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How I Tricked My Book Club Into Writing

Cover of "Bitter is the New Black : Confe...
Cover via Amazon

My neighborhood book club has been going strong for nearly three years. A bunch of women who range in age, profession, religious background, and plenty of other things, we agree that we enjoy the following items (not necessarily in the order they are listed):

1. Periodically getting together at someone’s house (preferably not our own);

2. Eating chocolates;

3. Drinking wine;

4. Chatting it up a bit;

5. Discussing books we might not have otherwise ever picked up.

The last meeting was at my house. This time eleven people showed up for an hour of “eat, booze and schmooze” in the kitchen, and eight stayed to gather on the family room couches to “talk book.” Since the host selects the book, my selection was Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass (Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office).

Quick summary: Before September 11th, Lancaster worked as an associate vice president for a technology company prior to being laid off. In this capacity she made loads of many and acquired many pairs of shoes. After 9/11, the author whines – incessantly – about being unemployed, her boyfriend/fiancé/husband, Fletch, their neighbors, their pets, and how she can no longer afford the shoes she once used to buy so readily. I liked Lancaster’s wit and rampant narcissism.

And while Lancaster was not for everyone, we agreed the book was snarky and fast-paced: a good choice for February, when knee-deep snow and the winter white skies of Western New York provide enough gloom to make everyone question just how severe our vitamin D deficiencies might be. It’s hard to stay connected to neighbors in the winter; it’s just so friggin’ cold. People walk around with their shoulders up and their heads down. We rush from warm house to warming car. There is little time to casually chat at the mailbox when the wind is stinging your ears and making your eyes tear up. Our little club keeps us connected year round so that we remain in touch with our neighbors, something equally rare these days.

It is up to the host to facilitate discussion, and – big surprise – I have long wanted to infuse a writing exercise into a meeting, so I figured – since this book was devoid of any real literary depth – this was my chance.

“Okay,” I said brightly ,”Remember when Lancaster lists her ‘Jen Commandments’? The little quirks she possesses that people who know her and love her just have to accept?”

A few people nodded. (I had my suspicions that most people didn’t get that far.)

I referred to the text. I didn’t have to; almost no one brings the book to book club.  I could have said anything, but I quoted Lancaster:

I hate holding anything heavier than my purse. If I have something in my hands, I will attempt to trick you into carrying it for me?

A few people snickered then looked semi-spooked as I handed everyone one salmon-colored index card and plopped a pen onto each lap. As I stuck a small, non-threatening bowl in the middle of my tufted ottoman, I said, “I thought it would be kind of fun if each of us wrote one of our own ‘Commandments’ and put it into the bowl. Anonymously, of course. It could be fun to see if we can figure out who goes with what.”

Initially, some people looked panicky and began to protest, but thank goodness the majority was with me. A few women asked for extra index cards. At first, I thought it was because they goofed up, but for some people once the creative juices started flowing, the flood gates could not hold all our estrogen and soon the orange-bowl, index card confessional runneth over. I read the first one aloud:

I always sleep with 3 pillows. This is a need not a want. And, I will always travel with a pillow, even if it necessitates bringing another suitcase.

We laughed, especially because we were so dead wrong with regard to whom was attached to this statement. Surely our quiet, unassuming neighbor could never be so demanding. But there she was, shamelessly nodding her head.

I passed the bowl to my right so someone else could read another book clubber’s words:

If you say you’re going to do something, then just do it. If you talk about something but never get to it, then I start wondering about you.

Hilarious. And so true.

One woman wrote on the front of her card:

I’m in charge of almost everything… (and then on the back) … and I like it that way!

Another neighbor penned:

I obsess about making decisions and my good friends have to listen to me!

Everyone easily guessed mine.

I absolutely hate repetitive noises. If you tap something more than five times, I might have to kill you.

One that stood out was short and direct.

Do not screw up my coffee order.

This, of course, led to a hilarious story about how this neighbor had recently visited a local Starbucks where the barista dared to give her three squirts of vanilla in her mocha latte instead of one. There was hell to pay that morning. 😉 There were other “isms” that were equally excellent. And it was a hoot to hear each woman’s words read aloud. Everyone was honest and enjoyed poking fun at herself, sharing her quirks, her personal truths. As usual, book club was less about the book than it was about people gathering together to get to know each other a little better.

What my book club mates don’t realize is that they are totally screwed. Now that I have seen that they can write (even under pressure), the next time it is my turn to select a book and host, we are sooooooo writing.

178 thoughts on “How I Tricked My Book Club Into Writing

  1. I wish I was in your book club!!!!! Our book club isn’t much about the book but is much more about the company and catching up. We pick books to read but most don’t read them. That’s fine with us. But I might steal your writing exercise since it would be tons of fun.

        1. We will have to agree to disagree on that one as I believe drinking alone would be very, very bad. We are good mothers and sisters and aunties and daughters, so we drink together in groups. Oh, and just so you know, I was the designated driver. 😉

  2. You inspire me to want to start a book club. My card would read, “Copy-cat, never-follow-through, grandiose idea people welcome.” TOL (The Other Lisa) would be rolling her twitchy eyes if she read this. Shhh

    1. That’s awesome! Then there is no pressure to finish a book you don’t love. We really do try to be respectful of each others’ picks. Some people have selected some amazing books over the years – and we keep a list. It is growing to be quite a diverse and impressive list. I am proud of us. We so rock.

      Twitchy-eyed members are also welcome.

  3. I love this idea. But I’d tell them each to bring a second “wottle of bine” before you have them write the next chapter.

    What are you reading next month? My book club’s basically folded…

    1. Okay IM:

      We’re supposed to be reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado – but I’m reading We Have to Talk About Kevin, and I can’t put it down.

      I might just have to sit quietly, eat chocolates, and nod a lot this month. Don’t tell on me! 😉

        1. Darling, you can say you knew me before I was famous, but now I might deny it. 😉 Just kidding. I never forget my homeys. Never. By the way, did you notice this post fell under the category of “food”? Okay, I know I mentioned chocolate, but seriously, it’s about writing. I’m uber-suspicious of the whole Freshly Pressed blog selection process now. (However, if I recall, I was eating an Oreo when I pushed “Publish.”) Hmmmm.

  4. Great idea and many, many who like to read also like to write. They just don’t always realize it because their time is more apt to be spend with their heads in their books!

  5. This sounds like so much fun!! Sounds like such a great exercise for a book club. And now that you’ve warmed everybody up, I’m sure they might even be excited to do more writing now! Thanks for sharing!

  6. I love this post! Excellent way to start a Monday morning–a book recommendation and a cool writing exercise. Thank you! I too am always looking for ways to sneak writing into group experiences and I’m very often surprised at how freaked out people get by it. Of course, if someone asked me to draw something on an index card, or to compose a jingle, I’d freak out about that. 🙂

    1. People do freak out over writing. Omigosh! But as a writing teaching (and a person who is supposed to be working on her own book this very minute), I find if you can keep the exercise short and anonymous, people find it less intimidating. 😉

  7. I think I need to join a book club. But only if they have the same criteria as yours–especially the “eating chocolates.” Sounds like you have a really good time!

  8. Hahaha…I think for my it would be…I must eat at regular times every day or at least know when I am getting food next. Otherwise, I get stressed, then upset, then cranky, then liable to rip someone’s head off.

    I wish I was in your book club. It sounds awesome.

  9. I love that idea. It would be great as an icebreaker at those dreadful committee meetings as well (and give you an idea of what you will be up against for the next few months!) My choice for the next book at our club, I’ll go check this one out.

    1. Oh, it would be a great ice-breaker for a committee meeting! “I have an irrational love for binder clips,” or “I bite my tongue when I am frustrated. No seriously, I really bite my tongue. Sometimes, when I leave the room my tongue is bleeding.” 😉

  10. Was gonna come on over anyway, and now I see you’re Freshly Pressed — congrats! I had some issues with the book myself, but I’m glad you used it to create a good experience for your club.

  11. What a great idea! Both the “writing exercise” and the neighborhood book club. I love the ladies in my book club…but driving 35 min each way is a bummer…maybe I’ll try to see if there is any interest in my neighborhood…It’ll also be good pressure for me to read more if I am in two clubs!!

  12. What a delightful idea, it sounds like it was a lot of fun, and perhaps salvaged what otherwise would have been a pretty short review session. Good work!

    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

    1. Doug!

      You totally snagged me! I didn’t finish my own book! So I went to plan B: Focus on a part of the book that I liked and could talk about. I use this strategy in my classroom as well. It works about 92% of the time. Until someone busts me.

  13. That’s an awesome idea for a book club meeting. My sorority pledge class started a book club after graduation so that we could all keep in touch and it sounds similar to yours – we get together to discuss the book but we all know that not everyone finished it, or made it even halfway. I really like the idea of relating it to your life, though, rather than relying upon the “book club discussion questions” at the end of the book!

    1. Ewwwwwwwww! You must never rely on the book questions. Do you guys read the Cliffsnotes, too? You have to relate to the literature on a personal level to make it come alive. You should all come over to my neighbor’s house. I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll be fine with it. How many of there are you? And do you like chocolate and wine? Let me know, k? 😉

  14. Do not screw up my coffee order. Applies to me. I’m a huge Starbucks fan and Starbucks goer, but if you mess up my coffee, I am never going to talk to that barista again. I might never even visit the Starbucks. Please, don’t screw up my coffee order. We Starbucks goers should have a name tag, “Hey, good day. Please don’t screw up my coffee order. Please?”
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    Ashley, aka TheEverydayMuser

  15. Hahaha I loved it. My favorite was the one were she wrote on the back and front! I can relate hehe *wink wink*. I’ve been dying to join a book club and a writing club for a while now but with no success 🙁
    I started one between family members and we lasted one week.
    Thanks for the laugh


  16. Great post! Some of my girlfriends and I have been toying with the idea of starting a book club, and this was a really cool perspective. You were very sneaky with the writing exercise! Congrats on being FP!

  17. Bravo to you and your wonderful club. It turned out to be a great evening for you all. I wish I was there to giggle and chuckle. I am glad you wrote a blog about it. A great idea.

  18. haha that’s awesome! I just started reading her books. My friend sent her Such a Pretty Fat as a gift and I loved it so much, I ran to the library this wknd and picked up the rest of her books. I’m currently reading ‘Bitter’ and can’t wait to finish. I’m so excited about her books, she’s having a book signing that I will be attending in May!

      1. Book signing locations are on the Feb 3rd blog posting on Jennsylvania. I think the closest one to Upstate is Pittsburg. BTW, I was not a huge fan of Such a Pretty Fat,” but last year’s “My Fair Lazy” was amazing.

    1. If by “active,” you mean that we abandon our husbands and children at 7 pm about 10 times each year for a few hours of female companionship, sugar and fancy drinking glasses, then yes… we are very active! Believe it or not, but we also do a Halloween parade that kills. It’s supposed to be for the kids, but this year, I wore a pink wig and went as a ninja. Seriously. There are pictures on the blog to prove it. Love my neighborhood. 😉

  19. That is fabulous! I love writing and am always looking for ways for people to find their voice and tell their story. I had the honor of collecting stories from mothers of soldiers and we told how we made it through our sons and daughters deployments. Check out my blog at Our book is called Love You More Than You Know. The title was taken from a letter my son sent me after he was in Iraq for six months and had six more to go. He signed his letter-I love you deeply, more than you know. Your son, Joe.
    If your book club does nonfiction, you might consider reading our stories. Part of the proceeds goes to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and the a part of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The book has a writing component and there are writing tips on my blog. Happy writting.

    1. This time I served a new white called… um…um… I can’t remember the name right now but the bottle was really cool; you’ll have to trust me when I say it was a great wottle of bine. Seriously. 😉

  20. What a great post! Our book club has similar issues with balancing book discussion with just general girl time. I LOVED your writing exercise idea and how it incorporated the best of both. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on freshly pressed!

  21. Congrats in being FP. Funny that you didn’t know you weren’t until a fan told you. Doesn’t WP send you an email?

    Great post too. I do love the index card idea too. It would be a fun thing to do at a dinner party.

  22. Love it! I’m an absolute bookworm and love reading, though I’ve never been in a book club. I think a part of me is too afraid that all I’ll want to talk about is books…though somehow I’m sure I’d manage to find myself in the group of people that “never got that far.” Ha. Hats off to a thoroughly enjoyable post!

  23. It sounds like you should start a writing club. Wouldn’t that be better than waiting 11 weeks to sneak a writing exercise on people who clearly want to write? Just make sure to share the writing in your blog again.

    1. Thanks Kasey! Maybe one day I’ll be a rich and famous published author like you. But I will not be writing about education or parenting. I will write about important things like why I can never find the right color red lipstick. 😉

  24. That is one of my all time favorite books on the planet (the other 3 being her other books!). Those lists sound like fun. Mine would be VERY simple and is rarely obeyed…

    utter fail every morning.

  25. wonderful book club! And wonderful ladies, open and fun. Go ahead, there are other games with writing, and maybe the next book is a collectively written witty novel by you and your book club friends 😉

  26. LOVE this!! A few of my girlfriends and I had a “book club” going for a short while. I think I might have to start it up again and do something like this.

  27. Well, well, well, my bud’s getting some run today eh? Congrats on the FP Fryber Renee! Always exciting to see one of the crew make the big page. So since you’re having all this company over here today, I won’t make any jokes to get your blood-boiling about the value of a man’s perspective in your writer’s group 😉 Go you!

  28. Five is a pretty low repetition threshold for death. Are all noises equal? Or are there some that draw your ire quicker than others?

    Great to see a familiar face Pressed. Congrats, Renee.

  29. What a great idea — thanks for sharing! And I love your spirit. Sounds like a really fun night. Good for you for “tricking” your friends into writing! I love it. And congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  30. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! You’ve inspired me (again, imagine that) to get off my haunches and start that book club I’ve been wanting to start.

    And no nervous twitchers allowed.

  31. I wonder if those commandments would work for community college students. I teach creative writing and even though it is clearly marked “writing class” my students are either terrified of making a mistake or oh so apathetic about creativity. Maybe I’ll have to start bringing brownies.

    1. I think it would be a great ice breaker activity for students at the beginning of the semester. Write an “unpretty truth” about yourself. I am totally doing it with my community college students next semester.

    1. Oooh, that’s a great topic! I bet a lot of people have written about how to start a book club. I was fortunate in that several neighbors had expressed interest. From there, it really was about creating structure (as a teacher, that part comes naturally to me) and – seriously – if you feed them, they will come. 😉

  32. It was so fun to infuse an activity into our gathering! I especially enjoyed the way that everyone could participate, even if they didn’t make it to the “jenisms” portion of the book. It enabled us all to share a bit of ourselves. Thanks for the assignment!

    1. Oooh, look! One of the “Clubbers” is now writing on my blog! Now this is monumental. I mean, it is practically earth-shattering. Now, Kate, by next book club, please type up a 250 word essay explaining how it felt to be told that we were going to writing at book club and then reflect on how this exercise helped you to connect to your inner child. Also be sure to relate to every other book we have ever read and, also, to Michel Foucault. 😉 Ha ha ha. I crack myself up!

      1. See my blog roll. Lessons from teachers and twits is one I like a lot. The Jakeslady can really stir up some turmoil on education issues. You should visit Lessons from Teachers and Twits sometime. It is pretty good.

  33. That sounds like a great way to participate in a book club! I don’t participate in one at the moment, but I definitely would if writing was the task instead of reading. I can always seem to find time to write more than time to read. Thanks for a good suggestion!

  34. Wow. I am quite jealous. I have been searching for a book club, and thus far, no luck. That’s not to say there aren’t book clubs around here, but they sound a bit similar to yours – a bunch of people who already know each other quite well and are focused less on the book and more on getting together. As fun as that sounds, I just haven’t found the right group yet. Maybe I should just stick to roller derby for my girl time… and I’ll live vicariously through your book club. 🙂

    1. The coolest thing about our book club is that we didn’t really know each other at all before this neighborhood book club. Not very well, anyway. But these occasional meetings have given us the ability to wave and smile and figure out which kids are attached to whom. We have figured out who knows the best painters/plumbers/electricians/roofers and we have been able to create a neighborhood email list that has made us ever more inter-connected to the others to get deals on snow plows and bee spraying and lawn services. We kind of watch out for the others. It’s rather nice, and I feel fortunate to live in a neighborhood like this. So many people don’t know their neighbors at all.

      PS: Not everyone in the neighborhood is involved, but I like to think the club has helped to create a sense of community.

  35. Oh, that is just snort-ingly funny! And what a wonderful way to trick them into doing it. Every group of girlfriends should have to do this with one another 🙂

  36. Love that book!!!

    My boyfriend would definitely relate to the “Do Not Screw Up My Coffee Order” as that is serious business in his opinion.

  37. I agree I think your book club sounds amazing and I wish I was part of one. I have always wanted to be part of a book club but found it hard to take time out of my day while still in college. I am planning on joining a book club once I graduate.

  38. Ooh, I’m so glad you were freshly pressed so I could find you today. I’m a teacher, too, and Jen Lancaster keeps me in stitches! I think I’ll have to come up with my own commandments and maybe even make a post out of them. I can’t wait to hear more about how you fool your book club into writing!

    1. Your classroom commandments from the POV of the kids:

      1. Don’t turn in anything that isn’t typed and spell-checked or she might have to kill you.
      2. If you are going to be in here, at least try to pretend that you think I’m cool.

      Ha ha ha! There I go, cracking myself up again. 😉

      1. I teach first grade and while that means I often have to use my decoding superpowers on their creative spelling, it also means I don’t have to worry about the cool factor because everything is cool in the eyes of a six year old. Not a bad trade off at all. 🙂

  39. Keep it up… reading is slowly becoming a lost art. I’m not big on snarky books but this sounds like an interesting read. 🙂
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  40. Wow, this is so cool! Congratulations! 😀 I wish I was part of a book club… and a writing club, too. It isn’t easy finding one you feel comfortable in, and which actually functions.

    Also, I so know what you mean about the weather conditions. It’s March 7th and we had a snowstorm last night/this morning. : Like, seriously…

    1. I know what you mean about the writing group chemistry. I was once in one that choked and sputtered, but – alas – the patient was gone. We hoped and prayed for resurrection, but – alas, it was done. 😉 I do feel lucky to have a functioning book club. Don’t get my wrong: books clubs can be equally sucky, but with the right ground rules, things usually chug along nicely. The key is everyone has to have a common goal. We are looking to deconstruct Foucault. At least, I don’t think we are. Maybe I missed that meeting. 😉

  41. What a great idea. I’m going to have to check out that book. Love the title. I also loved your idea for a writing activity. I don’t have a book club but I’m going to keep it in mind for when I’m out with my girlfriends as I think it can be done anytime. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  42. Very inspiring post! I love the idea of book clubs – however, I’ve yet to find my own… perhaps I will now that I’ve recently moved to a new town though ^^,

    Gratz on FP – I will surely be looking in on your site in the future!

  43. Hi!

    I Just wanted to let you know I loved this post, it made me chuckle! I used to hate to write, a bit scared as I thought I was a little bit rubbish at stringing sentences together. It can be a little intimidating. I am an illustrator and although my world is all about pictures, the words are just as important. Anyway in recent months I have gained in confidence and I have just started my own blog and I love it!

    P.S Really must find a book club, yours sounds like a hoot!

    Much inky love,

    Zoe x

  44. Great post Renee, spotted it on WordPress, shared it on Twitter. That’s a very clever way of getting people to write. I’m starting to think I could do with joining a book/writing club.

  45. Your book group sounds like fun…I belonged to a group but dropped out because they were too serious and read books that were soooooooo boring… I took down the list of books mentioned and shall read them! Keep up the great work! Cheers!

    1. See, that’s the beauty. Each woman in the group picks her own book, the date she would like to meet, and then hosts. Whoever can come, comes. Some people come for the “booze and schmooze” hour and then confess to not finishing the book and go home. Sometimes we have a large crowd; sometimes we are more intimate – but we keep slogging away. And, of course, eating chocolates. 😉

  46. I organise a book group of guys and whilst we have good discussions, it doesn’t seem have as lively as yours. I think I might have to borrow your writing idea. thanks 🙂

  47. Awesome story! It kind of makes me think about my own quirks…? I’ve always wanted to start a book club myself, but it is so darn hard finding someone else who likes to read. But thanks for the morning uplift however!

  48. Awesome story! It kind of makes me think about my own quirks…? I’ve always wanted to start a book club myself, but it is so darn hard finding someone else who likes to read. But thanks for the morning uplift however!

    1. Methinks, you should go forth and start selecting good wine. I recommend TWISTED. The bottle is fun enough to want to pop it open. And we tend to lean toward sponge candy. 😉 Oh, and the first book should suck and be borderline inappropriate. Ours was. And we laugh about it all the time. 😉

  49. This is great! I entertained the idea of a book club in our local town, but never developed it into anything; this is a great post and I love the isms!

  50. I love the idea. I never thought I could write yet always had great ideas in my head but could never get them down (dyslexia) but recently I have been challenging myself to write more and have found that I really enjoy it. Little ideas like your from books are a great way to get started. Might have to borrow it sometime.

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