Thursday, January 5, 2012

What's It For?



Hello Dear Readers,

So far, 2012 hasn't started off on the brightest, shiniest note. A friend just left our writing group. In a group of ten or more, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but we're small...five people, to be exact, and one of those doesn't even live in the city anymore. Now we're down to four, three of whom can actually attend the meetings. To make matters worse, one of the reasons I began this group in the first place was to spend more time with this friend, who has a great attitude about life and is a stellar human being. Sure, I love his writing, but his contributions as a person are much more important to me.

He left for his own reasons, and I get it. When you're not writing, you're constantly guilty about not writing, and the last thing you need is to sit around with a group of other writers and hear about how they're all-so-busy with their many projects. Sometimes it can guilt you into getting your butt in gear, but not always. A lot of times, it just makes you feel like a loser.

I wonder why so few writers talk publicly about how difficult it is when you're not writing. Surely we've all been through periods like this, and yet, it seems no one wants to admit it. Instead we're bombarded with stupid quotes like, "Writers write. Period." Yeah? Well, sometimes they don't. Sometimes (unless you're already making the big bucks as a full-time novelist, and if that's the case, bully for you) life gets in the way. And, in my opinion, this doesn't make you any less a writer. Say you're a runner. If you take a year off because of an injury or a death in your family or a stressful situation, no one says, "Oh, there's Karen. She used to be a runner." No, Karen is a runner who is taking some time off. Why doesn't the same go for writing? I don't know of another art form where people are so focused (and judgmental) about output. I blame things like NaNoWRiMo for this. Sure, it's a great idea in theory, but to my thinking, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to the written word. Is it really so important that you wrote 500,000 words if 488,000 of them are crap? The best writing involves a lot of thinking. So what if you're not pounding out chapter after chapter? Just tell your nosy writing buddies that you're in the thinking stage. It has its place, and it does have merit.

But back to the idea of writing groups. I've always had my struggles with them, and I've yet to be a member of one that really worked for me. My first writing group was composed of myself and two like-minded friends. None of us were writing, and all of us wanted to be. We hoped that the group would be our impetus. It was for one of us, but the other two languished, feeling guiltier and guiltier while our friend churned out (very well-crafted) pages. The second writing group was more inclusive. Anyone who wanted to be a member could be, and there was no pressure to write or to read your work aloud. Sounds perfect, right? It could be--when the work being read was interesting, and the person reading it was a good narrator. When those factors were missing, it was purgatory. And although there was supposed to be a time limit, no one stuck to it, and let me tell you--listening to fifteen minutes of a ho-hum novel being read in a monotone is not inspiring.

You were also at the mercy of anyone who showed up during the evenings you planned to read. Those who critiqued tended to fall into two groups: people who loved everything, because they were very nice and trying to be helpful, and people who wanted to sharpen their claws on everyone else's work. While I did meet some good critique partners at this group, they were far from the norm.

My latest writing group has yet to hit its stride, or figure out what it wants to be. In the beginning, I envisioned a place where people could talk about the writing life and its challenges--including how to deal with the times when you just can't write, for whatever reason. I didn't want us to be held hostage while everyone read twenty pages aloud, and we're probably too busy to read each other's finished works. But I don't know...I could be wrong about that, and I will ask at the next meeting.

At this point, I'm not sure what writing groups are supposed to achieve for their members, or what the best structure is. The one thing I can take away from every experience I've had is the wonderful writing friends I've met, and how good it feels to meet kindred souls who completely get where you're coming from. To me, that's been the best part.

What's been your experience with writing groups? What has worked the best for you? Have writing groups improved your writing, or inspired you to create during a non-productive time?

10 comments:

  1. Holli - thanks for sharing this post. Although it has not made me want to start or seek out a writing group, although I would love to have a couple of writers that would help each other be accountable for our writing, share critiques and show support. I think being rural makes it hard to be a part of a writing group...but if there was one that worked I'd make the effort to attend. It's a strange thing...

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  2. Thanks for your comment, MM. Weren't you part of the group at Whodunit? How did that work for you?

    I agree that being rural does make it tough. I have a friend in the Maritimes who has the same problem, but there's plenty of fantastic online groups out there. Not the same as face to face, but often a lot more convenient.

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  3. Interesting hearing about the different types of groups you've been in and the successes and short-comings of each different style. I especially like how the observation of polarized opinion among people in your previous group being over-the-top positive because they're nice people or looking at it as a chance to "sharpen their claws."

    My previous writing groups were not so much groups as they were short-term gatherings. We were all working on writing projects but had a finite time to do it. There was a time limit for reading, but also a time limit for dissecting one another's work. Sometimes when creative and literary minds get together, the comment sessions can turn into one-uppers on each other to see who can analyze their peers work to the most minute detail and wind up sounding the smartest.

    I too am a believer that even when a writer is not writing it can still contribute to their work. When you're reading other stories, overhear conversations of a stranger in the grocery line, or learn a new fact or interesting tidbit online, these can all be part of the writing process. Downtime, procrastination, fits of writing and not writing area all part of what it is to be a writer, and I think a writing group should be exploring the process of writing as much as they should be analyzing each other's work.

    -Drew

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  4. I am not a writer and have never been in a writing group so I probably have no business commenting, but as I read your post I thought about offering some suggestions. Would the option to bring a great piece of someone else's writing be acceptable? Even if you didn't write it, I would think that a great or inspiring piece of writing could spark something in another writer or even yourself. This way you feel like you are still contributing in a positive way.

    Also what about setting criteria for giving feedback. When I was a teacher, I would ask my students what they would like feedback on and then stick to the oreo rule....2 specific things you liked about the writing and then something to consider... I also let them know that even if you think the piece of writing was awesome, they could always offer something for the author to think about and consider.

    Those are my 2 cents. Good luck Holli!

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  5. You've written about this subject before. Over a year ago, I think. I've commented before. I think.

    I think having a community of writers is awesome. I don't know that you always have to read at every meeting. Just the ability to sit and talk with another writer about the "craft" (god I hate that word) is inspiring enough. But you have to be careful about who those people are. I've seen the "gushers" and the ones that will tear a strip off you because they feel you need to hear it. Neither are good strategies. Sometimes all that is good about a work is a single word or phrase. Sometimes the whole thing is good but something is unclear or a better word can be used.

    I have a friend who keeps harassing me about writers groups and thinks I "need" to be in one. He's in two. I used to be in one with him. What I find now is that likely no group could fit my schedule, for one. I also find I am a pretty good self critic. I know when something isn't working. I know my greatest weakness is rambling and wordiness. I often go back into what I wrote and wish I could cut about half of it. But this is months later, not days later. But I know enough writers and enough good readers that I can send something, anything, I wrote to any of them and they'll be a good read and critic.

    I don't really need someone to be a check on my writing. I do need someone to be a check on my ego, every once and a while, though.

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  6. Thanks for your well-written comments, everyone. I appreciate all the feedback, and it was most insightful.

    @ Drew - Glad to hear we're on the same page. I've also had the experience of oneupmanship: a member of a previous group used to compliment other writers with the phrase "It was baroque with an economy of words". Say what? That was so ridiculous that it became an in-joke.

    As much as it is great to have people willing to critique your work, the members of your writer's group aren't always going to be your ideal audience. That's why I think that providing an arena for discussing the writing life is so much more important. Glad to hear you feel the same way.

    @ VYC - There are no writing snobs here! :) I'm glad you felt comfortable contributing your thoughts, because you have excellent suggestions. The structured feedback is a great idea, and at one writer's group meeting I attended, spouses were included. The spouses brought a passage from a novel they loved, and read that aloud--very much like you were suggesting. You are right: there are many ways to contributing to a writer's group, even if you're not actively writing at that time.

    @ Kim - Some topics are worth discussing more than once, in my opinion. I still haven't resolved my feelings on this particular issue, that's for sure.

    I, too, feel like I'm a fair editor of my own work, and I deal with enough external editors in the journalism world to confirm that. Still, as much as we'd like to think we're objective, it's impossible to be completely objective about our own work. Everyone I've shown my writing to--no matter how frustrating or disheartening it was at the time--was able to point out something that ultimately made my work better.

    I do agree, though, that you don't need to be in a formal writer's group to garner that kind of feedback. You are very lucky to have people you can count on to read your work and provide you with what you need. I know published authors who don't have that kind of support.

    A community of supportive fellow writers is invaluable, like you say, if only for the camaraderie. It makes writer's groups worth it, for me. (But it's still extremely difficult to get us all together in one place at the same time, even with such a small group!)

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  7. I've been to exactly one writer's group...and there were only three of us. It was supposed to be 6 but the others who had shown interest apparently decided at the 11th hour to bail. This was our first and only meeting...So I really can't give you much more than that..:))))

    That being said, I think for me being a part of a group that meets every other month would work best for me - it would give me time to produce something of value (in my eyes) yet not so much that I would have a tough time going back to revise/rewrite if necessary. I can see that every second month wouldn't be feasible for those who write much more than I do.

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  8. Hi Holli,
    I liked reading about your writing group experiences and hope that your latest group provides what you need and want as a writer. I too have been involved with a few writing groups- the most important one has lasted for almost two decades. The reason Venus Rising has lasted longer than some of our marriages remains a bit of a mystery, but most likely it has to do with all the members being people who love writing and reading. Some of us don't always write, some definitely write more than others, and some (unfortunately) scarcely write at all, but the intent to do so, remains. Also, because we are quite a large group (8), there is always someone who absolutely gets what you are trying to do with your writing and who can provide you with an insightful critique. And then there's the support! Lots of that too. And food...really good food.... but that's a whole other story....

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  9. I haven't read the other comments, so sorry if I repeat anything. Honestly, I don't like writing groups much. I've been invited to several of them, and I always say no. My reasons? I do not have time, number one, and I used to not have a car. That was always a problem. Plus I have a small child. It's hard to get a sitter for her just for date night, let alone other nights. My hubby is always gone. He's an actor, so he's just not home at night, and his schedule is always fluctuating. So not reliable.

    Anyway, those silly reasons aside, I just don't work well with other writers. I don't churn out work at the same rate as everyone else (I think that's my biggest reason right there).

    I also don't belong to critique groups, which are pretty much the same thing, I guess. They just don't always meet in person. I guess I work best solo, and I guess I see no point in meeting to discuss writing that I feel was a chore to get done at a specific time for others to discuss. Another big reason is that I have a publisher now and I have to get stuff out by certain deadlines, and a lot of that stuff I wouldn't be giving to my writer's group until a certain point. And there are also long periods of time where I'm just doing revisions and edits that would be pointless to take a writer's group. I'm not constantly writing new stuff, so I think that's why a writer's group doesn't appeal to me. Now, if it was a group that actually sat down to discuss the craft of writing and not the writing itself, I would be all over that. Sadly, nobody around here seems interested in that outside of college classrooms. Sometimes I really miss school.

    Not sure if I even helped with your blog post. I feel like I just ranted. Sorry. I hope you figure out where you want to be with your group. I hope this year brings more writing for you. I didn't write at all last year, so don't feel bad.

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  10. Thanks for your comments, ladies. I much appreciate all the different perspectives.

    @ Lisa - Best of luck with your new writer's group! It's always exciting to begin something new, and yes, it is very difficult to get people to commit to anything. I hope it goes well, and inspires you.

    @ Sherry - Thanks for sharing a bit about Venus Rising. I've always looked upon that group as an "ideal"...too bad it's closed to new members! (But then again--maybe that's what keeps it ideal.) Jocelyn and Jane always made it seem like such a lovely source of support (and food, of course). You are very lucky to be part of such a great community.

    @ Michelle - No need to apologize. I'm glad there's someone else out there who has had little luck with writing groups. Your reasons make sense, for sure, especially now that you are published and held accountable by an editor and a publishing company.

    I think writing groups may still have their place as a venue to discuss the challenges and triumphs of the writing life--not necessarily as a place to critique each other's work. Most writers already have people for that, as you pointed out, and I find having a story read aloud is the most ineffective way to get a good editing session out of me. What I've learned from painful experience is that some people read their own work MUCH better than it's written, and the opposite can be true as well.

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