“Drinkers with a Writing Problem” is a funny and intriguing name for a club; when I first heard the name, I was instantly curious. They are a writing group that gets together once a week to discuss, workshop and share in a creative space.
When I went to my first meeting, we entered a small room in WLH on the second floor. There’s a surprise in store for us: half the table is missing. I wondered where exactly half the table disappeared to and how did it fit through the door? The rest of the group seemed unperturbed and sat down at the half table, like normal. It turned out the extra space wouldn’t be necessary: the group is always small (usually about 10 people) but this time there were only six.
I was a little nervous; I didn’t know what the agenda would be, and, worried that I would have nothing to share, I had tried to write a short story beforehand so that I would be able to contribute. Instead I had gotten distracted by an obstinately uncooperative scanner in Bass, and had written nothing.
Besides the catchy name, I liked the idea of a space devoted entirely to writing. Most student writing at Yale comes in the form of class assignments, where potentially harsh grading doesn’t exactly lend itself to experimentation. But, just like I could never find the time to sit down and write something creative, I could never find the time to attend the group’s meetings, either. Working on an article about the club would force me to attend.
Walking in with no creative writing to show, I told myself that everyone else was probably just as distractible as me, and that there would probably be at least one other person with nothing to workshop. As it turns out, this was naïve. They may have been distractible, but not when it came to writing.
Everyone seemed to know each other very well; that’s because most of them were board members, who share an active GroupMe. The atmosphere was jocular. When someone took a DVD copy of “Tropic Thunder” out of his bag, the girl sitting on the corner (Gabriella Borter ’18, community organizer and outreach) deadpanned, “Yeah, I have my copy too.” She apparently had just come from a different meeting, and would also be heading to another one immediately after. I would imagine that a workshop club that doesn’t assign its members concrete duties would be the first activity dropped from a heavy schedule. Talking to the other members, it quickly became clear that this is not the case.
Eric Margolis ’18, the club’s president, who brought it back from the dead after several years of inactivity, announced that the theme of the night was mythology. The group passed around a laptop, taking turns reading a Japanese creation myth, in which a female god gives birth to islands. With a name like “Drinkers with a Writing Problem,” one would assume that the whole group would be a little tongue-in-cheek. But what immediately struck me when they got down to analyzing the myth was the seriousness with which they approached it.
Logan Zelk ’19, the recently appointed events coordinator, described creation myths as a kind of “working backwards.” He meant that the world as it is is taken as a given; then, storytellers tend to explain how it came to be that way, as opposed to why it came to be that way in the first place. His idea would have been thought-provoking in a literary seminar, but it’s even more striking in the context of an extracurricular. I’ve taken a couple literature classes; there, the intense analysis felt distinctly academic. There’s something dry about it, every word is measured and thought out like it’s going to be chiseled in stone. The comments people make in this club are similar in content, but the delivery is looser. One member’s dramatic reading of the myth gets laughs, and people smile when they talk about the tropes at work.
Next on the agenda is an excerpt from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which the writers analyzed as a myth in a literary context. The excerpt described the founding of the town Macondo. According to Margolis, the excerpt was not so much a myth, but told in a really mythical way. The group discussed how the excerpt should be classified. Someone quoted from a book they happened to have read on the topic of myths (this didn’t come off as even remotely pretentious in person). Ultimately it’s agreed that the excerpt is indeed mythic.
Next came something I hadn’t really expected going in: for the next 30 minutes, everyone sits quietly on their laptops writing their own myths. To me it seemed like a tall order, half an hour to imagine and write an entire self-contained story, but no one batted an eye and everyone began typing almost immediately.
All the members engage in writing projects outside of class. Margolis has already self-published a young adult novel, “Cadivel,” and has another on the way. Borter writes for the YDN Magazine and views herself as more of a nonfiction writer, using DWAWP as a way to explore fiction without any sort of grading or judgment. Logan counts “absurdist theater” as among his passions. When I asked for an example of the genre, previously unknown to me, he listed “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” as a good point of entry. Wikipedia describes the play as an “absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy.” One uniform interest among the group is pursuing poetry and short stories outside of the club.
Most of the writers are English majors with the exception of the treasurer, Gersham Johnson ’18. He is a computer science major, and views the club as a way to keep writing in his life. Strangely, his taste in stories runs almost opposite the ultra-linear world of computer science. His favorite author is Gabriel García Márquez, and he stated that what he liked about his stories was that they “always have interesting commentary on themes, even though they don’t really have a clear narrative.” The fifth member of the group is Linus Liu ’19. One of his favorite books is “The Things They Carried,” a book with a title so great it made me mad I didn’t come up with it.
When I asked him about writing as a potential career he said, “Writing as a career is a somewhat dubious prospect, in terms of success.”
Everyone I talked to echoed the sentiment, (with the exception of Johnson, who wouldn’t want his career to revolve around writing). But for most members, writing is a dream career that they feel isn’t necessarily feasible. This certainly lines up with my beliefs. I frequently joke with others that everyone who’s bad at STEM goes through a period where they think they’re a great writer. But I can’t help but think that the people I’m joking about don’t work as hard at writing the way these students do. It’s worrying. If people who are so steadfastly committed to writing view it as an unattainable career, it’s a little hard to imagine what hope there is for the rest of us.
We’re in WLH, and they left the door open (not unlocked, but wide open) on principle, so that anyone who wanted to come in could. Because of this, we were treated to the conflicting echoes of several practicing a cappella groups while all the writers finished up their myths. The noise annoyed me to some degree, but that’s because I was worried about potential interference on my tape recorder, and because while they were writing I was just alternating between reading about the Iowa caucus and the Amber Rose-Kanye West feud. In other words, killing time. They were all completely absorbed in their computer screens. One performer blew a high note, resulting in a ear-splitting shriek, but I am pretty sure I was the only one who even noticed. Another performer coming from the opposite direction was singing a stirringly rendered cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” His passion was palpable. Still, looking around our (half) table at all the faces completely enraptured with typing, it was hard to imagine that anyone could beat this group in passion for their art.
The writing session wrapped up. I had been taking members into the hall to interview them individually, so I didn’t get to try my hand at a myth (something of a relief really, 30 minutes didn’t seem long enough). Margolis announced that it was time for sharing and criticism. As no one seemed particularly eager to share their myth, they ended up workshopping a sestina Zelk had written for class. A sestina is a type of poem, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each. Six words are repeated as line endings, and rotate according to a pattern that is graphically represented by a kind of spiral. These were the words he’d had scribbled in his notebook. His work was “an anxious poem about time nagging at your heels.” The sestina achieved the desired effect, and ended on a note of defeat at the hands of time. The others in their criticism immediately picked up on poetic patterns and tonal shifts that I hadn’t even noticed. Johnson quickly picked up on the constraints of the sestina form, that the repetition itself makes expression potentially difficult.
I tried to ask everyone why they write. Borter brought up a lecture she had gone to earlier that day with award-winning writer Anne Fadiman as the guest of honor. She said one of the famous essayist’s lines really struck a chord with her, about “writing as way to process your life.” Indeed, the essay Fadiman was addressing, “Under Water,” was an explicit account of her own processing of an accidental drowning she witnessed as a teenager. I wondered if the essay merely recounted the coming-to-terms, or was a part of her coping. Liu gave a different answer, describing writing as a way of “giving permanence to yourself.” DWAWP members sounded so sincere and high-minded. That’s one thing I really loved about the group. They take writing seriously.
Two different members of the group independently mentioned Toni Morrison as a favorite author. While I was waiting for everyone else to finish up their myths, I read a few interviews with Morrison. One quote seemed very applicable: “If I waited for inspiration, I wouldn’t really be a writer.” The people in this group come to their meeting every Tuesday night, inspired or not, and write something. I wonder if they know just how closely they’re following Morrison’s advice