Monday, June 4, 2018

Guest Blogger Ele Pawelski on the Value of the Ubiquitous Writing Group

Ele Pawelski’s novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, was published by Quattro Books in December 2017. Her short stories have appeared in the Nashwaak Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. A ten-year Toronto resident, this avid adventurer has also lived and managed human rights projects in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. Ele teaches International Development Law and is writing her next book, a novel featuring parallel stories about a German mother and son trying to find each other after becoming separated during World War II.

Please welcome Ele Pawelski.

I found Moosemeat Writing Group long before I became a fiction author. Thankfully. Otherwise I’d probably still be a struggling memoirist.

In 2010, when I joined Moosemeat, I sought to expand my circle of friends and find a group of like-minded artists willing to help shape my ideas into something readable. The year before, I’d moved to Toronto after working overseas on development projects for twelve years and was still trying to find my footing back at “home.” I liked writing and a few friends suggested I put my experiences of life in post-conflict environments like Afghanistan and Bosnia into a book. I knew how to write academically, but creative writing was a different beast.

So I did what everyone with a problem does: searched online. Moosemeat’s website called out for writers of any ilk. I was in!

Moosemeat’s history goes back to circa 1995, when a group of committed writers wanted to continue meeting up after having taken a writing course together. The name was provoked by an animated debate over a story in which the main character has 10 pounds of moosemeat in a freezer. At least that’s what I’ve heard; Moosemeat membership has completely turned and the originators are long gone. Certainly the moniker gets a laugh, especially when we call ourselves meese or the herd

Eventually, Moosemeat would become the foundation of my writing accomplishments. But first, I had to get up the confidence to submit a story! I remember that meeting very well. I’d submitted a satirical narrative entitled, “Where Taxis Go To Die,” which poked fun at the poor quality of taxis in war-ravaged countries.

Moosemeat’s format is straightforward: in advance of every meeting, two writers submit pieces of less than 6,000 words, either a stand-alone short story or part of something longer. Generally, attendance is between four and fifteen individuals who provide feedback one by one. The writer also has a chance to speak at the end. In addition to regular meetings, once a year, the group collaborates on a chapbook of flash fiction stories and hosts a public reading for contributors. 

I could feel sweat gathering under my armpits. The critiques came fast and furious – it was overly funny, not enough of a story line, too little information about my work colleagues, not enough depth…I got sweatier. When it was my turn to talk, I barely said anything, crushed that my story didn’t seem to work for most members. Upon reflection, the earnestness of the reviewers was obvious; they wanted to help. And a lot of their comments were useful, if only to point me in new directions.

It got easier. Two more similar stories later, I was far less sweaty, and had determined that writing a funny memoir in the style of Bill Bryson was not going to work as I had envisioned. In the process, I read and critiqued a lot of short stories, and listened to the critiques of others. I started to see what worked and what didn’t work on the page. Notably, there isn’t always agreement amongst the meese, which confirms the absolute subjectivity as to how much and why a reader enjoys a certain story.

For example, during a recent critique, half of us thought a short story that ended with no character development was fine as it indicated the protagonist stuck to his guns, while the other half wanted to see some learnings. This kind of diversity signals it is crucial to write to a target audience. But more importantly, it hooked me on the value of other people’s opinions and how those could enrich my own writing.

About a year after being in Moosemeat, I sent out the first chapter of The Finest Supermarket in Kabul. I received an immediate, and very encouraging response via email: “Let me just say “wow!” The verbal feedback at the meeting was also quite positive, but in addition, the previous twelve months had prepped me to take all comments constructively. Over the following three years, I presented the middle and last chapters. Again, the critiques were affirming and helpful, and motivated me to dig deep in terms of a generous re-write when I put the story all together. While I could have submitted the rewritten chapters for further critique – no problems in doing this if a writer chooses – at this point, I felt the story was ready for more directed suggestions.

In exchange for wine, two meese agreed to look over the entire draft novella before I submitted to my publisher and give structural and big picture comments. After I signed on with Quattro Books and incorporated my editor’s suggestions, I convinced one more moose to give me line edits, and check for typos and verb agreement as the story had changed from past tense to present. Without this roster of beta readers, I would have been severely limited as to who I felt comfortable and confident in asking for this kind of help.

Moosemeat has no fees, and membership is fluid, ranging from authors with more than one book under their belt to aspiring novelists to writers who enjoy putting pen to paper but are not looking to publish. The only criteria are the willingness to give honest feedback and periodically submit a story.

Being part of a writing group has spurred my writing to evolve in ways I could not have imagined eight years ago: I’m confident writing in the third person and have tried out the second; I can fashion a decent story arc; I get that a twist at the end doesn’t always make for good reading; and finally, I treat writing more like a job than a hobby. The fact that meese are also excellent cheerleaders means I’m unlikely to drop out anytime soon. We each email the group with any good writing news, attend each other’s writing events, and go out for beers from time to time. What’s more to want from a bunch of random creatives!

Connect with Ele via her website, Twitter, or Facebook. Find Moosemeat here.

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