Batavia resident Stacy Chambers started reading her short story, “A Very Small Thing,” slowly but deliberately as the other members of the St. Charles Writers Group perked up their ears.
“It was a very small bird. The small beak was gentle and long,” Chambers said as she read her short story to the group, trying not to notice as fellow member Randy Martin aimed a video camera at her during a recent session of the St. Charles Writers Group.
Martin is making a documentary that takes a glimpse inside the St. Charles Writers Group and other writers groups in the area. Even though the moment represented the first time Chambers had read any of her work in public, she was trying not to be nervous.
“Hopefully, I didn’t stumble too much,” Chambers said.
For the last two years, Martin, of DeKalb, and his wife, Danute Dockuviene, have been filming the activities of the group, which include live readings and the members critiquing each other’s work. Martin believes his being a writer gives him good insight into the subject matter.
“It gives me a very good perspective, because I am a member of the group and get the same criticisms that I am watching other people get and that is what I am looking for, to see how they feel,” Martin said. “So, I think it does offer me an unusual perspective.”
During their sessions, St. Charles Writers Group members discuss topics, such as how to write good dialogue and plot one’s novel or short story. Members also read their works aloud and critique each other’s manuscripts.
Martin knows the feeling of having his work critiqued.
“You write something, you give it to the group and two weeks later, people tell you what is good or bad about it,” Martin said. “Some people have likened that to bringing your baby in and they chop it up. And yet, they all come out of it saying it really helped them. And that’s true for me.”
The documentary also will feature other writers groups in the area, such as a writers group in DeKalb, of which Martin is a member. Martin, 83, taught psychology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for 39 years.
“The focus is going to be on the St. Charles Writers Group,” he said.
This isn’t Martin’s first documentary. He also has made documentaries exploring the world of ballroom dancing, a topic he also is familiar with.
“I did some ballroom dancing myself,” Martin said. “That’s how I met my wife.”
The documentary will follow a few writers as they are going through the process of creating their work and getting it critiqued.
“I want to show it, not tell it,” Martin said. “That’s my goal, anyway.”
Martin plans to wrap up the documentary in the next year for possible airing on WTTW Channel 11.
“I want to at least get it to the point where I can say to the people at Channel 11, ‘Look, does this have any chance?’” Martin said.
As part of the documentary, Martin already has filmed about 50 hours of interviews with individual writers.
“There are interesting personalities in writers groups,” Martin said. “They are the little different from the average person.”
One of the people he has interviewed is Rick Holinger, who founded the St. Charles Writers Group in 1995 and moderates the group’s sessions.
Holinger admitted that he initially was a bit wary of having the group be the subject of a documentary. He also is a columnist for the Kane County Chronicle.
“Writing is such a personal, private thing in one way and certainly sharing your writing with other people takes great courage,” Holinger said. “You have to be ready for criticism as well as praise. When Randy first suggested this documentary, I thought, ‘Gee, are people going to want a camera recording not only what they say about other people’s work, but what people say about their work, and will people still be honest in their appraisal of the work?’”
But Holinger, an English teacher at Marmion Academy in Aurora, now supports the project.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve kept up a dialogue,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I trust Randy, and I trust his decisions. I’ve encouraged him to go ahead with the film.”
Holinger said the group has lived up to the vision he had for it.
“I think, generally, writing groups have almost taken the place of self-help groups,” he said. “People come to writing groups, I think, not only just to become better writers, but also to live in a community of writers and to be with a community of writers.”
Writing groups provide camaraderie, he said. Holinger also leads another writers group, Night Writers Workshop, which meets monthly at the Geneva Public Library. The group first met at the library in January.
“Writing is a solitary activity, usually,” Holinger said. “But it’s nice to get together with other writers who experience that same thing and to share ideas and writings with them.”
And while he facilitates the group’s sessions, he said the success of the St. Charles Writers Group can be attributed to its members.
“Their participation is what makes the group good or bad,” Holinger said. “Over the years, I’ve just been really excited about how invested most of the members have been in the group.”