About that American Fork Critique Group

It’s a Critique Group

Last time, I told you about the critique group held twice a month by the American Fork chapter of the League of Utah Writers. It’s every second and fourth Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. at the American Fork Library, and you can read more of the basics in that previous post.

Here I’ll give you a better taste of how it works, in case you’re on the fence about whether it will work for you.

Our meetings consist mostly of three activities: reading (aloud), giving critiques, and receiving critiques. Each of these could make someone squirm, I know, but it’s the price of improving as writers. We try to be kind, helpful, and candid.

How It Works: Reading

Some or all of the writers in the meeting will read excerpts from something they’re writing, or the whole thing, if it’s very short. They may or may not preface their reading with a brief explanation of the work, of what has happened previously, or what sorts of help they especially want. It’s all on a clock; unless the meeting is especially crowded or we’re running late, each reader gets up to seven minutes for the reading itself and any introductory explanations.

man in bow tie reading

In the meetings I’ve attended, I’ve read from three short stories (one written that day on the train, because an idea struck), the first and second chapters of a novel I’m polishing, and an essay I drafted a couple of years ago and have revisited a couple of times, but which really isn’t working yet.

After each reading, the author circulates a signup sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide a critique at the next meeting will sign up. Sometimes two people sign up; sometimes it’s six or seven.

After the meeting the author sends out the piece – up to 2,500 words – by e-mail, at least a week in advance of the next meeting, so everyone who signed up has time to read, reread, and critique it.

Writing in American Fork (If You’re Serious)

The Elevator Speech

American Fork’s chapter of the League of Utah Writers (LUW) meets twice monthly, on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, at 6:00 p.m. We meet in the American Fork Library, in the smaller of the two conference rooms near the east entrance. The chapter itself is just a few months old, and new members are always welcome.

There’s a Facebook group, Good AF Writers. Take the name as a fact or an aspiration, as you choose.

I’m told that different LUW chapters run their meetings differently. In our meetings, those who bring writing for critique read from it aloud for several minutes, then circulate a sign-up sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide an oral and written critique at the next meeting supplies a name and an e-mail address. The author sends out the piece, usually in a Word doc, at least a week before the next meeting. We limit the length of that to about 2,500 words – lately down from 5,000 words – to reduce the workload for critics. (You can always bring in the next chunk next time.)

We who signed up as critics then read and reread your piece, offer a brief oral critique (generally not more than several minutes) at the next meeting – assuming you’re there – then send the Word doc back to you with any markup and comments we may have added. Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes you get a little.

It works.

The Gift of Marching Band

American Fork

I’m driving south to St. George, Utah, today for my middle son’s last two competitions as a member of the American Fork High School Marching Band. If my youngest son doesn’t change his mind in the next few years, this will be my last weekend with a child competing in the marching band.

Today is the Red Rocks Invitational, which is also the Utah state championship. Tomorrow is the Bands of America Western Regional, which draws fine bands from Utah and other western states, including California.

These are also John Miller’s last two marching band competitions before he retires next spring, after 30 years as Director of Bands at AFHS.

And last week at Pleasant Grove High School, the AFHS Marching Band hosted the final competition of the regular season, the Mt. Timpanogos Marching Band Competition, where over 3,000 students in 43 bands gathered from schools in Utah and Idaho.

All these lasts and possible lasts inspire some thoughts.

Psychosis

I find band parent Mark Standing on the highest row of the stands at Pleasant Grove High School’s football stadium. He and I work with a few others on the American Fork High School Band Booster Publicity Committee, feeding press releases, stories, and commentary to print and broadcast media. We’re at the Mt. Timpanogos Marching Band Competition, so we’re technically working, but it’s that rare sort of work they must mean when they say, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Regrettably, we can’t support our families at this; it pays exactly 100% less than our day jobs.

a band at Mt Timp Mark gestures toward the blanket next to him and says, “She’ll be back in a few minutes. She’s from Sky View, and she says she’s a psychotic band mom.”

I am not a mental health specialist, but I understand that psychosis is a disorder in which one becomes detached from external reality.

I look forward to her return for three reasons. Sky View is my second-favorite Utah high school marching band, after my own American Fork. Band moms are dizzyingly high on the coolness meter. And I have some long-standing grievances with reality generally.

Music Is the Heart

I know the educational reasons for having music programs — and drama and sports and other such programs in schools. At least I know most of them. I know that these efforts, seriously engaged in, develop the mind, the heart, the body, the character — the person. I know they are a laboratory, in which youth can explore excellence in a relatively safe, supervised environment. I wrote about that once, in a season when the human cost of such efforts had become heroically, tragically high, and it was natural to wonder if it was worth it.

It is worth it. The reasons make sense to me, and I see them in action in my children, just as I see them retrospectively in myself, playing in the high school band from eighth grade, playing on the basketball team, and singing for two years in a fine ensemble we called the Snake River High School Chamber Singers.

SRHS Chamber Singers, Disneyland, June 1982
Snake River High School Chamber Singers, Disneyland, June 1982. At the mics are David Rodeback (holding the trumpet) and Paul Williams (with the tenor sax).

All of this justifies the cost of instruments, private lessons, and band fees — even all the oh-dark-thirty driving between home and school.

All of this makes me willing to bear the cost.

Why I am glad to bear the cost is easy to remember and easy to see. I saw and remembered it tonight. It is more difficult to describe, but that is my object here.

The Big, Thumping Heart of American Fork

In November, when the American Fork High School Marching Band was in Indianapolis for Grand Nationals, I wrote something that made lots of band moms cry. Apparently, it did the same for some of the band dads, too — presumably, the ones who are secure in their masculinity. There are three published versions: the original, an edited and dramatically condensed version in a local online newspaper, and this one, which is my favorite.

I was honored by an invitation to speak for a few minutes at the band’s season-ending dinner several days later, so I turned the essay into a speech. It shows the passage of a few days, the shift in audience from the community to the band itself, and some of the things we do differently when writing for the ear instead of the eye. Here it is, approximately as I delivered it to a gracious, youthful audience of champions.

(This was originally published at my old blog, LocalCommentary.com, on November 22, 2013.)

I am well aware that no one in the room tonight has contributed less to the wonderfully successful season you are celebrating tonight than I have. I’m honored to be here with you tonight to say to you, face to face, that the American Fork High School Marching Band is the big, thumping heart of American Fork, Utah.

We marvel at how long and hard you work. Then you work harder and longer.

We rejoice at how good you look. Then you find ways to look better.

And your sound . . . Much as we all adore the color guard, your sound is my favorite part of every show. Your sound teaches us why we have bands at all.

The trumpet I played when I was in school went to Grand Nationals last week with one of you, which is a happy thought for me. I loved playing the trumpet, but I didn’t love marching band. I didn’t even like marching band. Only in recent years have I acquired the taste. I can tell you exactly when it happened. It was the moment when I comprehended how much this band means to this community.

True, the city is full of current and former band members and their families, and most people in American Fork at least have a neighbor who is somehow connected to the band. But what’s happening here is bigger than that. Even people with no personal connection to the band or the school, and with little interest in band music, are somehow drawn into a remarkable world.

How remarkable? I don’t want to sound condescending, but I want to say that the world you have created is more remarkable than you realize. You can sit in the stadium at a competition – I have done this – near the bands American Fork routinely defeats, and hear drum majors telling their bands, “Be sure to be back here in time to cheer for American Fork. They always cheer for us.” Maybe that sounds like a small thing. It is not a small thing.

I wish I could have been in Indianapolis to see you perform. As it was, a lot of people gathered here to watch the live video feeds. You never saw a happier or prouder audience.

Just being good enough to be at Grand Nationals this year or any year was a triumph. Performing well in the preliminary round was another. Giving the best performance of the season in your last performance, which happened to be in the semifinals, was a crowning triumph, even if we all hoped you’d get to perform one more time. Leaving it all on the field or the stage or the court is just about as good as it gets in music or theater or sports. I can’t say I didn’t care where you placed last weekend, but it doesn’t matter much in the grander scheme of things. I value much more what you had already won – or, in other words, what you had already seen and learned, and what you became in the process.

You learned by experience how much harder it is to be excellent than merely good. You learned first-hand, before you ever went to Indianapolis, to pay the even higher price of being great at something, which you are. You learned how to be a team, and how to perfect hundreds of individual performances and knit them into something spectacular and intricate and beautiful.

Your morale and unity are enviable. You’d think that all the winning might make you insufferably proud, but you’ve learned to take success gracefully. You win, then you come home and work harder. And somehow you still walk from place to place, instead of strutting.

We might call the price of these lessons great sacrifice, but you in the band and we parents and neighbors get so much back for the work, the time, the money, and the enthusiasm we invest, that I’m not sure sacrifice is the right word. Besides that, we still remember too clearly that, four years ago, at milepost 49 south of Pocatello, there was a great sacrifice: the life of a teacher for the lives of some of her students. The seniors in this year’s band were only in eighth grade then, but I have heard the name Heather Christensen quietly on the lips of students and parents alike, this season. Long may it be thus.

I happened to see milepost 49 twice last weekend. There’s really nothing for me to do there but keep driving and remember someone I didn’t really know and an incident I’m glad I didn’t see. So that’s what I did. But back to the present.

I join the community in saying: Thank you. You make us proud. You honor your predecessors, your teachers, your families, your neighbors, your school, and your city. You have honored the sacrifice at milepost 49 – not so much by your many victories, but by higher things, for which we usually do not give trophies.

In a world which sometimes seems designed to obscure the best, most hopeful, and most lasting things – such as grace and courage and loyalty and excellence – you have found and embraced them, pulled them from their hiding places, and placed them squarely in front of the rest of us, where we cannot help but see and remember and rejoice. That is a greater gift to the larger community outside the band than you could possibly know from your honored place inside the band.

One more thing. Not only have you done this crucial thing for us. You have done it beautifully.

Thank you.