Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writers' Groups, Part II

Writers’ Groups, Part II

During the last twenty years I’ve participated in seven writers’ groups, but most of them have been organized into one of four categories. All of them were interesting and have played a role in my life as a writer, but some were a better fit than others. I look back on all of them fondly and sometimes with amusement at our disjointed efforts to move forward.

First is the support group whose members are writers. The group usually meets in the evening on a weekday or a Saturday morning on a weekly basis and focuses on anything about writing, encouraging its members to complete work and send it out. Members share resources for research and names of journals to send work to, commiserate on rejection letters, and generally encourage each other to keep writing. Discussions tend to wander, and not everyone is a practicing writer.

Second is the group that comprises writers who have published something and are focused on continuing to get work into print. They arrive at the meeting with coffee and perhaps a snack to stave off hunger, or a late lunch (or early dinner). They read their work, listen to general comments, and report on efforts to publish.

Third is the group that expects a certain amount of work from its members. Each writer brings copies for others to read along with as he or she reads the story or chapter or scene from the current work. Comments are expected to be substantial and helpful, but not of the order of how to recast the entire story (a temptation we all fall into when enthusiasm exceeds judgment). The reader asks questions and discusses the comments. Everyone feels a certain investment in the work and expects regular updates on progress of other publishing efforts. This is not the place for writers who can’t seem to finish anything, never take a risk, or are waiting for inspiration.

Fourth and last is the group for those with a tough hide. These groups are usually small because they require more work than the other groups and devote one session to each member. The writer sends copies of the chapter to be discussed to the group members in advance, giving the members time to read and analyze, and prepare for an in-depth discussion. At the meeting, the writer whose work is being discussed sits on the sidelines and listens to the discussion, not allowed to comment, interject explanations, challenge or correct misinterpretations, or add anything to the discussion. After about two hours of this (if the writer is still in the room), he or she is allowed about half an hour to comment on the discussion. This kind of group has no room for anyone who is not writing regularly and not advanced enough to produce substantial work.

I’ve participated in groups in every category, two that served wine and food, one that adjourned for a meal after every session, one that never served anything edible and didn’t expect anyone to bring anything edible, and one that felt like a picnic. But all of them included writers who were dead serious about their work, who listened attentively and thoughtfully, and contributed what they could, and many who went on to publish books and stories and articles.

Even if some of the earlier groups I participated in seem a little frivolous or disorganized when I look back on them, it is clear to me that I learned from the others in the group, drew inspiration from them, and kept going because they were there every week or every month encouraging me. You can’t ask for more than that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writers' Groups, Part I

Writers’ Groups, Part 1

Earlier this week I visited a writers’ group I used to participate in regularly. The group meets weekly in the home of a fellow writer, and we observe certain rituals and practices developed tacitly in the first few weeks. This is the seventh group I’ve participated in since about 1990, which suggests a certain fickleness on my part.

Writers’ groups differ according to the personalities and needs of the members. Because most of the groups I’ve been in have been dominated by women, there is always the danger that we’ll become a support group rather than a critique group, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The first group I joined met in someone’s backyard in early August and comprised a mix of writers—fiction and nonfiction, new and well established. We had no plan, no format, no sense of where we were going, and as I listened to the others talk about what they wanted to accomplish I felt somewhat lost. I had no idea where I was going. I left and joined another group that focused on writing fiction, where I remained until it was disbanded one evening. During the several years I attended, we arrived at five o’clock, sometimes with coffee and something to nibble on but always with something to read. We were serious business. Only on special occasions did anyone bring food to share with the group, as a form of celebration.

After the group ended, two members got together and restarted it but I never rejoined, though I remained friends with many of the members. Instead I joined a group an hour’s drive away, and on the way to my first meeting was hit by a car, whose front end was demolished. It was raining and windy, and the driver was a young man on his way to a job interview. I wince when I think about it—he was unfailingly polite and heart-sick. His front end would cost him at least a couple thousand dollars to repair. I still think of him and his car. That too was a mixed group and all business—no food, no chitchat.

For many years I gave up on groups until someone persuaded me to try one in the next town but one. I did, and they were interesting but very unfocused, and one member asked me if I’d be interested in running for public office. I have no idea why except that she was political and I could write. I quit and drifted into another group with two men and two other women, who seemed to want a counterweight. Each meeting ended with a jointly prepared meal—a unique perk. My participation in that group lasted for a few months and I drifted off again. The last group I was in has been reconstituted at least once and its original members have dispersed throughout the country. This group had its own rituals—wine and munchies and catching up for the first half hour.

Most of the members of these groups have gone on to have some success in publishing. I come across their names on title pages of books, magazine articles, short stories. The title often brings back a discussion about a particularly knotty passage or challenging research, and I’m glad to see the writer made it through to the end.

Each group has been different, but they all had the same purpose—to give each of us the kind of moral support we need to get over the hump of our own self-doubts and excessive modesty. There is, after all, something arrogant about thinking that I have something to say and the rest of the world should hear it. That kind of thinking goes against all my socialization and upbringing. But the drive to write, to get it down on paper, to push it out into the world is stronger than any brainwashing or training. So my books are out there, in part thanks to the many writers who have listened thoughtfully to my work and offered comments and suggestions, but most of all thanks to the tacit support and approval for the mere act of doing the work.