I made the transition from working 40+ hours a week as an executive manager in a public agency to becoming a full-time writer and graduate student over a period of several years.
At one point during this transition, I was participating in three separate writing groups.
Now I am frequently asked, “Were all those writing groups helpful?”
Yes. That’s the short answer.
The longer one is that a “writing group” can be a lot of different things. And “helpful” can apply to more than just writing ability.
For a group to be helpful, the participant (me, at the time) should know what they need.
I needed to be around other people interested in writing. Most of my friends at the time weren’t writers.
I needed a reality check–not about how good or bad I was as a writer because that’s not something you’ll get out of a writing group–I needed to hear that other people struggled with the insecurities and fear implicit in the creative process. That I wasn’t alone and shouldn’t give up.
I’m not saying everyone needs theses things. I’m saying that’s what I needed.
I first joined a free community writing group at my local bookstore, Orca Books. That was a fabulous experience. A woman named Sarah ran the group, leading us in freewriting exercises and moderating small group writing workshops. The group was about supporting each other, learning to give and receive feedback, and generating new writing. About 15-20 people usually attended.
We used the “Wow and I Wonder” method of giving feedback. Participants could say things like, “Wow, loved that cat metaphor” or “Wow, the story line was unique” or “I wonder what would happen if the girl actually found her mother” or “I wonder what the author meant by the last sentence.” Discussions rarely got heated; writer’s got the opportunity to hear reader-responses. Very supportive, but there are limits to the usefulness of this sort of feedback.
After a attending a few of these monthly sessions with two of my new writing friends, Suzanne and Josie, we decided to start our own group. A few more joined us and Off-Point Writers was born. A local business owner allowed us to meet after hours in a conference room, so we began meeting every other week in the evenings. We brought copies of no more than seven pages of our work, which we would each read aloud and silently listen to the group discuss the work. Feedback ranged from mechanics to story, from character word choice. Discussions could get a bit heated, but generally stayed upbeat. We agreed we were there to support each other.
Off-Point Writers began two years ago and after a series of membership changes, I became the de facto leader. The needs of the group changed, and I began bringing more writing exercises, books to share, discussion topics, guest speakers–you get the idea. For anyone who has teaching aspirations, this is a perfect way to get experience. Because I now prepare and run the group like a hybrid class and workshop, we’ve gone to meeting just once a month.
Towards the end of the first year of Off-Point Writers, an amazing thing happened. A fellow group member suggested I attend an upcoming Hedgebrook writing salon. We went together and as a result of attending, I was awarded a sort of scholarship to attend a week-long workshop with an established writer. Both events inspired me, gave me confidence, and had a profound overall impact on my writing life.
During my transition, I was contemplating graduate school. I’ll write about that experience in another blog, but here it’s important to share that my writing group gave me feedback on my application, supported me through the process, and celebrated with me when I got in.
The third writing group I attended overlapped the other two by only a few months. I soon realized I needed a group of writers who were pursuing the writing life seriously and with unstoppable vigor. One of the amazing people who attended Off-Point was a woman named Dawn. She already had her MFA in creative writing and was as tenacious as me (or more) about writing. She’d started a reading series in town called Gray Skies Reading Series and wanted to start a small writing group wherein we could share longer, more personal work and receive honest, critical feedback.
Hotchix was born. We are a group of five women who read and write. A lot. We send about 20 pages of our work in advance via email to each other then meet monthly for 4-6 hours of intense discussion. I heart these ladies like crazy.
I almost never attend the community writing group at Orca Books anymore, but I still stop in to buy books. I used to enjoy petting Henry, the cat, during my visits, too, but he passed away last month. RIP Henry. Loved that cat.
So, again, yes. Writing groups are helpful. For so many things like support, community, information, learning, growth, challenge, friendship and so much more. But do they make you a better writer? Hmm. Not directly. I mean, writing groups can help you become a better person if you let yourself participate fully and be challenged. To share your writing, take in the feedback, really listen to others, read other people’s writing, and learn to give more helpful feedback.
I would never say a writer NEEDS to be in a writing group.
But I would say that the things I’ve captured here impacted (and continue to impact) my own writing life. In the best of ways.