For Winter Quarter of 1997 I was asked if I’d like to teach a Fiction Writing class in Highline Community College’s Continuing Education program. I was trying for a career change from office work to teaching. I had taught Poetry for their Senior Program the previous year and enjoyed it. Since I had worked on two fiction novels and knew the process of writing a novel well, I said yes. One of my students in that first Fiction Writing class was LC McGee as well as another mystery writer, Nancy Conkle. At the end of the quarter I offered a critique group for interested student’s off-campus. Five students, including LC McGee and Nancy Conkle joined. We met twice a month in a room in back of a used bookstore called Book World. It wasn’t the most comfortable room but all we really needed was a big table and chairs. Most students were seriously working on novels. I taught the class again Spring Quarter and the critique group continued off-campus. That Summer Quarter Gwen Knechtel and Kate Thompson attended the class. Gwen said right off she was looking for a writer’s group. So at the end of the quarter the critique group kept going only now it was down to LC, Gwen, Kate, Nancy and another writer, Leslee Browning. Since the room at Book World was no longer available we met at various County Library meeting rooms. Then Kate’s apartment event room came available where we met for our once-a-month meetings for over two years.
In 2000 I moved to Berkeley, California. It wasn’t easy to leave the group behind but something told me it was time they were on their own and I wanted to get my Master’s degree so I could earn a better salary as a teacher. Back in Washington State they continued to meet and became an even stronger writing group. Gwen took over group organization and besides growing as writers they also strengthened their social bonds.
When I returned to Washington from California in 2002 it was clear they no longer needed me in a teaching role. The group now consisted of five steady members: Gwen, Kate, Charlie, and LC. Leslee and Nancy had left the group. Meanwhile, I still worked on fiction on my own as well as poetry. My primary focus had shifted to academic teaching when I accepted my first adjunct instructor position at a community college in Seattle.
Still I missed their camaraderie and writing expertise. So in 2003 I asked the group if I might return and join them as ‘just a writer.’ They whole-heartedly welcomed me back. It was rather sensitive at first for there may have some reluctance on their part to critique my work. I had once been their teacher after all. But over time, my writing became just as subject to critique as theirs. Their greater social emphasis was new to me. I’d run the group in the past as ‘straight business.’ I feared they were becoming too social for a serious writing undertaking. Yet I came to understand that some socializing was part of creating a strong writing group bond.
In 2005 Gwen presented us with the idea that we create a collaborative work—for each of us to write unique stories set in a fictitious town named New Halem, Oregon. Gwen had read about a group of romance writers who mentioned a character or two from fellow authors in their stories but gave them no voice; their stories were written as separate tales about people who lived (or returned) to the town. Our town would tie our characters together but we would borrow characters created by others and give them voice in our stories. We all thought it an excellent idea.
Despite another move I made to California from 2007-2011, this time to Mt. Shasta, the group kept me in. Sometimes I’d send my excerpts for our critique meetings in the mail, by email and we even Skyped together a few times. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to participate every month but I contributed when I could.
When I returned to Washington and rejoined them in person August of 2011, I was amazed at how much they’d developed in my absence. A stint in a PhD program didn’t help my wordiness. But with their example I’ve learned to cut my sentences down to a better size. On the other hand, my character, the PLP, does give me a good excuse to be wordy!
I teach completely online now and look forward to our face-to-face meetings every month. After meeting in a coffee shop for a while we now hold our once-a-month meetings at LC’s graciously-hosted home. Even though I teach online, I’ve struggled with our 100% computerized critique format instead of using paper copy like we always did in the past. Thankfully Kate and Charlie, our computer technology experts, have made that transition smoother and I eventually gave up any unconscious Luddite hang-ups. Earlier this year we decided to ‘go for it’ and e-publish our collection.
We all have busy lives with work and family, so it took time for us to arrive at a good collection of New Halem Tales. But here we are with what I think is a fantastically unique set of stories. I’m proud of this group of writers whom I once taught and who have in turn taught me.
Recently, I found a card in ‘The Writer’s Workshoppe’ a business devoted to writers in Port Townsend that I presented to the group. It says, “It Takes a Group to Raise a Writer.” I couldn’t think of a better way to express who we are.
Cathy was born in Seattle and has lived on the US west coast most of her life. Her poetry book, Stirring up the Water (under the name Cat Ruiz) was published in 2008 by Salt Publishing Ltd, Cambridge UK. She is working on The Further Adventures of the Parking Lot Prophet and a second collection of poems, The Water Settles. An online college instructor in the Humanities, she currently resides with her husband in Washington State.
--Cathy, November 2012.