Through the sparsely populated West, writers find motivation, solace, pleasure -- and publication -- in groups.
Writing is a lonely enterprise. Writers usually have only themselves to ask what Dick should say to Jane or whether a digression on the bird species of Upper Volta slows down a story set in the Caribbean. Some writers show their work to trusted friends. But in the frontier state of Wyoming, where the population averages five people per square mile, finding anyone to give sound advice about storytelling might be tough.
It isn’t, thanks in part to an active arts council, a statewide writing organization, and writers groups that are scattered around the state. From Cheyenne to Cody, Casper to Jackson Hole, Sheridan to Sundance and up to what is probably the highest writing group in America — at Atlantic City (pop. 39) — Wyoming writers are creating, critiquing and, yes, publishing their work.
One of the oldest and most successful writers groups in the state, ongoing since 1979, is the Bearlodge group in northeastern Wyoming. It was formed in Sundance, near the national monument known variously as Devils Tower or as Bear Lodge — where Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed. Its members meet twice a month in the Crook County Public Library. Like most writers groups, they’ve thought about how to deal with potential emotional meltdowns if writers don’t react well to the criticism they hear. The Bearlodgers collaborated on suggestions to help themselves and other groups critique each other’s work in a spirit of respect.
“Respect for the writer. The writer comes as a pilgrim, bearing an offering.”
“Respect for the piece. To place the offering on the table/altar requires an act of faith by the writer.”
“Respect for the group. Each writer brings to the group his respect for its function and for the other members, making sure each one has time for his work to be discussed, is willing to give his thoughtful critique or expertise, and holds sacred within the group whatever revelations might be shared.”
This approach has paid off in success for the Bearlodgers. Its members have been published by over a dozen national houses and in magazines and anthologies, including one full collection by the group’s own writers.
A little farther west, Abbie Taylor of Sheridan belongs to two writers groups. Sheridan is a long-established ranching community on the eastern flank of the Big Horn Mountains. One of Taylor’s groups is a structured monthly class led by an official instructor affiliated with the local community college. After participants write and share what they’ve written, each person in the group has an opportunity to distribute other poems written outside of class to be critiqued.
Taylor, who is vision-impaired, also belongs to a group called Behind Our Eyes. “We consist of disabled writers from across the country, and we’ve published an anthology of poems and stories by the same name,” she said.
The “highest” critique group in Wyoming meets in Atlantic City, an old
gold mining settlement with an elevation of 7700 feet. About 40 people
live in this “ghost town” at the end of a long gravel road in the Wind
River Mountains. Four miles away is South Pass, the route many pioneer
travelers learned after trial and deadly error was the easiest road
over the Rocky Mountains.
The group meets at various locations in Atlantic City, including Miner’s Delight, a bed and breakfast operated by writers Bob and Barbara Townsend, both retired from the military. Another member is a retired nurse who lives in a cabin with no running water. She hauls water in by sled during the winter when the drive to her cabin is blocked by snow and chops her own wood all winter long.
The group meets every other week and works on individual and collaborative projects. “We’re up to segment 34 in our novel,” Bob Townsend said. “We take turns writing a segment for each meeting. We also take turns writing something for the group to critique, and we do a 20-minute writing exercise at each meeting.”
Townsend continued: “We never tire of reading each other’s work – fact or fiction, poetry or prose – and although we’re brutally honest in our written critiques, no one has been offended. Thick skin and a great willingness to improve are the drivers. Whoever has written the latest episode in our ongoing novel gets the spotlight at the beginning of each meeting, with eager others holding their breath to find out what happens next.”
They also work on flash fiction, an ultra-short story form. They hope to compile some of this work into an anthology, taking a page out of the Bearlodger’s book.
“All of this spawned from a conversation around a coffee klatch on a snowy February afternoon in 2008 trying to ‘define’ cabin fever and determine if any of us had it (that winter we had 250″ of snow, 8′ drifts all around, and cold).” (Odds are that many members of this group had symptoms.)
Some writers involved in critique groups are also members of Wyoming Writers, Inc. Its most recent annual conference was held the first weekend of June in Cody, on the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park. Writer/teachers Max McCoy, Lee Ann Roripaugh, and former Wyoming poet laureate Robert Roripaugh led sessions in non-fiction, poetry, and fiction writing. Two literary agents were on hand to listen to pitches from writers with ideas for projects. The event concluded with a motivational talk by Bruce Richardson, board president of the Wyoming Arts Council.
According to Richardson, support for writing and other arts in Wyoming is robust. The state legislature funds the Wyoming Arts Council to the tune of $2 million a year, putting its budget at the top of statewide arts councils. That money then goes to help organizations such as Wyoming Writers, as well as to individual writers and small groups around the state. “We want lots of good art happening in Wyoming and we want access for everyone to art, both as creators and participants,” Richardson told the group. When he says “art” he thinks of writing as one of the most viable forms.
Wyoming ranks twenty-third in the number of people who identify themselves as writers, Richardson said, with 713 people listing “writer” as their occupation on income tax forms. Yet most people who write do not work at it full time or consider writing their primary enterprise. Members of the Bearlodge group might name ranching as their main job. Residents of Atlantic City might list “surviving the winter” as their primary occupation. But they are all writers at least some of the time. As Bruce Richardson affirmed for the group that day in Cody, “There is a whole lot of writing going on in Wyoming. There is a whole lot of good writing.”
Perhaps to prove that claim, some writers groups have so much success that they find the critique group format no longer necessary. For example, the Silver Sage Writers Alliance began around 1995 in Laramie, then disbanded a few years ago. One of the founding members, Jeffe Kennedy now of Santa Fe, explains: “We capped the group at 12 in the heyday, but by the time we disbanded, there had been serious attrition. We’d gotten to the point where we knew each other so well that we already knew what each person’s critique would be. We were no longer able to provide fresh and vital feedback for each other. Disbanding was more closing the final chapter on what had been a very long, very good run of over ten years.”