How to Make Your Writing Group Work
Notes from a Grub Street-inspired writing group
By Joanne Barker, Cloe Axelson, Pat McTiernan, Julia Rubin, Carol Steinberg, Judith Vick
We met in Michelle Seaton’s Six Weeks, Six Essays class and quickly got to know each other in a way that typically takes months or years. Perhaps rapid intimacy is a hallmark of creative nonfiction. The class ended and six of us decided to keep going.
For the past year we’ve met every two to three weeks: in a college cafeteria, squeezed into a booth of a crowded chain restaurant, in a semi-private room in the back of a frozen yogurt shop. There have been times when the prompts we came up with failed to inspire or the workshopping grew stale. But for each collective stumble, our group has had plenty of highs. We’ve stuck together and each of us is actively writing. Here’s what we’ve learned, so far, about keeping a writing group vital.
First talk about what you want -- On the most basic level, we all wanted structure and accountability. We wanted a reason to spend time with our half-formed thoughts and scribbled ideas and turn them into something worth reading. Many of us wanted to submit to journals, though one of us wanted to simply write for the fact it brings her world into sharper focus.
Structure your meetings -- We decided to stick with the structure of Six Weeks, Six Essays. We would each write a short piece for every meeting, send our pieces to each other by email days in advance, then workshop the essays in person. This worked for most of the first year but recently our interests have evolved. Some of us are writing longer pieces and all of us need to spend more time on revision. Now we’re looking at workshopping one or two pieces per meeting to make time for longer, more developed work.
Workshop like it matters (it does) -- The workshop experience can feel like being pecked by 1000 angry hens; it can be as safe and forgettable as a newsstand novel; or it can help the writer see her piece from a broader perspective. Go ahead and point out awkward word choices or passages that drag on, but if you really want to help your fellow writer, think and talk about the themes or big ideas that intrigue you. Look for what the writer is trying to accomplish and discuss her piece in a way that will help her decide where to take it next.
Emulate your teacher(s) -- Michelle Seaton has a way of honing in on the heart of a piece, and she became our role model for how to workshop. To make sure group discussions are constructive, we go through the questions Michelle posed in class:
- What is this about?
- What did you like?
- What’s confusing/what needs to be developed?
We did ease up on enforcing the writer’s dome of silence. Some of our best discussions happen when the author shares what moved her to write this certain piece or what she is striving to achieve. Often, in response to the groups’ questions, the author will fill in some background and many times the group says, “Oh, write about that.”
Listen to the group, but not always -- No matter how other people respond to your piece, you are the writer. This may not get you free parking on Boylston Street, but it does give you the right to pursue your own vision. If your group doesn’t get where you’re going with a piece, you may need to push the boundaries even further, maybe in the opposite direction of where the group tells you to go with it. In the words of Neil Gaiman,
"… when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
Share what inspires you -- Whether you find it in a novel or book of nonfiction, online or in a magazine, let other people’s writing inspire you and share it with your group. Whenever we used essays or articles about writing as prompts, we tended to take on new subjects or experiment with a different voice or point of view.
Go intergenerational -- Our group ranges in age from early 20s to late 50s. We didn’t plan it this way but the mingling of generations serves as a reminder that writers and readers have different life experiences. One reader may not have been born when the writer was dancing to Devo; another might have been in law school when the writer was playing Little League. Sometimes you have to spell things out, and if you become overly pedantic, the group will tell you.
Take charge of logistics, or logistics will take charge of you -- A few rules, judiciously enforced, help keep a group clicking along.
- Pick a meeting day and stick to it. Wednesdays worked for most of us (until one member joined a coed inner-tube water polo league).
- Share the work. Divvy up prompt responsibilities so the same person doesn't come up with a prompt or lead the discussion every time.
- Set a time limit for each piece to get workshopped and let each person take a turn as timekeeper.
- Submit in advance! Workshops are only as good as the members are prepared. If one of us doesn’t submit far enough ahead of time, she can read her piece out loud but probably won’t get written comments.
- Workshop in order of pieces received. We used to spend huge amounts of time saying “you go next, no you go next, no you.” Now whoever sends out her piece first gets workshopped first, and so on.
- Send one version. Yes, revision is essential to make good writing better but you’ll give your group a version-control headache if you send more than one version for a given meeting. We workshop the first version the author sends out, though she can read a revised version out loud to the group if she chooses to.
Break rules when you need to -- Moods and energy levels fluctuate in groups just as they do in people. Once or twice, we rescheduled a meeting when we realized no one had had time to write. After the marathon bombing, we got together for dinner and just talked. At times, our collective motivation seems to veer into a gully and some of us are talking about signing up for another class to infuse new energy into the group. But we remain committed to writing, and each other’s writing. The rest is a matter of creativity and flexibility.