I am in a writers’ workshop—some fiction, mostly poets—with a total membership of twelve, nine or ten of whom usually show up for our biweekly meetings. We have been meeting, with just a few changes in membership as people come to town, or leave town, or lose interest, for almost ten years now.
One of our members, a founding member actually, has been creating problems for us because she almost always monopolizes the conversation. Ivy, as I will call her, is a wonderful poet and a good critic, but she loves to be the one who speaks first and she is forever interrupting people.
Until recently nobody ever did much about it except roll their eyes and occasionally makes some mild remark like “if I can get a word in edgewise, Ivy.” But, when Ivy didn’t show up for a meeting this past January (come to think of it, she almost never misses a meeting), one person ventured to say that it was kind of restful not having her around setting the terms of the discussion for everybody else. Then the floodgates opened and we were all trashing her and saying that something needed to be done.
The result was a letter, which we wrote right then, and eight of the nine of us who were there signed—everybody except a narrative poet named James, who is probably Ivy’s best friend in the group and also definitely the second most aggressive and talkative. He said that he pretty much agreed with us but did not like the idea of ganging up on her.
The letter was pretty gentle, I thought. It just said that we had all been talking at the meeting and agreed that, although we really appreciated her writing and her critiques, we were writing to ask her if she could let other people start the critiques, stop interrupting people, and try not to monopolize the conversation. We closed by saying that this had been a hard letter to write, but that we did it out of our concern for the health of the group.
We never heard back, and Ivy did not show up at our next two meetings, which ended up being kind of lackluster and subdued. Finally we deputized James to call her and see how she was doing. He reported back last week that she has decided to quit the group, and that she cried and seemed utterly devastated.
What should we do?
—Second Thoughts in South Toms River
Man, you poets are a harsh crowd.
I am not sure what you should do. That depends on what you want. Do you want Ivy to rejoin the group? Do you want to make her feel a little better? Do you want to feel better about yourselves, with some help from me?
If what you’re after is some reassurance from me that this letter had to be written, so that you can all feel less morally queasy, I am not the right agony aunt for you. On the whole, I am with James on this one. There are so many better ways of telling a prolix poet that she has overstepped the bounds of workshop decorum than sending a formal joint message—and letters do tend to seem formal these days—explaining how all of you had gotten together and discussed her behind her back, leading you to decide with near-unanimity that she was such a nuisance she needed to be sent a cease-and-desist notice. My own cheeks burn at the very thought of receiving such a letter from a group I co-founded, and felt safe in, and thought I had been more-or-less benevolently presiding over for ten years. Are you all so passive-aggressive that none of you could just have said “let’s have a rule: no interruptions” or “how about everybody gets to speak for five minutes” or “let’s have a rotating facilitator” or “let’s take turns starting the critique. Amy?” You could even have invested in an egg-timer or one of those pseudo-Native sticks I have heard tell of, that powerful men pass around at campfires, remaining silently inebriated until it is passed to them. In sum, you could have started out with some general rules and, if that didn’t work, one or more of you could have at least tried talking to her.
Too late now, of course. But do you, or does the group, want to try to undo some of the harm the letter seems to have caused? This may not be easy. For one thing, she may not want to face any of you. If she does, though, one of you, or perhaps one of you plus James, could take her out for lunch or coffee. But then what would you say if you did? Telling her that the group feels simply awful about how upset you made her might just make matters worse: she would then have to think not only of being resented, but also of being pitied, behind her back, not to mention having been reported on by James.
If you want to make amends, I would tell her that you are sorry, that you realize now that a group letter was the wrong way to go, and—much more important to her bruised ego and sense of trust—that you have all been missing her insightful, lively criticism and her fine poetry, and that you realize now that the whole group, not just Ivy, needs to develop habits and set rules so that everyone contributes and nobody either hangs back or takes over. You might even commiserate, saying how hard it can be for the quickest, most insightful, and most creative people to keep silent and let other workshoppers muddle wrongheadedly or tritely along.
I have been writing without differentiating between the singular and plural “you.” And it is true that messages from the group are probably what Ivy needs and wants most right now, since it was the group as a whole who wrote the upsetting letter. I nevertheless think that, when you sense that the time is right, you should try to speak to Ivy as yourself, not part of the group. If the conversation goes well and you both feel like being explicit, you and Ivy will be able to express what you, as individuals and not part of the workshop mob, think about each other and about what’s best for the group. But if all you end up talking about is Rilke or language poetry or James’s new girlfriend, you will at least have started the process of smoothing things over.
Of course, if you and the group do a good job cheering and mollifying Ivy, she will very likely agree to rejoin the group. Is that what you and the workshop want? (Ever-quixotic, I would give it a try, but not before investing in an egg-timer, a feathered stick, and some rules.) If the workshop does not want her to return, you all may prefer to wait a while longer before any of you gets together with her. In this case, a letter—from you, personally—to the effect that you’re sorry she outgrew the group, and just became too sophisticated a poet and critic for the rest of you, would be sweet.
My parents, who retired a few years ago and are living on a very modest pension and Social Security, have a little dog they adore. It turns out that he needs life-saving surgery they cannot possibly afford. My husband and I, on the other hand, can easily afford it. He is a fancy accountant, and I am a not-so-fancy lawyer who nevertheless brings in about four times what my folks do these days.
My parents are very proud. So I called the vet and asked her if I could pay for most of the surgery—it is about $6000—and have her tell my parents that she’d found a way to do a simpler procedure for, say, $500. The vet thought that this was a great idea. But my husband (let’s call him Chip, with Spanish pronunciation) says that he wants no part of this, that $6000 is a ridiculous amount to pay for a dog and that, in any case, it is disrespectful to my parents to fool them in this way. What should I do? By the way, I would not have any real problem paying the vet off at, say $500/month without anyone’s knowing, including my husband. Hell, I could skim that off ATM withdrawals and cash-backs from Whole Foods if I made some minor adjustments in areas like salmon and artisanal cosmetics. My husband has so little interest in the dog that I doubt he will ask any questions if little Fala fails to die. And the vet is more than happy to collude with me in a system of monthly cash-only payments
I am tempted to lie to both my husband and my folks. Would that be wrong of me?
—Soft in Sellersville
I don’t suppose that your $5500 (more or less) would otherwise go to an even worthier cause, like sick children? If not—and it sounds as if the only people who would lose out here are purveyors of fish and outer beauty—I am totally fine with your arrangement. Morally, that is. I see no problem at all in doing an end run around Chip. I rarely advocate misleading one’s spouse but, where the spouse in question is trying to equate kindness and generosity with disrespect so he can save a tiny fraction of his family income, it seems to me that a little factual adjustment is permissible, and may actually be morally obligatory.
My real problem is the complexity of the scheme. I advise you to tell no one about it, not even your sister or your best friend. Never bring the dog up with Chip, and have an offhand, lighthearted answer ready if he somehow does start to wonder why Fala is still around, and asks questions. It would be a shame if your parents found out about your scheme and felt embarrassed, or if Chip found out and helped them feel that way, to say nothing of how mad he might get at you. Of course, even then your parents would probably be happier than if they had lost their dog, and you would still be entitled to a warm inner glow for having saved a living creature (several, if you count the salmon).
This is not something you asked me about, so I’ll keep it short: are you and Chip otherwise okay? Does he have lots and lots of sterling qualities that outweigh the way he responded to your parents’ sick dog? Do the two of you respect each other? Have you felt the need to resort to subterfuge on other occasions?
Good luck to you, and I hope the simpler procedure, wink wink, is a total success
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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