again.
So the Vol State Writers Group goes on. Its talented members have helped me produce ten novels, with another one in the works, as well as several dozen poems and short stories, published in various venues. I can only hope that this group will continue for at least another thirty-five years, providing, if nothing else, a forum for intellectual diversion and an enjoyable interlude.