The journey of finding a supportive and productive writing group came up in my Artist Salon Seminar last week. Many of the ladies present were either trying to find a writing group or they were looking for a new group. I thought about how lucky I am that I’m in a wonderful group that pushes me to be the best writer I can be. My fellow members also offer me support, market suggestions for my work and always contribute detailed and focused critiques. We also listen to each other when we need a sympathetic ear (usually not writing-related). However, it took me a while to find my group.
We hear a lot of talk about writing groups being like marriages, and it's true! It's very important to find a good fit with the folks with whom you share your writing, your thoughts, your concerns, and a lot of your life with. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the writer from her work; it’s going to happen that your writing group may turn into a therapy session, and that's occasionally OK. But, if you do this with the wrong group, and/or the energy level is different from yours, then watch out. You may need to move on and find a different group.
Six years ago, I met with my first writing group. I was very new to writing then and was inspired by the NC Writers' Network Conference in Wilmington to find fellow writers. Well, one woman approached me from a historical fiction workshop -- Meagan -- and then she connected me with Sandy, who was completing her second novel. Meagan was writing a memoir on her coming of age which involved a lot of abuse, both physical and mental. And me? I was working on a short story (really creative nonfiction) about a young woman who reconnects with an old flame, who is also dating her sister. Then all three of them get stuck in the sister's apartment during a hurricane which hits Charleston. I thought it was good…at the time.Meagan, Sandy and I all exchanged numbers, e-mails and manuscripts and before long, we met at Meagan's house.
I was a little late because my husband stopped at the gym first and I had brought cookies. I remember Sandy saying, "I don't eat sugar." I never got good vibes on her after that. We didn't talk much about my work (we focused more on Meagan's), but they both gave me suggestions (Sandy wrote all of hers in red ink. Lots of red ink).The next time we met was at my place on a January Saturday at 11:30. My son Daniel was just starting to walk (he was 16 months) and I knew that once everyone got settled, D-boy would go down for his nap at 12:30. In the meantime, I would put on his "Little People" video while Keith was out grocery shopping and got in his workout. I even served Panera bagels. First, Meagan showed up, a little lost, and then Sandy came in with a Hardees bag. The first thing out of her mouth was, "You didn't tell me you were bringing bagels!" Sorry, maybe read your e-mail next time and don’t insult your host for trying.
My short story was first and it was ripped apart before we even got to the 2nd page. Sandy didn't like how I used brand names to describe tea ("Celestial Seasonings") and told me that I write "like Danielle Steele." Then Meagan chimed in with "you write about rich people too much -- show some diversity." I don't remember hearing a single positive comment. Was this how a writing group was supposed to work?
Then we discussed Sandy's story about a talk show host who picks up empathy and starts acting nice. It was good, but the tone was very angry and sarcastic. Meagan's piece was fine, except Sandy quibbled with Meagan till the end of our time about how the speaker would not have folded her clothes that neatly. Meagan responded that she as a troubled young girl was seeking some order in her life. Sandy didn't buy it.Three and 1/2 hours later, Sandy and Meagan left, just as Daniel woke up from his nap. I felt worn out and a little depressed. I recall not looking over Sandy's notes on my story for about a year.
Later that night, Sandy cc'ed me on Meagan's e-mail telling her that she found my home to hold too many distractions for a writing group. I think the "Little People" played for 15 minutes with Daniel being very quiet and Keith's coming in and out for 2 seconds bothered her. I was furious! I expressed my concerns to Meagan, who didn't respond to them, but later one she e-mailed Sandy to tell her she disagreed with her comments.
I never heard from those two ladies again and it took me a positive critique from Greensboro novelist Quinn Dalton at the 2004 NCWN Spring Conference at Peace College to give me some much-needed confidence. A bad group can do that to you, especially to a new writer.
My advice is this: don't jump into a writing group. Get to know the members as people before you meet and then see if your styles and goals are compatible. See if you share a similar sense of humor and see if they are as smart as you or smarter. If not, run for the door. Your writing and your self-esteem deserve better. Also, gauge their level of writing. I was at a lower level than both Sandy and Meagan (at the time), so we were never going to match. Like finding a tennis partner, find a group that writes at your level or better.
I hope you find your way to the writing group that inspires you and makes you feel great every time you see them.
Now tell me about your writing group experiences -- good and bad!