Group Effort

Earlier this summer I listented to an audio book called Hidden Talents, a novel about a rather disparate bunch of people who come together via a little writer's group at a local bookshop.  Over the course of a year or so, not only do they become better writers (one even gets a book published!), but they become fast friends, learning from each other about plot and characterization, but also about life, love, and family relationships. So I've been thinking longingly about a writer's group, wishing I could find such a band of hearty souls with whom to share words and wisdom.  Now, don't be offended - of course all my blogging friends are priceless! But actually meeting face to face with other writers would add an entirely new dimension to the experience. I've never had a writing friend, but I've certainly had lots of musical friends.  Working together creatively to achieve a common goal is exciting and energizing, and I'd really love to bring that dynamic into my writing practice.

So I was quite excited earlier this week when I saw a flyer posted in my favorite local coffee house:

First Cup  Writer's Group, Sunday 2:30 p.m.

Open to all fledgling writers

Bring 2-3 pages of something you're working on to share

We'll also be discussing Elmore Leonard's book, Rules for Writing

Yes! I thought, initially filled with enthusiasm.  I certainly have some pages I could share.  And I love First Cup - my favorite barista, Amy, is a writer, so I assumed she was responsible for starting this group.  Then the doubts set in.  But what if they're all much better than I?  What if they're pompous and sarcastic and nitpicky and mean...

When Sunday afternoon rolled around,  I had talked myself in and out of going about five times.  As I was dithering around the house, my husband wisely suggested I casually head over to First Cup as I often do on a Sunday afternoon, and spy on quietly observe  the group.  

Superb advice.  The "group" turned out to be three teenagers and the "leader," a woman of about 35.  (I overheard someone say that Amy wasn't coming, since she couldn't get a babysitter.)  In the 30 minutes I listened in, the "discussion" was interrupted three times by cell phone calls, and the topics ranged from the troubles of another member who was apparently having a nervous breakdown, problems getting babysitters, the perfect shade of blue for bedroom curtains, and what classes to register for during your first semester at college.  I did hear one member read about two paragraphs of her story, about which no one had any comment. The "leader," with much preparatory disclaiming, proceeded to read a bit of her "work in progress."  However, at just that moment a customer ordered two pounds of coffee beans "ground fine," so the incessant buzz of the grinder put paid to hearing any of this masterpiece.

Needless to say, I came home very glad I hadn't let myself in for any of that, and pleased as punch I had taken my husband's advice and "laid low" for the first meeting.

But the experience started me thinking about what I would want in a "real" writing group, things like these:

  • Size: It should be small - five or six people at most;
  • Rules: There should be definite rules about critique, at least in the beginning.  Comments should be time limited, and only one person talks at a time.  Perhaps a critique form should be followed ~ what works/doesn't work about the selection, what does the reader need to know more about, what details or sentences are particularly effective~rather than just blanket statements;
  • Genre Specific: The group members should be writing the kinds of things they appreciate reading.  I'm not sure if I could be competently critique a science fiction, fantasy, or western writer, because I don't read those genres.

And perhaps the most important question - what do I really want to gain?  Do I want honest feedback from other writers, people who aren't quite editors, but whose realistic and honest opinion could be helpful in honing my work.  Or do I want, as Anne Lamott puts it, to "hang out with all these other people, maybe with another  writer you respect, to get and give response and encouragement, and to hear how other people tell their stories."  (Bird by Bird)

Thinking back to the characters in Hidden Talents, the most appealing thing about their group was the sense of camraderie which developed as they worked at their craft, the relationships which helped them become better writers, that encouraged them to keep working and take pride and satisfaction in the process, not just in whether their work was published.  Having a supportive writing group or partner allows ideas to fly around the room like sparks from a holiday sparkler.  It helps you see things differently.  It helps you keep going when the words start to dry up.  A group something like this one that Lamott describes:

There are four people, three women and one man, who met in one of my classes and who have been meeting as a group for four years.  I see them together in bookstores or cafes, where they sit at tables with wine or coffee and go over each other's work, offer criticism and encouragement, ask questions, and figure out where to go next.  They do not actually edit each other's drafts, but they listen to each other's work and help each other keep at it.

They've gone from being four tense, slightly conceited lonely people who wanted to write to one of those weird little families we fashion out of whoever's around us.  They're very tender with one another.  They still look forward to their meetings after all these years.  They are better writers and better people because of their work with each other.

They are better writers and better people because of their work with each other.  What could be a better goal for a writing group - or any group for that matter? 


How about you? Have you ever belonged to a writer's group? Did it work? Why (or why not?)  What would be your criteria for the perfect writer's group?