Express Yourself

Forget the Idea That Writers Must Write Alone

How to launch a writing group that inspires and motivates you (and your friends)

Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth in words.

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Dear Draft,

Should I join a writing group, or maybe start one?

Signed,
Misery Loves Company

Dear Miz,

Writing groups can go sour in so many ways, you wonder why anyone would join one. If your groupmates start as your BFFs, they might go too easy on your manuscripts. But an overly harsh critique could end a friendship. Then again, how can you submit an essay about your struggle with bulimia or your uncle’s history as a pedophilic priest to a bunch of strangers? What if someone makes overly aggressive comments, repeatedly shows up without having read their groupmates’ work, or attends only when their story is being discussed?

Sadly, the risks of not being in a writers’ group are even more daunting than the dangers of being in one. Without a few comrades cheering you to the finish line, how will you keep slogging away at that memoir? Who will help you make sense of your muddled first drafts? How can you gauge your readers’ responses to your novel if you’ve never tested it on an audience?

The benefit of attending an MFA program is finding a few generous souls who grok your sensibility and help you figure out where your writing is most moving, powerful, and original. These are the peeps who will read your manuscripts for the rest of their lives, even when their spouses, kids, jobs, dogs, cats, and bouts with cancer leave them little time for showering. These are the buddies who will check to make sure you haven’t succumbed to rejection and discouragement, even as you make sure they haven’t given in to their own despair.

Happily, you can create such a posse for yourself. Even the smallest town usually harbors a few serious writers; in most cities, you can find kindred spirits by posting a notice at the bookstore or sending out a plea on social media.

As you organize your group, make sure everyone is at roughly the same stage in their careers; otherwise, the novices might find themselves too intimidated to offer an opinion, while the experienced members end up leading the group and resenting the extra pressure. When I was in my thirties, I was invited to join a workshop that met at the home of a famous writer who had lost his leg helping a stranger at a roadside accident. Even though I was nursing my son and could barely stay awake past 6 p.m., I drove an hour each way to attend those meetings. The famous writer was a talented, charismatic man whose commitment to his art inspired me to commit to mine. I made friendships that still sustain me. And yet, I felt too shy to disagree with anyone, especially those writers who had been published in The New Yorker.

By contrast, the group I formed with four women who, like me, were each working on their first novels, was so helpful that we all completed and published our manuscripts.

Eventually, that group disbanded — as most groups do — and I was invited to the initial meeting of a new one. Unfortunately, one writer took charge and demanded we go around the room and list our publications, allowing her to gauge if we were worthy to critique her work. Squirming in our chairs, we humble-bragged our accomplishments, after which this self-anointed leader asked us to describe the topics we might consider in future sessions. She needed to be sure we would address her own pressing concerns — namely, whether she should hire a full-time nanny or convert her basement into an apartment for the au pair she hoped to import from France.

At the time, most of us were scrambling to pay for babysitters so we could rush from part-time job to part-time job in an attempt to pay our rent, let alone find an hour here or there to write. The silence that descended on that living room was so awkward each of us made our exit without agreeing to meet again.

Happily, you need only two or three other writers with whom you might feel simpatico. Assuming you meet every few weeks, you’ll have an incentive to churn out a new submission every two or three months, which is doable.

At your first session, make sure everyone understands that hosting the group is not about baking the most elaborate treats or impressing your fellow writers with your apartment’s cleanliness. Draw up ground rules; that way, you won’t need to grumble and fume about the person who dominates every conversation or brings in a book-length manuscript instead of a story or a chapter. When those things happen, all you’ll need to do is remind the miscreant they are violating Rule #4 or #7.

Then, sketch out the basic format for your workshops. As thick-skinned as I am, I can’t bear to hear anyone criticize my work until they’ve acknowledged at least a few good sentences. But tossing a few halfhearted crumbs of praise should never be a prelude to blurting out what you hate about a story.

The most important part of any workshop is figuring out what the author is trying to accomplish. Once you’ve described what the author is trying to do, you can move on to how well they succeed. If the writer is asking a question, is the answer he reaches plausible? Or is the writer evading some harder truth? If she is putting forth an argument, does the evidence seem compelling? Does the essay stick to the structure it begins with, or does that structure wobble and fall apart? Is anything missing or extraneous?

What about the prose? Is the author’s voice natural or artificial? Can you follow what’s going on? Does the narrative include too many details? Too few? Is the pacing too fast or slow? Is everything summarized for the reader, or does the writer allow us to witness at least a few scenes ourselves and hear voices via dialogue? Does the essay take us somewhere we haven’t been? Or does it end with a stale cliché?

Once your group has identified what the writer is attempting to do and where they’ve succeeded, the final aim should be to help make the essay or story even better. Here, the group needs to be specific. Nothing frustrates a writer more than hearing “Your story is too long” without someone providing an example of the passages that might be cut.

Your group’s list of guidelines might include advice on what a writer should do while being workshopped. As tempting as it might be to jump in and clarify what your readers aren’t getting, you will learn far more about what is actually on the page if you sit still and listen. My advice is to keep your emotions in check and focus on jotting down everything you hear. Sitting through a workshop is like listening to a doctor diagnose your symptoms: all you remember later are the harshest, most dire findings.

After the group finishes discussing your work, you can ask any remaining questions. Then, thank everyone for their time and effort; even if you don’t feel grateful right then, you will. Not every response will help you improve your work. But certain criticisms will echo your own suspicions, while this or that suggestion will resonate with your intentions. After a period of resistance — I usually feel sick to my stomach for at least a few hours after anyone critiques my work — you should find yourself eager to revise your draft to make it stronger.

Of course, no one should feel shamed or judged. And yet, the very nature of the enterprise — exposing yourself on the page and listening to other people dissect what you are showing them — is going to make one or more members of the group uncomfortable. If you throw in the complexities of gender, race, social class, ethnicity, and religion, you can be sure someone will blunder. The default reaction needn’t be rage or offense; the default might be an understanding that you and your groupmates are invested in making each other’s lives easier.

Make sure everyone leaves each session on good terms. If one of you finds an agent or a publishing opportunity, share your intel. And then, when you sell that memoir, don’t forget to thank your teammates in the acknowledgments.

Have a question about writing? Ask The Draft here.

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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