Much of my writing life is pretty boring. I labor on sentences, wonder about paragraphs, lose plot threads in a cool sounding idea that I explore for three hours, finding later that I can’t use it. Leaps take me forward; stumbles have me falling way back. Still, sometimes things happen that make all that trial and error work seem okay. Last night, 14 November, 2019, was such a time.
One of the members of “The Pickwick Chicks” contacted me months ago about coming to a meeting of their book club. I said sure and jotted it down on my calendar. That member, Tracy Reed, knew of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Undead Client through some former colleagues of my wife, Amy, who taught at the TAPP school here in Louisville. She brought my book to her group, and they put it on their long list of readings. I went along last night thinking that I would be asked to do a reading, which I’d heard other writers do from time to time. I was happy to go and do that, but what happened when I got there was even better.
“The Pickwick Chicks” are a bookclub that have met regularly for the past twenty-one years. Some members have fallen away, and newer ones joined. When they meet, the hostess provides a meal in keeping with the culture or places involved in the book they meet to discuss. Last night, to my great delight, as they met to discuss “Client” I was treated to an appetizer of Welsh Rarebit and a meal of fish and chips and curried vegetables. Fresh baked Madeleines and tiny lemon custard tarts served as dessert, and, already, I was thrilled with my first attendance at a book club meeting.
Now, I have been in book discussion groups off and on for years, at church, at my old school, and once, briefly, at a coffee shop. I had no expectation that I would be feted so at this meeting, and it rewarded my writing efforts that often feel so useless. The Pickwicks didn’t ask for a reading. They had read my book and read it well, so my reading of it would have been going over matter that they knew. I realized that with it so fresh in mind, they might ask me questions I couldn’t answer very well, since my memories of it aren’t so green. However, I needn’t have worried, for they were more interested in the story of the book itself, in my story as I wrote it. That, I remembered too well.
And even their gentle criticisms of the plot and pace, which I think of with dread when I remember writing it, allowed me to talk about its journey to publication, for which I am always thankful. I saw—heard, rather—where their small difficulties with, say, the pacing of the ending, matched the cuts I had to make to get it into a shape that my publishers wanted. In essence, I got to share with them something of the learning experience I had on my journey with “Client,” and that was a gift to me. In learning to do all I did with that book helps me as I try to write better, stronger books, and I got to share something of the story arc I have in place for Dr. John Watson’s character in the forthcoming books.
So, they fed me and asked revealing questions. They wanted to know how I made decisions that shocked but pleased them. To them, “Client” wasn’t a book full of flaws, as I see it, complete, yes, but wearied with cuts. They wanted to look down parts of that path that I had cut away. I loved the look in their eyes as I regaled them with the things they didn’t read as part of the finished draft, all those steps forward and falls backward. In essence, they took care of me and gave me the gift that, I think, a writer like me needs: a look into my story from their eyes, an understanding of what happens in the mind of a reader who accepts and revels in the small slice of the world I gave them. I could even say, imagine that x didn’t happen but y did, and they were able to envision something like two books in the one they read. They even wondered if their names would appear in some future work of mine, and they noted what kind of ending they desired for themselves. It made us all a little giddy, I think. For a while, we were all able to exist in the nebulous world of “story” itself, that sacred space where plots and characters slip and slide around to tell us all something of ourselves, and that is mighty. It tells us who were are and hope to be. It tells us how much alike we are under all our differences.
Thank you, Pickwick Chicks, one and all. You treated me to something which is rare: I was able for a short time to see myself as others see me. As Robert Burns says,
“O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in gait an’ dress wad lea’e us,
An ev’n devotion!”
As The Pickwick Chicks showed me, I write for others and for myself as one of them. 14 November, 2019, was a red-letter day for me.