I could practically hear The Byrds harmonizing to McGuinn’s twanging 12-string, doing their famous rendition of Pete Seeger’s song adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The morning of our annual June retreat, our writer group received the news that one of our own would not be joining us for the weekend. In fact, she was leaving the writer group altogether.
Her note was moving and heartfelt. Good things in her life were superseding her writing in importance. I knew this to be true. I shed some tears and thought about how different the weekend was now going to be. So much depended on the four of us who remained.
I felt optimistic, because we already had some experience with changes. We got started back in 2011, when four of us attended a fiction class at WriterHouse , our local writing nonprofit, and decided to continue as a critique group. We adopted – and then adapted – the critique guidelines from Luke Whisnant that our teacher had recommended to the class, and established a reliable monthly schedule which we all observed.
Gang of Four
We thrived as a foursome for a number of years. We wrote, published, funded our projects, promoted them, and all the while sent in monthly segments of new work for discussion. We grew as writers, and as a group. We even did a series of public presentations on the benefits of committing to a writer group.
Then one of us made some big changes to her life. She got married, accepted a new professorship at a university far from our base in Charlottesville, and had a baby. The combined distance, responsibilities, and changed focus meant she could only meet with us sometimes, and via Skype, not face to face in the usual coffee shops, offices, and living rooms where we congregated.
So, in effect, we were a more often a group of three than four. Undaunted, we put out the word that we sought a new writer to join us. A few interviews later, we wound up with not one but two engaging new voices to join the chorus.
The six of us rallied for one final retreat, all together, last summer in Virginia. Then our far-flung writer announced that it was unlikely she’d be able to join us in future, even by Skype, what with teaching, the baby, and a forthcoming academic book in the works.
It made total sense, and we helped where we could, beta-reading portions of her book, and cooing over photos of the new baby. We missed her, each in our own ways, and welcomed the two new writers to our circle. We evolved.
A new five-member vibe emerged. Then another of our original writers let us know she’d be withdrawing for a time. She had exigent priorities, related to the events of 12 August 2017. Those of you not in the Charlottesville, VA area may not have felt the urgency that the day created among many of us to do something in the wake of the horror and violence. In the aftermath, our writer was drawn to investigate, and withdrew for a time from the rhythm of sending in several thousand words per month to our writer group. We supported her decision, needless to say. In fact, many questions remain, almost a year later, about who did what – and did not do what – to and for whom on that day, not to mention what factors led to the conditions that resulted in so much harm – to individual people and to the community.
So we were, temporarily, four. Knowing that our fifth writer was likely to return, we left an extra seat at the table for six months or so. Sadly, at the end of her leave of absence, she had found no resolution. Like many Charlottesvillians, she discovered the answers to her questions remained stubbornly out of reach.
She rejoined active participation in our group, once again a circle of five writers. It felt good. The number gave us more flexibility. If one of us were out of town, we still had a satisfying foursome at the monthly critique. I remember reflecting that our writer group had its own life force, its own reason for being. In addition, we each demonstrated our care for the group itself, tending to it with kindness and intelligence.
Life went on this way for a little while. Earlier this year, we all anticipated the retreat, scheduled for mid-June. As in prior years, we’d rented a place, planned shared activities, along with ample solitary time, and looked forward to sharing dinners assembled in the kitchen, enjoyed by all.
Then on the morning of what was to be our first day together, we got the email. Our instigator, the person who in 2011 first invited three other writers to do a critique, had come to the end of the road with BACCA. Just as had happened a year before with the new mother / academic transplant, her reasons were overwhelmingly positive and beyond reproach. As I re-read the email, I saw how happy her life had become. A new career, marriage, a home in the country – all these developments were worthy of celebration.
Now We Are Four – Again
When the remaining four of us met up at the retreat, we all had some adjusting to do. Now half of us were old-timers – around since 2011 – and half of us had been involved for eighteen months or so. What effects would that new balance have on our equilibrium?
It didn’t take long to find out. By the next day, at our scheduled critique meeting, we found ourselves already functioning as an effective, collegial, purposeful, compassionate, and committed group of four.
Happily, as do the other BACCA writers, I remain connected to the two writers who have departed from active involvement with the group. It is a great pleasure to know both of these fellow writers, now friends, and to enjoy the conversational styles and senses of humor unique to each of them. I am filled with admiration for the ways each of them has designed a life that gives them joy.
Turn, Turn, Turn
And as for BACCA, once again, our shared intention to serve the group overcame the uncertainty. As the song goes, to everything there is a season. Once again, BACCA reconfigured itself and evolved. May your writer group do the same.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck