The “Garden Variety” Writer Exposed

Okay, the cat’s out of the bag. I can finally say that I knew Brian Plante’s Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers was fiction for most of its run. I began e-mailing Brian shortly after the series started, taking issue with the way he was playing unfairly with the writers in his group. He responded, in a rather civil and friendly way, but said that he planned on continuing the blog despite my objections and those of the other people who had e-mailed him to complain.

Encouraged that there might be a person with a real soul behind the e-mail, I continued the thread, and discovered that Brian really did care very much about how he was coming across, and he assured me that he had gone to “much greater lengths” than I could imagine to protect the people in his blog. I even did a little investigative web browsing, trying to point out to him how poorly the people were protected. I pinpointed the library where the group was meeting, the city they were in, and even attempted to check through back issues of the magazine in which he claimed to have found the ad for the group. I wasn’t able to find an exact ad, but I was convinced that an enterprising photographer (read out-of-work paparazzi) could hide out at the Hemby Bridge Library and snap blackmail photos of the group entering and exiting.

There was only one problem. I found reference to the county’s library system, and that it serviced the Hemby Bridge area. I could not find references to the shopping mall that Plante described. Enough of the details fit, however, that I was convinced Brian was endangering the trust of the people he was writing about. I could only think of one alternative, and that was that it was all fictional. At the end of one of our e-mails, I said to Brian that I hoped this was all made up so that he wasn’t playing with the lives of real people. He wrote back to confirm my guess the next day.

Brian asked me to keep quiet about it so the experiment could run its course, so I made mention of it in this journal a few times to see if I could assist in the experiment without directly exposing it. I did tell a few of my friends in Colorado about the blog’s fictional nature, because it hard sparked quite a controversy among us.

How do I feel about it now? I think it was a good experiment, and now that Brian has come clean about the nature of the blog, I think it succeeded. It’s a good way to illustrate some of the positive and negative workings of a writer’s group without betraying the trust of any real people. However, I also think it was a very risky thing for Brian to do to his career, and I know of a couple of people who lost respect for him because of the way he presented the fiction. Hopefully most editors and readers will look upon him with favor for daring to take the risk, rather than being upset with him for duping them.

Speaking of writer’s groups, the Melanie Tem group met tonight. I read what I had of “Chesterfield Gray” and got good feedback from the group as to where they thought the story should go. At the end of the meeting, I played “Ode to Billy Joe” on the guitar while Melanie sang the lyrics, aided by a few of the class participants. The assignment is to write something about what we think the narrator and Billy Joe threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge. I hope to come up with something completely off the radar and wedge it into a vignette before the next meeting.

A Year Later

For many U.S. citizens, the most tragic news to report on September 11, 2002 is that Johnny Unitas has died of a heart attack at age 69. However, I think many more U.S. citizens are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the anniversary date has come and gone without a significant terrorist event taking place. At work today, a few people with ties to the east coast were understandably emotional. Aside from that, it was a pretty normal day for me, and I’m thankful.

The Writer’s Circle group met this evening at a member’s home in the mountains. Rain fell the entire time, and a significant thunderstorm developed; it was wonderful. It was also a bit synchronistic; two of the stories we critiqued dealt with rain and lightning themes. I committed to having a story ready for next month’s meeting, which means I need to finish “Chesterfield Gray” in the next couple of weeks. It’s not a genre story, but the group is willing to read it anyway. As Ed jokes, “Sure, you can submit a non-genre story. It just has to be twice as good!”

One of our members is making significant strides in publishing, with several different white-hot irons in the fire. I won’t go into more detail than that, because it’s not my place to do so, as Brian Plante has ably demonstrated with his Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers. But I will say that it is inspiring to see one of our own climbing the rungs. It’s also clear that he’s working very hard at it — much harder than I am. It’s probably not fair to compare our situations, because we have completely different schedules and family requirements, but it does make me look at my time and efficiency, as well as my commitment level.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that I will be a published writer someday. But the examples have made it clear that this won’t happen at my current level of quality or output. I need more practice, and I need to lick some stamps.

Poetry.com and Brian Plante

Brian Plante updated his Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers today. I found almost nothing offensive in this week’s entry, though it did still feel a little smug. I agreed with the assessment he made of a member’s “winning” poetry publication in a national contest. You can find one of mine from a similar “contest” somewhere on their website.¬†After accepting my poem and lavishing all kinds of praise upon it, they informed me that it was selected (with thousands of other poems) for publication in a beautiful, cloth-bound volume which I could purchase for my coffee table. Then, later, they told me that my poem had been one of the “few” selected to be recorded for their poetry CD, which I could purchase for my CD collection. Finally, they told me that I could attend their convention, hosted by Florence Henderson, for only $595 plus. Oh, and one of the nearby hotels was offering a special rate of $120 per night to International Society of Poets members. If I attended, I would receive a trophy consisting of a large silver bowl on a cherry wood pedestal (a $170 value!) I guess that means they would only clear about $400 on my at that convention.

(“Oh my gosh, Mr. Johnson. You mean Poetry.com is really just a vanity press? My word!”)

To be fair, there are a lot of great poems submitted to Poetry.com. It’s just too bad they will only be read by people who search for the poet’s name on the site or buy the overpriced books (and probably not even then.)

Goodbye, Phil

I did hear back from Brian Plante after sending him feedback on the GVW Chronicles. I’m pleased to say that he was very pleasant and civil, and that he addressed some of my concerns about the anonymity of the group to my satisfaction. I still have some issues with the moral implications of what he’s doing, but I told him I would keep reading the chronicles based on the reply he gave me.

Yesterday, I sat down to write the review of Zen Guitar and got some shocking news about its author. Evidently Phil Sudo died while I was in the process of reading his book.

When I read a book, I get a sense that I’m sharing something personal with the writer. That was especially the case in this book, since it was written in the framework of a martial arts dojo. I felt like Phil was teaching me while I was reading. When I found out that he had died of cancer in June, I experienced a stillness in my thoughts. I felt as if I had been conversing with a ghost for the last month without realizing it.

I wish Phil’s family the best, and I want them to know that Zen Guitar gave me focus in my playing, and the book will stay by my bedside and in my gig bag for some time to come.

Plante’s in the Garden

When I checked Brian Plante’s Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers today, he had posted a new entry for the July 3rd session. He started the entry by acknowledging that he had received feedback from people stating that he was being unfair to the writers in the group, so I was encouraged. Unfortunately, he then went on to say the following:

“I’ve already stated these chronicles will contain, by necessity, a lot of my personal opinions, so maybe you should just take things with a grain of salt. You’ve been warned. I am mostly at peace with what I am doing.”

 

At this point, I decided I should send him an e-mail. I resisted doing that when I posted about this blog in my June 27th creativity journal entry. It will be interesting to see if he responds.

When it comes right down to it, he has the right to cover any topics he wants in his weblog. That’s part of what blogging is all about. But I’m concerned that he may have crossed the line in terms of this writing group, and his portrayal of some of the members as “tourists,” who don’t do anything to further the productivity of the group in his eyes. I’m also concerned that he posted the group’s charter online without their permission.

Moving on.

(Later in the day.)

No, I’m not moving on. I thought about this some more, and it struck me that I’m not having a problem reading the logs of some people who are attending Clarion East and Clarion West right now. Essentially, they are journaling in much more detail about the events in their workshops than Brian is. So why is it bothering me that he’s journaling about a small group in … oops, I almost gave away the secret location of the Garden Variety Writers group.

I think it has to do with the deception. Bluejack and Dierdre, above, are writing their online journals with the full knowledge of the other participants. Also, they are not pretending to be something they aren’t in order to gain access to their groups. (In fact, they paid a hefty entry fee to get in. It’s a great deal for six weeks of intensive writer training, but it’s still hefty!) Not only is Brian intentionally withholding his publishing history, he hasn’t disclosed anything to them about the fact that he’s archiving their activities.

How is that different from what I’m doing? First, I’m not a professional (or semi-pro, even) writer. Second, I have announced at all of my writing groups that I’m keeping an online creativity journal and invited all of them to look at it. I haven’t specifically said that I mention the groups in this log, but since they are directly related to my creativity, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to find references to them here. Third, I’m not making negative judgments about the people in those groups.

I guess there is a difference. Now I need to figure out why I’m picking this battle, I think. It’s really none of my business what Brian says about people in the Garden Variety Writer’s group, despite the fact that he is posting the information in a public forum. And I certainly don’t think it’s my responsibility to try and protect these people who don’t even know what’s happening to them (and might not care.) So why am I getting so vocal about this?

I guess I can say this much about Brian Plante’s Chronicles: they have pushed an emotional button in me, and to that end, they are worthwhile. Whether that button is a valid one or a sensationalist one ….

Hold the phone.

I think I realize part of the lack of appeal. This is like the seedy side of television’s reality programming. I abhor reality programming because in it the tragic portions of people’s lives become nothing more than network TV entertainment. That’s part of what’s unsettling me. To be fair, I don’t think Brian is intentionally trying to emulate reality programming, but the fact that the participants in the group are not aware of what’s happening makes it feel like a sting operation.

And for me, that’s a good reason not to watch any more, no matter how much I want to see what happens when the group finds out about it.

Okay, really, moving on now.