Writing Practice Prescription

Time to Think Outside of the Pill Box

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Don’t Go to Abilene with Your Writing Group

April 27th, 2009 · 2 Comments


Ellen Taliaferro

Healing rests on a foundation supported by the four cornerstones of:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Spiritual health
  • Social health

Writers using their writing as a tool to heal sometimes seek to move beyond personal expressive writing to the arena of writing to help others. At this point in time, a writing group can help build social health for the lonely wordsmith toiling away to find just the right words to tell their tale. When this happens, the writer needs to take care that writing group activity provides good medicine and not poison.

Writing groups provide support, fellowship, and encouragement. They also offer suggestions, some good and some bad. Too many suggestions can set the stage for groupthinking which can hijack your work.

Before you accept every suggestion that comes your way, think about the phrase “going to Abilene.” This phrase comes from Charles Smiley, who described its meaning in his article, The Abilene Paradox (Managing Agreement: The Abilene Paradox), Charles W Smiley, Community Development Journal, Vol. 17, #1, 1982.

Here’s the story:

It was July in Coleman, Texas. The summer heat was brutal, 105 in the shade. The relentless West Texas wind was blowing fine-grained topsoil through the air. However, the afternoon was bearable, even potentially enjoyable. The air-conditioning was working. There was cold lemonade and beer, and a baseball game on television. It had the makings of an agreeable day.

Then my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car, and go to Abilene. We can have dinner at the new restaurant.” My first thought was, “Why? It’s over 50 miles to Abilene. It’s insane to drive in this dust and heat. His car doesn’t have air conditioning.”

However, my wife chimed in with, “Great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Chuck?” Since my own desires were obviously out of step, I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and then I added, “I hope your mother wants to go.” “Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t been to Abilene in weeks.”

We proceeded to get into my father-in-law’s car and drive to Abilene, My first and worst thoughts were confirmed. The heat was death in the afternoon. We were soon covered with a fine layer of dust that was, in turn, covered with a layer of sweat. The food was atrocious and the service terrible.

Four hours later we returned to Coleman; hot, exhausted and miserable. We sat in the front room for a long time in silence. Then, to be sociable, and break the silence, I said, “Great trip, wasn’t it?” The three of them stared at me with hostility. Finally, with considerable irritation, my mother-in-law said, “Well, to tell you the truth, I hated the trip. I went along because the three of you. seemed so enthusiastic. I would have stayed home if you hadn’t pressured me into going.”

My wife looked shocked. “Don’t blame me. I went along to be accommodating. We were crazy to leave the house in this heat.” My father-in-law entered the conversation abruptly: “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted you to enjoy yourself. I usually watch the ball game.”

After this outburst of honesty and recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four intelligent people who, by choice, had taken a 100-mile trip across a forsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a second-rate restaurant. None of us had wanted to go. It didn’t make any sense.

The Abilene paradox occurs in organizations as well as families. It occurs when organizations take action that is in contradiction to what the individuals in the organization really want collectively to do. This action usually defeats the goals the organization is trying to achieve. The Abilene paradox results from the inability to manage agreement.

Every writer wants his or her work to be the very best. But remember to be true to yourself and your story. It’s your story, not the writing group’s. When you come home from a writing group, revisit your original outline or plot and then look at the suggested revisions offered up by the group. If you accept all the suggestions, is it still your story? If not, offer a word of silent thanks to your friends in the group and let the suggestion slip away back into the universe.

I know of one writer who had a screeplay set in Dallas. When the writer returned home from a four-day writing retreat, the plot had changed so much that the only resemblance to the original screenplay was that both screenplays were set in Dallas. But the author had “gone to Abilene.” When I last checked in, she was still trying to get back to Dallas.

Please note: My thanks to Paul Schumann from The Innovation Road Map for this rendition of “The Abilene Paradox.” If you wish to use any or all of this article, please email me at DrTSpeaks@gmail.com.

Tags: writing

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 SceneMaker // Jul 26, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Good comments. I have been in mental limbo in my writing group lately–when, I ask, did I start writing to please THEM? It happened behind my back, it seems! Warning to you all in writing groups. As Ellen reminds me above, it’s your story. I think the weird part of this is I thought I was such a strong writer before I began to wonder how they would like it. I’m consciously groping my way back to being the smart-ass, overly-confident writer I used to be–my writing was more powerful then, not watered down with 12 different opinions I “thought” had merit. Thanks for a good kick in the pants.

  • 2 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // Jul 26, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you for commenting. The very first writing retreat I attended was with the Maui Writers Conference (now the Hawaii Writers Conference.) The first talk was dedicated to this theme: “Remember, it’s your story. No one else’s. You have and should maintain ownership.” That advice served me quite well then and since.

    “Above all, be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it.–Hardy D. Jackson”

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