Bound by Words: Love, Tragedy and Faith in a Writer’s Group

The “lone wolf” writer is firmly fixed in the cultural psyche. Everyone believes the phrase, “writing is a solitary profession.” There is some truth to the statement. When a person sits down to write, they’re doing it by themselves with no one looking over their shoulder.  It’s just them and the voice (sometimes voices) in their heads. People picture the writer, hammering away on the computer, lost in the thoughts of their own head and locking out the rest of the world.

Like most cultural images, this picture only contains part of the truth. The reality is much more complex, and is actually more group oriented than you might expect. Why? The simple answer is that most writers know that really amazing writing can only be born out of a community. A writer needs other people to critique their work and see things they cannot. While I don’t have a formal group, there is a group of people whose opinions I trust, beginning and ending with my fantastic agent.

However, other writers like to make the arrangement more formal and form groups. Very often, these groups become more than just literary discussions. The members start becoming an integral part of each other’s lives. An obvious example can be found in the most famous writers group in history, The Inklings, who met at the Eagle and Child in Oxford. The members included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and a group of other writers who would discuss their works in progress. It’s no exaggeration to say that these writers produced some of the most influential and popular books of the 20th century. Yet, they also comforted each other in times of suffering, including the sudden death of Williams in 1945, an event that rocked the group to its core.

The ladies of Writers Cubed, who started Teen Author Boot Camp, are a great example of a writers group who became a circle of tight friends. I met them through Jo Schaffer, one of our writers here on Geek Goes Rogue. She introduced me to the group and they did me the amazing honor of fitting me into this year’s boot camp.  How can you not love a conference that seeks to help develop young writers by inviting some of the bestselling YA authors (and me) to be “Drill Sergeant” instructors?

As I’ve gotten to know them, I started to learn the story of their writers group. I grew fascinated by some of the things they shared, so I asked them to do an interview with Geek Goes Rogue.  They all agreed and Margie, Jo, Jen, Lois, and Tahsha called in for a Skype interview. What I originally planned to be just a half hour discussion turned into a fascinating, beautiful, and sometimes sad story.

Writers Cubed began in a local high school south of Provo, Utah.  As it turns out, Utah is a hotbed of successful, published authors and aspiring writers. One particular writer (the group calls him Dad), J Scott Savage, decided to teach a writing class for local adults in 2009. When the soon-to-be-members of Writers Cubed started attending the class (except for Jo), none of them knew each other.

After hearing Jeff talk about the need for writer groups, Jen Jenkins put the word out to the class that she wanted to start one. Ten people signed up, including Margie, Lois, and Tahsha. A former member of the group invited Jo, and they all agreed to start meeting.

At first, the group found it difficult to find places to meet. Just about everyone in the group has a family and couldn’t break away to meet until late.

“Kinda hard to find late night meeting space in small town Utah that isn’t a bar,” Margie said, and they all laughed.

Finally, they found a 24-hour grocery store that agreed to let them use their deli space. In the midst of bread, meat, and cheese, they read their work, encouraged each other, and began to bond as friends. Soon, they started going over to each other’s houses and intertwining their lives.

They weren’t prepared for what happened next.

Tragedy began to find the group in terrible and unexpected ways. One former member, Ted, suffered a stroke, and his wife passed away. Lois said, “We went to the hospital and then helped him with the funeral. I think we all realized at that point we’d become more than just a writers group.”

While they mourned with Ted, their group continued meeting every week as they grew in their skills as writers. New members would come and go, but the core that remained became a tight knit circle. This bond helped them through one of the worst day of their lives: February 12, 2012.

The day started off like any other. They took their kids to school, went to work, and set about their normal routines. None of them realized the day would alter their lives forever.

Around 6 p.m., Lois received a phone call from another group member.

“Lois, Amy’s (former member) house is burning down, can you get everyone together?!”

As fast as she could, Lois texted, called, and emailed everyone. They all rushed to help Amy. Along the way, group members picked up emergency supplies for Amy’s family.  They arrived just in time to watch the rest of the house go up in flames. All of them hugged, cried, and tried to help.

Margie shook her head. “We thought it was as bad as it could get at that point.”

Just before the group decided to head back home, Tahsha’s phone rang.

“Hello?”

The voice on the other end said, “Tahsha, Brad’s (her husband) glider crashed in a canyon. He is being airlifted out.”

She recalls, “My body just went numb as I stared at the glowing embers of Ann’s house. I kept pressing for information, but Brad’s friends didn’t know anymore.”

Tahsha’s husband owned a two seat powered parachute that he liked to fly over the deserts of Utah. According to friends, a vicious downwind caught his parachute and sent him plunging into a ravine.

The group all piled in the car as they prepared to drive two hours to the hospital. After a few phone calls, they realized they should go back to Tahsha’s house. While they waited for news, her father-in-law, a sheriff, came walking up to the house.

Tahsha said, “When I saw his face, I knew, he didn’t have to say anything.”  The entire group collapsed together, clinging to each other in their grief. Brad had passed away from his injuries.

As they finished telling the story, I asked all of them a natural question. “Do you think God put you all together for that moment?”

The entire group answered with a resounding, yes.

Jo said, “We all started becoming more and more aware of that after Brad’s accident. All of us are very strong believers who believe our faith informs our writing. It was strange; when Jen got us together, I don’t think any of us would have said that right up front. We just wanted to be better writers.”

Around the time of the accident, the group prepared for their first Teen Author Boot Camp. As a writers group, they attended a few writer conferences, none of which really impressed them. While sitting in one particular conference, Jo started to wonder: “Could we do a conference or retreat?”

The group realized they wanted to encourage young writers, as none of them received much encouragement to write during their teen years. So, at one group meeting Jo said, “Why don’t we just put on a writers boot camp for teens?”

They all loved the idea and started to call in favors. Jen marched into Utah Valley University and told them, “Hey, you need us here, how about giving us some space?”

All of the girls laughed as they said, “We really had no idea what we were doing, so we just figured it out as we went along. We used our writer’s network, called in favors, and set the whole thing up. Margie is a teacher, so she was able to advertise in the school system.”

They expected about 25 students to sign up; instead, 130 students showed up. Since the conference began, the numbers have jumped every year from 130 to 250 to 375, and now this year 450 students have registered. Writers Cubed brings in the hottest YA authors in the country. This year the conference will have two NYT bestselling authors, James Dashner and Ally Condie, as the keynote speakers.

However, Margie is quick to point out, “We aren’t really going after names; we are going after authors who can actually teach and who the kids love.”

“In the end,” Jo said, “We don’t want anyone that the kids can’t relate to or learn from.”

“We also don’t make any money off the conference at all. In fact, we usually scramble to make sure all costs are covered,” Lois said. She also pointed out that they started their own nonprofit so that people who donate can receive tax benefits.

As the conversation wound down, the ladies of Writers Cubed became reflective. “We just want to share what we’ve learned in the past seven years with other writers. All of us love telling stories, and we want to keep it going.” Jen said, as they all agreed. “Of course, we want our own writing to get out there, but we hope our little group works hard to help other artists, including the ones who are just learning. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect or that we don’t have our issues. We do, but we work them out because we’ve been through the fire together.”

 

 

About Jonathan Ryan

Jonathan Ryan is a novelist, blogger and columnist. His novel, 3 Gates of the Dead, published by Open Road Media, is in bookstores everywhere. The sequel, Dark Bride, will be out in April 2015

  • Barbara Blackburn

    Wonderful story. God bless them.

  • http://www.jolleychronicles.blogspot.com Tyler Jolley

    What a sad, yet inspiring story.


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