Until December, when Dave and I moved to California, my writer’s group met every month. When Holly, Virginia, Elisabeth, and I are together, the energy is palpable, an electric zing in the air, as we think and argue and flesh stories out.
In our six years as a group, we Ladies-in-Writing, as we call ourselves, have produced a memoir, A Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, and two novels – Save Your Own, and In Leah’s Wake – along with countless newspaper and magazine articles. Today, Holly and Virginia are preparing to send new novels to their agents, Elisabeth is polishing her latest novel, a thriller, and, Nowhere to Run, my novel-in-progress, is taking shape.
One reason for the group’s success, besides the fact that we genuinely like one another, is our diversity. While we’re all middle-aged moms, we’re also all very different. Holly, a magazine writer, offers humor, energy and topical insight, Elisabeth, a professor with a Ph.D. in literature, pushes us to polish our prose, and Virginia, a former acquisitions editor at Harper Collins, brings a keen editorial eye.
This dynamic atmosphere works for us.
I miss my ladies in writing. Yet I know, as surely as I know anything in my writing life, that when we gather this spring or early summer, the electricity will be there. We’ll share our family and writing stories, we’ll laugh, we’ll think, pushing ourselves and each other, we’ll argue, teasing the gold out of the piece we’re discussing – and we’ll be better, stronger writers for it.
Here are 6 reasons why I believe all writers need a supportive workshop.
Let’s face it: writing is a lonely profession. Office workers, while they may not always love or even like their coworkers, have company. They have other people to talk to and commiserate with. Constitutionally, writers may be loners; this doesn’t mean we don’t feel alienated. A group provides companionship – in just the right dose. My group shares tips, ideas, industry notes. We may not see each other every day, but knowing that the others are available – I can email or, if I need to hear a friendly voice, I can pick up the phone – warms my heart, makes me feel less alone.
No matter how sharp your editorial skills, it’s nearly impossible to edit yourself. After a while, we – both experienced and emerging writers – stop seeing mistakes. We skim over boring passages, miss obvious logical leaps. We know our intent, we’ve read and reread the manuscript, and we assume that readers, who can’t read our mind, will make the same connections, come to the same conclusions.
Some writers receive detailed comments from an agent or editor. If you fall into that category, I hope you count your blessings. The majority of writers don’t have that luxury. Family and friends may try to help, but are often too close. Maybe they don’t possess the critical skills, or maybe they see mistakes and hold back, not wanting to hurt us. Either way, such critique may make us feel great, but it doesn’t really help.
A good group, assuming that the members are supportive and take the time to offer in-depth critique, can provide the honest feedback that keeps us on the right track.
Working alone, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at our work from our own single-minded perspective. In my experience, the most helpful groups provide diversity. The differences could be cultural, racial, ethnic, or gender. The women in my group, though culturally similar, have had unique work and career experiences.
Because we all approach our critique from different perspectives, we tend to see different things – both positive and negative – in the manuscript under discussion. We compare notes, argue our positions, and bounce ideas around. These exhilarating discussions result in rich new possibilities. We don’t – and shouldn’t – incorporate every suggestion into our work, but the workshop opens our mind.
Workshops are one of the best ways for a writer to hone his or her critical skills. Critiquing the work of others forces us to analyze the writing and articulate the reasons a piece is or isn’t working. As we become better critics, we sharpen our own craft techniques, and, inevitably, we become better writers.
When I say this early in a semester, I usually manage to raise a few eyebrows. As the semester progresses, and students develop the clear analytical language necessary to provide an articulate critique, they see growth in their own writing. I’ve watched students with absolutely no experience blossom into wonderful writers and editors – almost always as a result of the workshop.
This, again, is true for both emerging and experienced writers, and even published authors. An experienced writer may understand craft and know intuitively what works and what doesn’t, and yet be unable to articulate the precise reasons for her instincts, preferences or choices. The women in my group are all well educated and each a wonderful writer before we formed our group, yet we’ve all grown as a result of the workshop – partly because we push one another and partly from our critique.
Nothing like friendly competition to push us to new heights, the key word being friendly. Harsh competitive groups can tear a sensitive writer to shreds. Friendly competition in safe, supportive atmosphere, where the writers truly care about and want the best for each other, can push us to work harder, reach higher.
Writing is tough, and rife with rejection. Rejection, the first, the fifteenth, or the millionth, eats at your soul. We may eventually learn to live with the reality of rejection, shrug it off, but I don’t know any writer who’s learned to ignore it. No one, however well intentioned or loving, understands this as well or as deeply as another writer.
It doesn’t matter what form it comes in – an email, a phone call, a suggestion that we drown our sorrows in chocolate – that someone understands and cares makes all the difference. Our support group encourages us, and helps us deal with rejection and disappointment, so we can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and face another day at our computer.
And our group cheers us on when we succeed. This, in my view, is the best reason for joining a group.
Has your experience of writing groups been positive?
Why or why not?
- Suzanne Purvis – Passions and Pursuits: Validation For the Process