Have you heard the one about not sharing your writing with others before it’s ready?
The goal of this post is not to debunk the advice I’ve heard from multiple published authors cautioning up-and-comers against sharing rough work too soon. At the same time, it’s kind of nice to be part of and develop a community of people who maintain similar goals or at least common interests in writing. I like to think family and friends also appreciate a break from your latest character dilemma or plot gap.
Though there are many ways in which I share my writing journey, every other week (beware the use of dramatic license), I unstick my posterior from the desk chair, drag fingers off the keyboard in which they’ve become embedded and make myself reasonably presentable for my local writer’s group.
This particular group began in 2010 as escapees from a larger and (rumor has it) more dictatorial writing group that shall remain nameless. Our fearless leader—a writer who teaches at a local college—formed the group on Meetup.com. I joined about 18 months ago and do my best to attend every session.
On the books, the group has 72 members and grows every week. Regardless, I figure an average of four to eight writers show up on a regular basis in a core, committed group. Genres and levels of expertise run the gamut and we include published and not-yet-published writers.
We do adhere to a few rules… writers are required bring something to read every fourth meeting or so; readings have a time limit; we engage in two rounds of commentary: 1) what we like, 2) “suggestions”; commentary must be constructive, not a dig just so the critic can hear himself speak.
I ♥ My Writing Group
I’ve been heard to call the writing group another form of therapy, most often along the lines of, “I was feeling kind of poorly today and thought I might not come but then I remembered, this is my writing therapy!” That sentiment goes back to the top of the post. It is a group of writers—prose, poetry, young adult, memoir, historical or science fiction, anything goes! It is a group of people who are supportive because they wish to be supported.
At alternate times, I present material that impresses and I present words thrown on the page that deserve rotten fruits and vegetables lobbed in my general direction. I consider material from an author’s point of view that is vastly different from my own. I listen to writing that mesmerizes though it may never see the outside of the library walls. Sometimes I struggle to offer any positive commentary at all. I witness improvement every time.
After this wild and crazy mess of writers closed down the library one night, I lingered to chat with another longtime attendee and a writer whose work and input I greatly admire. True to our ultra-analytic nature, we drifted to the subject of the group itself and the style and authority with which each of us offers our “likes” and “suggestions.” To paraphrase, she said she wished she was more on point with her critiques; I said she consistently impressed me, I felt I always generalized.
As a start, we agreed that each of the writers comment from a variety of backgrounds, education, expertise and preferences. Preferences? For example, I choose not to use my time to copy edit other writers, believing that best left for a professional if and when the author is ready.
We come to the group with different strengths or tendencies to pick out certain writing elements. I said to my friend, “You have an uncanny knack of finding repeat words in people’s writing.” I’ve been told that I often call out when authors neglect the senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, hearing), which is something I learned directly from this writing group.
Finally, we realized that as most of the submissions are read aloud (sometimes with, mostly without, a hard copy accompaniment), the fact that I miss things she may catch and vice-verse is just the nature of mental function. What I miss while I’m making notes on what I just heard and wish to speak on, she’s able to listen to and so on.
I’m Only Human
I will admit to the occasional annoyances. Some of the writing drones on for eternity and, as I’ve said, my internal dialogue becomes a forlorn, “What on earth am I going to say I like about this?” It’s always possible, though I hope not probable, that my contributions drop to such a low, so I persevere and listen for the silver lining.
Sometimes it’s the critic, not the writing, that seems never to end. Despite best efforts, we do get the occasional attendee who just loves the sound of his own voice and believes his suggestions are literary genius. For my own comments, I may have written down nine or 10 things under suggestions but when it comes round to me, I pick out the most important items (say three or four); surely there’s no immediate need for an exhaustive proofread. And fair warning to my fellow group members, my poker face is not well-calibrated to interruptions.
I find most frustrating the one-timers, which is not the most accurate way of describing them. Certainly, a writer needs to “try on” a group. I highly encourage this; I’m trying on two new groups this week! If you don’t feel the group is right for you after a couple of visits then for your own benefit, please find another. I also allow for scheduling conflicts and other obstacles—one of our members spends a portion of his year in another state but our group would be much the sorrier if he stopped attending when in town. The ones I find irksome are perhaps best described as dabblers; those who have no calling to write (either for themselves or for publication, which is really for themselves) but are fiddling with their next hobby or believe that writing is a fast train to fame and fortune.
Good to See You
Last May, Writer’s Digest did a feature on What Makes Writing Groups Work including some spotlights on particular groups. I believe what makes our group “work” is an openness to new perspectives and education about our craft and therefore about ourselves. This is born out of our founder’s dedication to constructive and compassionate critiques but reinforced by open-mindedness. Had we restricted ourselves to certain genres or mediums or levels of advancement in writing, I would have learned less. Sharing our writing is in some ways exposing our most intimate selves to relative strangers we rarely meet outside of the group. It is a brave thing to do and I come home every time energized to write and feeling better about my craft.