By Jeremiah Reardon
Dedicated to Cary Riggs (pen name Jay Cardam). Former CWC Member. Died May 2, 2020 in New Orleans.
You may have wondered what was going on in that back room of the Sunrise Café as you passed by to the bathroom or took a table in the light-filled atrium. Until the current coronavirus lockdown, between six and thirteen people gathered each Wednesday at noon for a meeting of Cuenca Writers Collective (CWC) support and critique group. Under the direction of Frances A. Hogg (Franny Hogg Lochow) expat writers take turns presenting drafts of stories or poems and chapters of novels and memoirs, and receiving feedback and timely suggestions.
Franny, who has decades of experience as a moderator of writing groups in Michigan and New York, says, “When my husband Robert and I were making plans to move to Cuenca in 2012, I researched whether a writers’ group existed. In fact, WIT (Writers in Transition), started by Bill Bushnell a few years before, had been meeting in an upstairs room of the Carolina Bookstore. WIT also held a monthly performance for writers, called The Spoken Word, at the California Kitchen restaurant.
Unfortunately, WIT ended after an internal rift, and several splinter groups popped up. Franny and fellow writer Kathryn McCullough started talking about building an organization that would serve all of the various writing groups as well as unaffiliated writers. The initial meeting for CWC took place at Fabiano’s Pizzeria in early 2015. About fifteen writing enthusiasts gathered to kick around ideas about publishing projects, writing retreats and critique groups.
“The issue has always been finding the right venue for the meetings. We tried several different spots before settling in the back room of Sunrise. The space has to be accessible with sufficient light and not too much noise. We recently celebrated five years of meetings at Sunrise,” Franny proudly states.
In addition to hosting the critique group, Orlando Ortiz and staff opened the restaurant in the evenings once a month for The Spoken Word. He has cooperated by turning off the music for meetings. Even installing a sound-buffering panel to close off a meter-square opening into the kitchen. Wait staff led by Frank Gonzalez brought our meals and drinks in a timely fashion. Southwestern-style dishes filled the plates, and drinks were quietly refreshed over two and a half hours. Then, Franny always reminded us to tip the help as we gathered our things to leave.
Like a pigeon seeking shelter on the edge of a red-tile roof from rain, I sought refuge with CWC when my group dissolved. It’s the input from writers of various genres and with different life stories that I find most helpful. A good example was my first meeting with eight other writers. I read “Highways and Byways” about my 1990 trip to Donegal, Ireland, during “The Troubles”. Finn O’Gorman, a native of Belfast whose grandmother hailed from Donegal, joined us. “Oh, Jeremiah, you have to inject life into these farmers and families you visited,” she declared. Laced with Gaelic expressions, her Irish brogue overwhelmed my defenses, forcing a smile in the face of righteous criticism.
Finn’s fine contribution related her experience on 9/11 as a nurse who volunteered at the World Trade Center. “I pedaled my bike watching smoke rise from the bombed towers. It hurt to see others carry on as though nothing had happened.” I listened in awe as the plot revealed my new colleague’s heroics. On my copy of the story which Finn had passed around the table, I entered minor corrections. And praised her stirring tale at my turn to comment.
CWC serves other functions for the benefit of writers. At The Spoken Word appreciative expats gather to dine while supporting their favorite writers. The most recent performance took place at KAMAQ Gastro Arte y Cultura on February 26, where a lively audience of thirty settled in to hear a poem and stories by eight writers.
Beginning with dinner at 5 p.m., readings commenced at 6. Readers’ offerings printed on a page sat at each table along with the menu. A sense of anticipation and community filled the space. Franny serves as emcee of these events, introducing each reader while making witty observations to everyone’s delight. She also reaches out to non-CWC writers to read, from as far as Quito and the Pacific coast.
Franny and CWC are particularly proud of the Cuenca International Writers Conference. Inaugurated in March 2016 with the efforts on members and other volunteers, it is Latin America’s second English-language conference, after Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende event. I attended March 2017’s event, joining seventy-five writers from near and far at Hotel Zahir 360. For three days we participated in classes taught by Cuenca and North American authors. Locals and visitors became friends while delving into topics of interest.
Although no conference was held in 2019, Franny and colleagues were in the process of restoring the conference this year. Whether that will be possible or not will depend upon the status of the coronavirus restrictions this fall.
Edited Comments by CWC Members
Kris Fischer: Franny encouraged me to try different genres and got my story published in a magazine. Sometimes it’s just reading something out loud that let’s you see how you can make it better. The other writers solve some of our writer roadblocks or give creative ideas to incorporate in your writing. I guess it’s also the gentle nudging the group gives, and, yeah, I love that Jean helps me with grammar and punctuation.
I do think the interesting part of our group is how varied we all are and how varied the writing is: science fiction, memoir and poems. The writing and people are interesting, and so are their lives.
John Keeble: It is an excellent group that attracts all kinds of writers who do their best to help each other with constructive comments. The group is full of goodwill and positive encouragement, though the comments are direct. We have had a few new members who just wanted praise and left because the praise was mixed with kindly critiques and suggestions.
I find the group very helpful with my fiction. I am always pushing towards the edge, so I am watching reactions as well as noting comments. Two strong streams in my dystopian novel came about because of the reactions in the group. One “character,” a smart phone with a very unpleasant personality, got a good reaction and I developed that; and, a stronger element of hope was built after negative responses. I feel, also, that I am giving something when I help others with my writing experience.
Sandi Beaumont: I joined the group, as a complete novice at this writing lark, a year ago. I believe that critiques and suggestions have helped me to develop my writing skills immensely, and for that I shall always be grateful.
Comments are sometimes harsh; you have to be prepared for criticism! I remember Jean telling me one Wednesday, that my writing was sloppy. I took her remarks on the chin and determined not to make the same mistakes again.
There are a wonderful, diverse, cross section of writers every week, who produce interesting, sometimes spell binding work.
Alex Cherniack: A much-needed sounding board. The feedback from the other writers is many times more valuable than the spell check.
Carol Leutner: Without these critiques I would not be on the second draft of Chapter 33! We are peers and we have the same goal, yet we are so diverse: editors, poets, lawyers, artists, teachers and WRITERS. Plus, meeting every week pushes you to write, because you want to be ready with something. Now, instead of fretting about what I write, I just go for it, knowing the group will catch missing pieces. Thanks for Franny, Kathy, Jean and all who have kept this great resource alive.
Ann Fourt: The feedback on writing projects is invaluable, and the social interaction is very enjoyable.
Jean McCord: The group was an important reason why I decided to move to Cuenca; they were interesting and helpful people in a place where I moved without previously knowing anybody. Members helped me to revise a book I had been writing on and off for more than twenty years and gave me the courage to enter it in an international contest, where it took second place in the mystery category.
Not only does the critique help me improve my writing, but I also rejoice in seeing others improve. I can honestly say that every person who has continued with the group has become a better writer. Some who wrote stiffly (and boringly) now write what we all look forward to seeing. Some have gone from complete amateurs to getting published. Some who were already good became better. But each person contributes something of value to the rest of us, under founder Franny Hogg Lochow’s wise leadership.