Ambrose McNibble talks about NSWG
This history of the No Safeword Writer’s Group is necessarily written from my point of view. In at least one respect that is fitting since I have certainly attended more meetings than anyone else. In another way, I am bothered that this may make NSWG appear as my private club. It has never been my intention that it be so. Sometime in 1995, Dan and Allena started Seattle’s No Safeword Writer’s Group.
They originally met in the basement of a church on Capital Hill. There have been some pretty liberal churches in that neighborhood. I wasn’t there when they formed, or for any of the meetings at the church, but I was at the first meeting held at Beyond The Edge Cafe. It was only a few weeks after The Cafe opened, and since Allena was running The Cafe and Dan was doing the bookkeeping, it was natural to hold meetings there. After that meeting I took time to write some of my thoughts. I quote from that journal:
November 20, 1995
Tonight I attended my first meeting of No Safeword Writers Group. I listened to K read a story about a brother and sister, who lived a life that would be considered by most to be utterly depraved. In spite of the sex in it, it was not a story about sex, but about the relationships in the family and the feelings of the siblings. That there was sex, and dominance, and submission heightened the intensity of the relationships. K is a skilled writer and kept the focus of the story on subject, while still being titillating enough to give me an erection. The elements of depravity never dominated the story. She says she has no idea where or how she will get it published because of the pedophile and incest that is implied in the text.
I was amazed at K’s ability to read this work in front of a stranger. She has enough confidence in this, I wonder what she is capable of in other circumstances.
I also heard A read a tribute to his lover recently dead of AIDS. I did not feel adequate to comment on it. He expressed a paper fetish while talking about a publication project that he is working on in relation to his deceased friend and I found that amusing and likable.
L read a humorous ‘manifesto’. I thought it a bit shallow, but it was a farce. I suspect I would have appreciated it more in the context of the series of farcical manifesto’s it was written to close.
Dan left us with printed copies of a non-consensual homo erotic fantasy. He didn’t read it.
I met Lady Sunshine – owner of the cafe. She strikes me as remarkable in an earth mother vein. She has marvelous tattoos. She has been opening The Cafe, so has been too busy to write for the group.
There were three others in attendance, lurkers all. A sweet young thing and two dark looking fellows. I have none of their names in my memory.
This seems like an interesting group. I will return. Perhaps to read this.
I am toying with the idea of reading My Susie to them but I’m not sure if I can read something that powerful. K’s courage and self confidence inspire me.
Since then, NSWG has been both a door and an inspiration for me. A door into the BDSM community, and to a new and empowering way of living. An inspiration that has led to my writing many stories and articles, and even considering making my living as a writer. Some of that promise is apparent in what I wrote that night. It was only the second time I had been in that space and the second contact I’d had with the BDSM community. If any of you, dear readers, have been in such a situation, you know something of what I was feeling.
In January of 1997, a bare 14 months later, I inherited stewardship of No Safeword Writers Group. I had returned, and I eventually managed to read that story, and with a lot of help from the group, I even made it into something worthwhile. I had grown a lot and learned a lot.
That same month, I made my first sale (Rough Trade). I’d joined an on-line writer’s group and learned a lot from it. One of the editors for Skin Two Online was monitoring the list, and picked up a story I had posted for critique. That sale really made me feel good. (and bought me a nice toy)
The group had gone through it’s own changes. Many of the original participants had dropped out, and we hadn’t had many new people join. I remember meetings during that year where there was myself and one other person. Fortunately, writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, so even a single person can accomplish something.
In April of 1997 we did our first public reading. Three of us read poetry at Beyond the Closet bookstore, to celebrate National Poetry Week. Perhaps not a smashing triumph, but at least they didn’t run screaming.
Sometime in 1997 I wrote the first version of what eventually became the No Safeword Writer’s Group Statement of Purpose. It currently reads:
No Safeword Writers Group exists to provide mutual support for our members efforts. Support is in the form of critique and commentary on each others work, information about publishing opportunities, and discussion of issues facing writers. Our focus is erotic writing – but we welcome anyone who writes. We have critiqued submissions that ranged from advertising copy to philosophy to motorcycle mechanics. The only requirements are to write, to attend, and to be respectful.
A few months after that I codified the group rules. They currently read:
There are three requirements at No Safeword Writers Group.
1. You have to have written something once. Like a history
paper or letter to your mom or something.
2. You have to come to a meeting.
3. You have to respect yourself and other people while you’re
at the meeting.
The group slowly grew, and in November of 1997, with seven people present, we had a very weird meeting. I quote from the message I sent out afterwards:
November 18, 1997
This month’s meeting was eventful in the extreme. Perhaps the strangest NSWG meeting ever.
I arrived at Beyond The Edge to find it closed. It’s not that there wasn’t any warning, there’s been a schedule of new operating hours posted by the cash register for at least a week. I probably walked past it half a dozen times without looking. I apologize to all who were there and any who may have failed to make connections with the group.
O was there and we walked up to The Rosebud for dinner and the meeting. Allena and a crew were working at Beyond the Edge, and promised to send along anyone who showed up. Soon others arrived and we had our meal and got to the business of discussing writing. We decided to do a group writing assignment.
In the middle of this the lights started going out. The staff did their best, but soon smoke was pouring out of the walls. (Yikes!) We evacuated and that ended the meeting. SFD was summoned and soon had the street blocked, and were busily working to put the fire out. I heard later that a tenant in a basement apartment had his electricity cut off and had undertaken to reconnect it himself – with disastrous results.
I don’t believe anyone was injured, but The Rosebud is an awful mess and several other business in the building suffered considerable damage. The owners and particularly the employees are surely suffering from the disruption. I suggest we consider doing anything we can to help them. I understand that most of the tenants of the upper floor apartments were allowed to return later that evening.
In January of 1998, one of our members graciously put up our first web page. He continues to maintain it, for which he has our continuing gratitude.
In February of 1999, after Beyond The Edge Cafe finally closed for good, we moved our meetings to Four Angles Cafe where we remained until June of 2000, when that establishment ceased to be viable. Over the next few months we tried several other venues, including a blessedly uneventful meeting at the re-opened Rosebud Cafe. In September 2000 we settled at the Wet Spot.
Early in 2000, No Safeword Writers Group was given formal thanks on the copyright page of Laura Antoniou’s The Academy. This book was edited by a former NSWG member.
A number of NSWG members have had publishing success, nobody has ever made an effort to keep track of how many. I am familiar with at least six.
In July of 2000 one of our members ran the convention newspaper for Living In Leather XV, and several others contributed to it.
In November 2000 No Safeword did it’s second public reading. We were invited to read at Wicked Workshop held at Consolidated Works in Seattle. Four of us read, and the evening went very well. We made contact with at least one new member at this reading.
In 2000, No Safeword Writers Group was asked to secure it’s place in the Wet Spot meeting schedule with a donation of $100. We could have passed the hat, and come up with the money in a week or two, but this looked like an opportunity. After a few weeks of assaying the mood of the members, we started collecting stories. We collected enough really good writing to assemble a book of sixteen stories, four poems and two essays. There’s a good variety of material, that reflects the variety of writers in our group. All the authors donated their stories – nobody is making any money on this. The finished book is 175 pages, soft bound. We only printed a few hundred, because we didn’t need to raise much money.
NSWG has always functioned primarily as a critique group. Perhaps the most common method we use, is for writers to bring in eight or ten copies of a manuscript, up to about ten double spaced pages, and pass them around to the other attendees. I have a supply of red pens, and we all read and mark suggestions for improvements. These might be spelling, or grammar, or plot, or point of view, or just general impressions. The manuscripts are then returned to the author and there may be discussion of the piece.
Less often we will read out loud – usually in preparation for public readings, but sometimes for other reasons. Listeners sometimes take notes, and readings are invariably followed by verbal critique.
Longer work can be submitted in sections, or sent home with the participants as a whole, in hopes that they will find time to critique it and bring it to the next meeting.
I do not run a democratic group. I will ask the members about issues like group size and meeting format, and whether to put out a book, but I decide. I don’t know what the original intent for this was, but I’ve been running it as a benevolent dictatorship for a number of years and it seems to be working.
Some of the principles I use to run NSWG are:
Unlike some writers groups, No Safeword is a drop-in group – open to all comers, with a minimum of rules.
At NSWG, the focus is erotica, but we accept anything for critique. Several of us bring poetry to the group, and the Statement Of Purpose catalogs the range of prose we’ve looked at.
I have steadfastly resisted allowing NSWG to become an on-line group. I will recommend other on-line groups to people, but my early experiences at NSWG have convinced me that there is something valuable in sitting across the table from other writers, and that some of that value was lost in the on-line environment. I keep a mailing list of our members, and forward publishing opportunities, meeting reminders and such to them. This is not a one-list/e-groups/yahoo list. It’s simply a list of names in the address book on my computer. I will allow people to distribute work via the list before the date of the meeting, for critique at the meeting. If members want to do e-mail critique via private arrangement, that is fine, and I support them, I just don’t distribute it to the member list.
I have avoided dues and other dealings with money like the plague. The book is the biggest exception to that rule in the history of the group. The Wet Spot does request a one dollar donation from each participant at meetings, and I try to see that they get it.
I have kept the rules to a minimum. I know this was the intent of the original group from the initial exchanges I had with Dan back in 1995.
I always try to remember that leading writers is like herding domestic cats. It’s easier than herding wild cats, but it’s still tricky. You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do, and the exchanges that happen at the group MUST benefit everyone.
No Safeword Writers Group means a lot to me. I have tried to take good care of it and treat it with as much respect as I can muster. This is partly a sentimental thing with me, but also because it has continued to serve me so well. I continue to learn from the people in this group and find the fellowship of shared experience with them.
Ambrose McNibble – 2001