Yesterday, my writing group broke up. C. is traveling much more than before; C2. is more active in church life; P. finds more support for her poetry writing in another writing group — she’d continue but is not left stranded; M. is disappointed at the rejection of a memoir which we had been discussing, M.’s wife, B., is happy we won’t be coming to her apartment any more. She had written some witty things, but health issues have intervened, or maybe sharing her personal trials and views was too much for her. Several years ago M2. died. That leaves me. I am writing my next book and need a writing group for support, critique, and camaraderie.
Writing anything without the benefit of other sets of eyes is almost never done. Things which are familiar to you are not familiar to others, and since keeping your reader aware of what time it is, and who is where, it is critical that you pass your work around a bit so you can test whether you have given enough information to the reader. You may think you are making one point, but your readers will tell you that you are making another. A guideline suggested by Writer’s Relief is that if three different people perceive that same defect in your work, or if it is rejected three times, you had better go back and do some more work.
In my first efforts to find other minds to read my work, I came across two unsatisfactory kinds of reader: 1) “This should be a comma, not a semicolon,” and 2) “I like it” readers. Since writing is hard work, and since finishing work by the deadline of one of our meetings is sometimes stressful, there must be a seriousness of purpose about a writing group, which suggests a certain level of experience with writing and editing. For me, somebody who “has an interesting story and has been thinking about writing a book” is not the right person. That person does not understand how difficult it is and is not committed enough to the process. Theoretically, having someone who was only a reader but did not bring work for review would be okay, but that person has nothing on the line, so the confidentiality and the struggle does not mean the same thing to him or her. It was common in my group to bring in old work if no significant progress had been made in time for the meeting. Discussing old work is also interesting; it provides a measuring stick to compare your present work with.
The issue of hosting is a problem. We have been meeting at M. and B.’s apartment for several years because B. hasn’t been getting around well since her health problems began. So M. has to rustle up some cookies, cheese, crackers, fruit, and coffee/tea for us. From time to time I felt bad about that, but, as she pointed out, “you’ve traveled all this way to get here. I don’t have to leave home.” So you can measure up the quid pro quo and decide whether to have revolving meeting places, or meet in a church or school which one of you is a member of, meet in a hospitable cafe, or share the hosting in other ways.
It is, however, important that the host welcomes you. At our exit meeting yesterday, we all reflected on what we had gained from meeting all these years. When it came to B., M.’s wife, she said “It’s been an…….a learning experience. It’s been…informative. Um. It’s been interesting hearing you read your work and comment on it and spew out whatever else.”
“B., could you change the verb from ‘spew’ to something else?” I teased.
“You know me. I say what I mean.”
I don’t want to visit her house again. I would not feel safe expressing the sensitive intimacy of writing in a place with those vibrations bouncing off the walls. Of course you have to put up with the conditions of your meeting; the talk about the host’s cats, and maybe it’s a little difficult to get there. But disdain does not belong in a writing group.
We know how bad first drafts are. We know how you forget to tell the reader how such and such a character (or you) felt about something that happens in the story. We know that the fact that something “actually happened” doesn’t make it an affecting part of your story. We know how it feels to be rejected by agents, theatre groups, publishers, and friends. We know the risks you run being a writer — you might grievously offend people with your truth, for example. We know we have to be gentle with each other because draft after draft a beautiful thing can be wrought from a lousy first draft. If somebody wants to snark off on something you’re working on, your forward progress can be stunted, shifted, and the final product compromised. We have to let each other be.
The camaraderie is important for several reasons. Some catchup on our lives and a couple of cookies and tea is a way to ease into our work. Learning about each other’s history and family problems can help with the story — maybe you see a connection between something that happened and the point that the writer is trying to make. You can loosen up each others’ brains and hearts as they go deep. A friend of C.’s was the caretaker for a dear friend dying of cancer, and for several months she didn’t have the energy or time to work on her stories, but she still came to the meetings because nobody knew as much as we did about what she was going through, and it kept her writing aspirations alive.
Writing groups are not only desirable; they are indispensable. Maybe you have a professional editor who can serve the same purpose, but that’s only one mind. It’s better to have more than one. The 2014 National Book Award winner, Phil Klay, has two and a half pages of Acknowledgments at the end of his book, Redeployment. Some of his thanks went to other authors who wrote books about war before him and informed his own writing, but most of it is people who shared the process of getting this book together. They helped him know what to leave out and what to add, how to keep the voice of the writer consistent, where he was boring or unclear, and what was funny. Nobody gets to the end of a book without a lot of help.