The Writers’ Group by Alan Ross

          On the outskirts of the tiny village of Nakusp, in South Central British Columbia, sat an old barn with a gambrel roof.  Once, it had been red but the paint had worn off and now the dry, weathered wood was ripe to be remade into chic furniture and sold to the seasonal visitors who came every summer to enjoy the uncrowded hiking trails, hot springs and lakes that encircled the isolated town. Many years ago, a photo of the barn had graced ‘April’ in the United Church Calendar. More recently, the Volunteer Fire Chief  had decried the barn a fire hazard but, at least so far, it had been left untouched. Citizens of the village disliked change and most agreed that it would be a shame if anything were to happen to the barn.

          The Nakusp writers’ group met at the public library, a busy little place that boasted an admirable collection of popular books that were actually borrowed and returned, again and again. The group was comprised of eight members. Meetings  were held under a bank of unforgiving fluorescent lights and around a no-nonsense wooden table, the kind where a person wouldn’t be surprised to find a wad of chewing gum stuck to the underside. The group met on the second Monday of each month, except, of course, when they didn’t. Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day (some years) and the day following Easter meant that some meetings had to be postponed to the third Monday or, regrettably, cancelled entirely. Eight writers was a large number for Nakusp. For perspective, it  was the equivalent of  60,000 writers if the village had suffered the same population as Toronto. Of course, not all of the members could attend every meeting but every member wrote and every member provided extensive editorial comments on all submissions. It was an enthusiastic and energetic group.

          Of the eight, there were four that comprised the humming nucleus. Lorraine, the retired manager of the local Credit Union, was the high-functioning executive leader. She ensured that agendas were prepared and strictly followed and that all members read and adhered to the ‘Terms of Reference’. Beth, who made a living writing sex education booklets targeted at young children on the autism spectrum and with same sex parents, was the group’s editor in chief. Carefully and firmly, but with patience and understanding, Beth deleted the soft modifiers that cluttered the work produced by the group’s emerging writers. Karen was the best actual writer, and gardener, in the group and was accepted as mistress of both comma and orchid. In recent months, Karen had focused more on flowers than writing as she recovered from the emotional devastation brought on by the desertion of her partner, Daryl. He had abandoned both her and their two cats and rushed into the arms of a thick-waisted woman with greasy hair. Daryl now cohabitated with his new lover in a dilapidated mobile home parked, illegally, near the barn at the edge of town. Finally there was John, the local United Church minister and the solitary male in the group. John was an ambitious and prolific writer of depressingly small talent. He had more time to write than any of the other members. There were only twelve people in his congregation and, of those, only five, on a good day, were sufficiently ambulatory to attend Sunday services.

          The January meeting followed the usual format and the agenda circulated by Lorraine. A writing exercise, devised by Beth, occupied the group for exactly twenty-five minutes, precisely the time allotted. Each member was asked to recall their most awkward recent Christmas experience and write the dialogue that made it so. The group then turned their formidable collective attention to the pieces that had been submitted. These were comprised of two poems detailing the difficulty older women  encounter when shovelling snow and yet another riff authored by John on ‘The Prodigal Son’, this one set in a naturalist colony in winter.

          The meeting ended with Lorraine reminding the group of the looming deadline for a short story contest sponsored by the Okanagan campus of UBC.

          “All entries must be submitted before January 31st.  If you want the benefit of the group’s editorial comments, and I’m sure you do, you must circulate your story and be prepared to accept comments by email.”

          January and February was a quiet time in the quiet village. There were a few visitors bound for the heli-ski and backcountry lodges and, being the largest centre within a hundred -kilometre radius, there was  occasional regional traffic thanks to the generously sized Save-On and the small but effective hospital. Mostly, however, a person could walk down the middle of Main Street without fear of encountering traffic. By late January the lake looked like liquid graphite but still didn’t freeze.

The February meeting, however, was chaotic. A late breaking item had eluded Lorraine’s emailed agenda and ignited an emotional firestorm that whipped the group into an agitated, open sore.

          “I received a message this afternoon from a friend who is one of the judges in the short story contest. Apparently, somebody from Nakusp named simply  ‘Daryl’ has submitted a piece that has all the jury talking,”said Lorraine.

          Fourteen eyebrows were raised and seven pairs of eyes focused on Karen.

          “Daryl, as you all know, is my former boyfriend and an utterly useless piece of shit,” said Karen.

          “I didn’t know he was a writer,” said Beth.

          “He’s not. He’s a waste of skin. The note he left on the kitchen table when he deserted the cats (and me) could have been written by a dyslexic six year old. What the hell does he claim to have written?”

          At this, Lorraine passed out eight copies of a 2000- word (double-spaced) piece entitled “The Writers of Nakusp.” The enormity of the situation was crushing. Lorraine was an enthusiastic environmentalist and had never before printed a hard copy of anything. Eight copies, double -spaced and one -sided no less, left no room to question the gravity of the crisis.

          For the next twenty minutes each member of the group read and reread the offending piece. Armed, according to individual preference, with yellow, green or pink highlighter, red pen or black sharpie they each slashed, circled crossed out and scribbled. It was a good thing the library was not at that hour open to the public. They groaned and yelled and then swore as if undergoing a group root canal without the benefit of anaesthetic. Anger shared was anger amplified (and focused) and Daryl was the sole target.

          It would be useful, in the preparation of a compendium of swear words and phrases in the English language, to provide a written record of what was said and in particular what Daryl was invited to do in the purely anatomical sense. Suffice to say that an exhaustive list of suggestions was made with reference to every imaginable excretory, sexual and religious action or context.

          “The sleazy prick has taken early drafts from all our submissions in the last year and cut and paste them into a sickening collage of blank verse, dead end character development and graffiti like illustrations,” said Lorraine.

“He hasn’t even incorporated our editorial suggestions,” said Beth.

          “He is mocking us. He wants people to laugh at us, to think we are feckless writers,” said John.

          “Clearly,” offered Karen “it’s my fault. He must have infiltrated my laptop. I am so, so sorry. Wait until his new girl friend receives the links to his favourite porn sites.”

          “His actions are born of inestimable depravity,” said Beth.

 “We have suffered a security breach but it could have happened to any of us. Who among us doesn’t leave their lap top open when they make a cup of tea?” asked Lorraine.

          “We must draw together,” said John “Collectively we must convince the vile plagiarist to withdraw the story and admit what he has done.”

          “Withdraw the story for sure,” agreed Karen. “But this is a sort of reverse plagiarism. The putrid lump of shit has taken original work and transmogrified it into something horrible. I don’t want anybody to know I wrote some of the words he now holds out as his.”

          “We must compel Daryl to write a comprehensive letter of withdrawal and apology,” said Lorraine.

          “Abject apology,” added Karen.

          By this time it was two minutes to six o’clock and the librarian, reeling from the language she had just overheard, was closing up and urging the group to vacate. Absolutely nothing on the agenda for the meeting had been accomplished.

          “We are writers,” declared John. “Together we shall write  a letter of withdrawal and apology for Daryl to sign.”

          “A wretched, self debasing apology,” interrupted Karen.

          “But with no ‘soft’ and an absolute minimum of redundant  modifiers,” insisted Beth.

          As the librarian, who later considered filing  for a leave of absence by reason of PTSD caused by the group’s rage, nudged them out of the building, John declared he would write the first draft and circulate it to the group by noon the following day.

          True to form, he botched it. For reasons best known to John, he chose to write in the second person and flitted like a budgerigar between the future and present tense. No amount of editing could overcome the problems in his piece. In frustration, Beth wrote a simple two -sentence letter for Daryl to sign. The letter said that Daryl had taken other people’s work and mashed it all together to embarrass the true writers and waste the judges time. Nobody, except perhaps John himself, could understand his letter and so, like most of his writing, it was not spoken of again.

          An emergency meeting of the Nakusp Writers’ Group was held, at the public library, to discuss how to force Daryl to sign the letter Beth had written.

          “It’s easy,” said Karen. “He left his stash of party drugs at my house. I’ll text him and tell him I will put his stuff in the old barn next to where he and his fat bitch are living.”

          “Perfect. We will put the letter we want him to sign together with a note demanding he sign it next to his drugs,” said Lorraine.

          “We can secure the barn door from the outside and tell him we will be back in an hour to let him out when he has read and signed the letter,” said John.

          John’s idea sounded a bit melodramatic but everybody went along with it, in part perhaps because they felt badly about ignoring his draft of the written apology.

          The next day, Karen placed a Save-On grocery bag full of assorted medicaments together with the note of instructions and the apology letter on a small stack of square hay bales in the old barn. Having done her part, and wishing to avoid Daryl, Karen drove home. In accordance with the group’s plan, John waited, unseen, outside the barn. Daryl walked over to the barn from the trailer he now called home. Once Daryl was fully inside, John pointed out where the goodies were, insisted Daryl give him his phone and rolled the door shut. John then shoved a stick of re-bar through the clasp, effectively incarcerating the miscreant in the barn. The plan called for John to wait outside the barn for Daryl to sign, take the letter and, then and only then, let Daryl out. Instead, John yelled to Daryl that he would be back in an hour and that he would let him out after he had time to sign the letter and “think about the terrible thing he had done”.  John then drove over to the Halcyon Care Home to have coffee with one of the members of his congregation. This particular senior suffered from mild to moderate dementia but was, John suspected, in a financial position to make a generous donation to his church.

          Back in the barn, Daryl was ecstatic to be reunited with his stash and, realizing that without his phone he had at least an hour to waste, sat down on a square hay bale and rolled himself a juicy, fat joint. It had been several months since Daryl had squirrelled away these particular drugs and he had forgotten that a portion of the marijuana was “special” in that it had received a light dusting of fentanyl. Daryl drew a huge, satisfying toke and almost immediately started to feel quite drowsy. As the smouldering joint slipped from Daryl’s hand on to the tinder dry hay littering the dirt floor of the barn, he would have remarked, if he were not at that very moment slipping into opioid induced unconsciousness, that a little fentanyl can go a very long way.

          The seniors’ care home was adjacent to the fire hall and as John listened to the wail of multiple sirens he wondered where the fire could be.

          The volunteer fire chief believing that the barn was empty ordered the crew to let it burn. The chief knew of the avidity for all things combustible shared by his volunteers and, as the surrounding area was blanketed in snow, he instructed his people to “enjoy the fire from a safe distance.”

The incineration of the barn dominated village small talk for the next several weeks.

          At their March meeting, Lorraine mentioned that her friend the judge from the short story contest was trying to reach Daryl, so far unsuccessfully, to inform him that his story had been shortlisted for the grand prize.

          “Apparently the judges consider Daryl’s story to be a bold and imaginative examination of the existential crisis faced by aging boomers. They are drawing comparisons to Knausgaard,” said Lorraine.

“ I thought the character I was developing had potential,” said John.

Also at the March meeting, the Writers’ Group welcomed the librarian as a new member. She confirmed that she had read and would abide by the Terms of Reference.

          “Seeing that I am here anyway and seeing that the library is not open to the public during these hours, I thought I should participate in the group,” she said.

          “You are most welcome,” said Lorraine “and you said you had some ideas for a writing prompt.”

          “Thank you and yes” replied the librarian “Imagine, if you will, that a man living in a tiny village goes missing without a trace and the local RCMP have no clue what has happened to him. A few weeks before his disappearance, a reputable woman in the village overheard, quite by accident, a group of people viciously attacking the man’s character and enumerating all of the terrible things they would like to see happen to him. After the man has vanished, the woman dials the missing man’s phone number and believed she heard the phone’s distinctive ring tone in the pocket of one of the members of the group. The woman doesn’t know what she should do with her information.”

          Everybody in the group agreed that the librarian’s imagined scene had the makings of a good story and, for the allotted twenty-five minutes, they all set to work assiduously writing their preferred versions of the conclusion.

About the Author

Alan lives near Burton where he and his wife own and operate a Cidery, apple orchard and sheep farm. He escaped, in broad daylight, from his job as a corporate lawyer in Calgary several years ago. Alan likes to write short fiction, often set in small towns in the Kootenays.

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