As a writer these twenty or so years, I’ve been in a lot of writing groups. From Moraine Valley community college courses to Illinois State ENG 300 senior courses, from hanging with herds of artsy nerds at libraries and coffee shops on the west side to meeting with nervous and passionate would-be writers at the college-alt classes I took at Story Studio on the north side, I’ve collected here all of my wisdom to tell you about the three elements that make up a great writing group–guts, head, and heart.
It’s our guts that first told us to pick up a book. Maybe the cover interested us, maybe the title, maybe simply the need to not be in the physical world we were in at that moment (being young, awkward, odd, introverted, and dreamy overthinkers, we began our art by rejecting our current world), but there was something special in it. And so we picked it up, opened to a page, and was suddenly taken away to another world. This began with the gut, and it’s only after we committed to the words and the writer behind them that we fell in lust and in love through the head and the heart.
The same is said for first meeting your potential writing group. It must feel right to you. There’s always a bit of a pecking order to groups, like starting a new job, and so it may seem they are cold at first. Give it time. Every one of them will give you as much time and effort as you’ve given them. It also helps to know why you are looking for a group to begin with. For me it changed. At first, I wanted to be liked, then I wanted every one to applaud me. Then, finally this past year, I wished to get an set of outside eyes, but most importantly, came to realize that I needed to find a tribe of like-minded individuals who share my predilection for talking long about literature theory, genre, the life of writing, books and stories, and all of its war stories. ‘Find your freaks’, a friend once suggested to me. And that’s what I did. So when looking for a good group, trust your gut.
Once you join, the gut is essential within the confines of critiquing. One night at my writer’s group, we were critiquing a young woman’s story. Between positive comments on language and more constructive comments on plot, one of the things that we felt didn’t fit was a minor character named Bill. In the short story, Bill had been killed off almost as soon as he was introduced, and he wasn’t just evil, he was lecherous and disgusting. By all accounts, evil is punished, and it should’ve worked. But it didn’t. Our guts told us something was wrong.
And so it went around the table, every writer trying to pin down what was wrong with Bill–“He seems two dimensional”, “He feels like a trope”, “I understand we are meant to hate him, but it seems too much”, “Cut that line about him torturing insects. You’re putting too much emphasis on vilifying him”. It was only afterwards that the writer herself admitted to pumping up the character’s evil qualities just hours before the submission in order to justify his inevitable death. Writers know.
Put another way, a great writing group is a tribe of soothsayers: since they will always be unable to truly see your story, they can only tell you where the air is fair and where it turns fowl. The key word here is “where”. A bad writer’s group–one made up of people who either just want to show off their work and not critique honestly or just want to be everyone’s friend–won’t know where your story goes wrong and will only deal in vague comments, using swaths of positivity or examples of the beauty of your phrases.
Beware if you are in a group where all they talk about is how beautiful your words are. EVERYONE’S lines are beautiful once in a while. Remember, writers began as readers, and so we learned to be writers with its first and easiest lesson–its words. The more challenging and rewarding trials of learning literature is through characterization, tone, pace, and a dozen other things, and these come with patience, time, practice, and perseverance through countless failures. Yes, beautiful sentences are cool, but if that’s all you want to do as a writer, write blurbs. Not even poetry deals in just beautiful lines.
And speaking of craft, we come to the second element of a good writing group, which deals in the realm of the mind. But since coming to the subject of craft will eventually split us up into either the fossilized terms of either character-based fiction (literary fiction) and story-based fiction (genre), let me squash this by saying that it doesn’t matter what you write, you need both.
David Foster Wallace in a ’96 Salon interview:
“The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.”
A hybrid of literary genre, in other words. Literary agent and craft book author Donald Maass speaks of this very same balance almost twenty-three years later in his book, Writing 21st Century Fiction:
“For me, where genre ends and literature begins doesn’t matter. What matters is whether a given novel hits me with high impact…It both entertains and matters.”
Whatever you write, it needs to have conflict, stakes, and tension as well as a rich inner emotional and psychological character, written in a rich style and language. You don’t have to get all three but you must pursue all of them to your best. Whatever you write, in the end it must come down to whether or not your stories are important to you, whether they are honest and vulnerable, and whether they connect in a meaningful yet entertaining way. A great writing group should have a balance of craft and literature.
That being said, if your group is good, they will have a lot to say about your story. Their gut will tell them where your story went wrong and their heads will give them the terms and words and examples to back it up. You don’t need professors here. The group I’m currently in has a great mix of professionals, students, thinkers, philosophers, artists, and neophytes.
I used the term ‘outside eyes’ for one of the reasons why I pursued a writers group, and it’s only after being in a group for about a year that I see that this element of a group is essential to making you a better writer (and a more social human being, something all of us writers could be more of). Michael Chabon once said that the author is trapped inside their work like it’s this large ship which they can’t see outside of, and so we need people to tell us whether the rudder is crooked, where we need to build more of the bow there, and where that smokestack is crooked and so on.
Head is where your group can be most helpful because the comments are so concrete. Some may go into intellectual theory of how writing should be, some may get a bit impatient with it as a whole, others will talk more on where your story lacks emotion, others still may comment on dialogue. One may even be nasty sounding. Breathe and understand that literature evokes a lot of different responses from a lot of different people, and that the best thing you can get from a group are nothing but critiques, commending as well as (if not more importantly) constructive. Craft is more the science of a story, and if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It works for you because you see it in your head, it just doesn’t get on the paper. (Welcome to the life-long struggle of the writer.)
This is a dizzying experience if you’re not ready for it. Very much we expect to be the dog with its belly in the air, waiting for lots of petting and ‘Atta Girls’ and ‘Atta Boys’, when really it seems more like a trip to the veterinarian, with a lot of poking and prodding.
Again, you’ll rely on your gut for the handling of their critiques at first but then, I promise you, once you see it for the helpful information it is, you’ll agree with it. If it’s a great group, they knew what they were talking about.
Give advice and comments and suggestions as honestly as you would have them give honestly, without malice or pollyanna niceties, and they’ll respect you. You don’t have to like everyone, but you can respect where they’re coming from. Some of the best critics in your group will be the ones that fly (sometimes actively) in the face of typical group dynamics to not ‘play nice’ and to give you your ‘medicine’, and you should appreciate them for this, since, in this day and age, the vulnerable gazelles of our opinions seem to be in constant danger of being attacked and eaten by the pride of trolls, monsters, mean people, and crusaders.
However, there is a fine line. Beware of the negative person in the group that does not offer support along with his comments and who is just being nasty, like a bully squashing sandwiches at lunchtime. Their presence either means they are new and won’t last long if the group has integrity or that the group itself is letting a bully off the leash and is either lazy or scared of them. Leave this group if he or she stays. A writer’s group is also about support, which leads me to the last thing a good writing group should have.
Writers have a wonderful knack for picking up on each other’s shortcomings for the very fact that they themselves are guilty of them. Try all we might, we can never hide who we are to a reader, much less to a room full of writers, and so to submit is to be submissive, in one of its most potent and fearful forms. A great group understands this and sympathizes. Your efforts should be applauded, and your boldness and your art should be noted. All of my ego and laziness and fears ooze out of every crevice of every sentence I write, and I’m thankful that through it all, my group understands this because they experience this same phenomenon as well.
You should embrace this fear if what you’re submitting is your best and done with the best of intentions. Nothing is ruder than a lazy, egotistical, or malicious writer, and writing groups aren’t there to baby you, coddle you, or put up with you. Respect is in order. This again goes back to you asking yourself what your purpose in attending a writing groups. You are not dealing in just stories but in vulnerabilities, in emotions, and in hard fucking work done by hard-working fucking people. Please remember this.
If you are sincere and passionate and want to learn, give us whatever you got. Your confusing plot or grammar mistakes or lazy language or vague descriptions or boring story will always be (and should always be) handled with the care and patience that drafts should be handled with. A writing group has the heart to know that we each strive every day. Alan Watts once said that an acorn should not be hated for not being a tree. We are all living through different stages of development, and a good group understands this. We can all publish if we help each other.
To know that someone besides ourselves is doubtful about whether they are a true writer is such a humbling and wonderful feeling. To know that other writers took years and years to write their unpublished novels and that they too are starting from scratch with that same limping desire to create cannot be experienced in any other way but through the trading of war stories. To know a young writer humbles us of our own long journey, to know an old writer gives us a model to strive for. To know that they too are depressed, struggling, vulnerable, scared, psyched, passionate, and weird can only be validated by sitting down to speak our hearts and heads and guts off.
To continue the dog metaphor from earlier, you’re a pup going to the dog park–running around with other dogs, barking, sniffing each other, playing.
Most importantly, maybe to not even know each other but to know of each other; to have the physical evidence that, yes, there are freaks and weirdos and odd fellows who read alone at restaurants, who spend hours and hours by themselves while the rest of the world is out in the sun, and who not only want but desire to be a writer; and finally to meet people who’ve gone against the grain of modern-day society, not out of pride or hate or rebellion but out of love. Great writing groups are a band of brothers and sisters who gain strength and motivation and momentum and hope from being around each other.
One day after a rousing critique, I grabbed my pint of beer and sat down and introduced myself to a fellow writer of mine. After minutes of talking about the stories we critiqued and the process and theory and what we were reading and all that, he spoke of the process.
“Because in the end, it’s just you. This group isn’t going to help you, no one can. Only you can. Only you know what you need to do.”
“Just you and the blank page,” I told him. He nodded and smiled, painfully so.
In the end, writing groups won’t give you answers. No one will. And no, you don’t need a writing group. For the longest time, I went about my writing business without one. But I’m so very glad I took a chance and found mine because they’re helping me. And we can use all the help we can get, right?
These men and women are there to provide you with outside eyes, with help. Not every one of them will be right. When everyone’s a stranger and you’re the newbie, you’ll want to listen and even change every thing about your story just to fit in or be liked. This is natural. Keep going and you’ll find out who gets you and who doesn’t. And that’s okay that they don’t. When you start talking shop with them, you’ll realize that they don’t really know what they’re doing either, no matter how many terms they use. We’re all green. Soon, you’ll gravitate to a few and maybe even become friends. Then the real bonding can begin, and you can drop your egos long enough to talk about what’s real to you both–the yin-yang of solitude and loneliness, the pressures and wretched reality of ‘the biz’, the opportunity to reach hundreds or even millions of other like-minded people, the beautiful moments when you get a phrase or word right and the terrifying moments when you can’t write at all.
I’m telling you, there’s nothing like ‘clocking out’ from your group, sitting next to a buddy, and asking them, “So how’s it going?” It’s a question that will lead to a conversation that, if you become great friends, will last a lifetime. It’s such an innocent question, one that begins with such a concrete answer but ends up developing into the fabric of our own meaning as artistic beings:
Full David Foster Wallace interview here
Check out Donald Maass’s book Writing 21st Century Fiction here