Sex, Death & Madness: A Brief history of writers’ group
October 04th, 2008
In December 1992, Michelle Benjamin of Polestar Press had a Christmas party. Kate Braid and I were among the many there, and it’s at that party I first met Jane Hamilton. I got into a conversation with Jane about writer’s block, and her concern that there was nowhere a writer could go to get help with it. No groups, no counsellors – no one seemed to understand the writer’s specific problems, so there was no service out there to help us over the hurdles. At some point during the evening Kate joined this conversation and…
as it happened, right around that time Kate had been talking about co-counselling with Claire Kujundzic. Co-counselling, to make it all too brief, is about people helping each other, in large part by giving them room to speak – no interruptions, no jumping in with similar stories (even to make the person talking feel less alone); just intense listening. The theory being, again to over-simplify, that in our world, instead of listening to one another, we buzz about raising our voices above the din in a futile attempt to be heard.
Anyway. It turned out Claire knew a woman who was starting up a co-counselling group for… writers! Kate, Jane and I decided to give it a try. Name and address in hand, one night around February or March 1993, we showed up at a stranger’s door to try this out with several men and women we’d never met before. It was… interesting. Let’s just say we got through the evening, each taking our turn at listening, each at speaking. Afterward, we decided we needed tea.
We went to a nearby restaurant, and over a cuppa discovered the experience we’d just gone through was, in one way or another, awkward or uncomfortable or unrewarding for each of us. But we still wanted a support group where we could deal with problems specific to the creative arts. There seemed to be only one solution – set up our own. We agreed that night to see if Claire would join us – she knew a lot about co-counselling, and we hoped to apply some of what that was all about to our meetings. Plus, she was a visual artist. We were excited about the prospect of bringing that perspective to the various issues we might discuss – how, for example, did writer’s block manifest itself for a painter? At that point we also invited Christine Hayvice, who, with Kate and me, had been a member of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union (by then, defunct). Once we’d met a few times and felt good about what we were up to, we decided we needed a few more members. Over the next year or two, writers Cynthia Flood and Joy Kogawa, and visual artist Sheila Norgate joined the group.
One night, someone observed that our discussion had covered quite a range – sex, death and madness all in one evening; someone else suggested the phrase had a kind of ring to it. Without actually voting on it, one at a time, we began referring to ourselves as SDM – at last, we were a group with a name. As we told friends and acquaintances about what we were doing, other women became intrigued with the concept. We weren’t sure we wanted to expand at that point, so in November 1995 we held a meeting for everyone who’d expressed an interest in joining us so they could find out more about each other, as well as about SDM, and decide if they’d like to set up their own group. Out of that came Literary Roadkill, which met for several years.
From the outset we took it for granted we wanted a women-only group. But we never actually discussed membership ‘requirements’ until around 1996, when Claire began to plan a permanent move to Wells. By then, Joy was spending more and more time in Toronto; and for various reasons our meetings often were down to only three or four of us. We decided it was time to add to our numbers – but on what basis were we to invite people? For that matter, on what basis had we invited each other? In the end we spelled out some fundamentals – we were a feminist group, we wanted a diverse membership (e.g., a range of artistic interest, cultural and racial background, sexual preference, age, etc.), and we wanted members who were deeply committed to their art.
Next to join SDM, in late 1996 or early 1997, were Margaret Hollingsworth and Bonnie Klein, followed in fall 1998 by Thuong Vuong Riddick, Carmen Rodriguez, and Tana Runyan. Jane left the group in 1998 and Kath Curran was with us from December 1999 to February 2002. By then, Claire was in Wells, Joy mainly in Toronto, and Sheila had moved to Gabriola Island.
We met regularly – about every three weeks (less in summer, when it was hard to get everyone together) at one of our homes. Meetings consisted of discussion, rounds and ‘business’. We remained a writers & artists’ support group. While we weren’t a work-shopping group, we did make space for people to bring work to a meeting if they wanted. For many years, the only time this was the sole focus of attention was at our ‘annual general meeting’ when we all brought new work to read or show one another, so we could keep in touch with what everyone was doing artistically. In the last few years, however, we began looking for ways to incorporate our creative work into regular meetings. One of our more successful efforts at this was when we discussed how writers interpret, and incorporate, readers’ comments on our work. To facilitate the discussion, several of us brought poems, described criticisms we’d received about the work, and talked about how these had (or hadn’t) influenced revisions.
Something we were very clear about from the beginning was that what we said in meetings was confidential. It was important that we all felt able to speak freely and openly so we could fully and honestly explore issues that mattered to us, often quite scary ones – competition, self-doubt, money & class in the arts, rejection of our work, envy, ageing, awards & prizes and so on. We discussed to explore and understand, not to convince one another of any particular point of view.
Sometimes the subject under discussion turned out to be of interest to only some of us – spirituality was one of those. After one meeting where we talked about what the concept meant to each of us, some members raised the concern that we were veering too far from our common interest, which was to focus on topics directly related to our art. We found we needed to remind ourselves of that periodically.
Other times, the subject unexpectedly turned out to be a key concern for everyone. A sense of place, of belonging or estrangement or both, and its influence on our writing or painting turned out to be one of those. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been a surprise, given all but three of us came to BC from elsewhere: in Canada, our origins ranged from the Maritimes, the Prairies, Quebec and Toronto; internationally, from the US, Vietnam, Chile, England and New Zealand.
Topics for discussion were sometimes chosen ahead of time, sometimes on the spot. In theory, the person whose home we met in would set the agenda but as often as not it didn’t work out that way. Someone might arrive at a meeting burning to talk about a particular issue; or the host might not come up with a topic. We had a little book where we wrote down discussion suggestions so we could refer back to that if no one had anything pressing to talk about.
Although we never identified emotional support as a priority, we provided it frequently, as over the years many of us went through what Cynthia Flood aptly describes as “Big Life Events” including divorce, serious illness, and family related sorrows. Often these issues came up during rounds, the time we set aside for each member to talk about what had been happening since we last met, be it to do with her art or her ‘day job’, home life, etc. Occasionally the rest of us would get carried away and leap in with questions, advice or supportive commentary, but overall we tried to ‘behave’ ourselves and just listen attentively. Of course, sometimes active feedback was wanted, in which case the woman whose round it was just said so and everyone was always happy to oblige! Rounds remained pretty much the same throughout our history. The only change we made was to move them from the beginning to the end of our meetings to avoid running out of time for discussion.
Business was usually about scheduling future meetings. Sometimes, though, we’d have an event to organise. Over the years we held a few autumn by-invitation-only parties at someone’s home, to celebrate group members’ new books and artwork completed in the previous year. And in April 2001 we hosted a very successful benefit to raise funds for fellow-writer Betsy Warland, who was working to heal from cancer.
People often asked what this group meant to us. Each of our answers varied in the details, but all had a common thread – SDM was our lifeline. It remained so for more than a decade, but by 2004, various members’ circumstances had changed and several of us were unable to make most meetings. As our numbers dwindled once again, we decided, reluctantly, to disband. We stay in touch by email, though, and see one another whenever we can. But most of all, we are still – and always – there for one another.
Members through the years
Jane Eaton Hamilton
Thuong Vuong Riddick
Essay Date: May, 2008