Monday, August 10, 2009

Writing Groups

If you like to write, getting a group together or joining one is a very worthwhile endeavor. Done right, it can be an enormously enriching experience. Done not-so-well, it's just a chore and possibly a boring or frustrating one. For the last week in July I was at my annual writing retreat in the Adirondacks. A big topic, at least in many of my conversations, was being in a writing group.

The easiest thing to do is to join an existing group, but don't take it personally if you are not invited. The existing members of a working group don't just invite their friends. If they are looking for new members (and that may be a big IF), but if they are looking for new members, they will only want people who are a good fit.

We talked a lot at the retreat about what makes that good fit and here are some of our thoughts. First, you have to be in the same genre. If three of you are writing narrative non-fiction, throwing in a poet is not going to help anybody. While a non-fiction writer may try some fiction and bring it before the group, the focus has got to be relatively narrow. Some people belong to separate groups for prose and poetry; some groups say poetry only this month, essays the next.

The level of writing is important also, but this factor actually has two facets. Skill level has got to be matched or at least be similar. A beginning writer can enjoy the whole process of learning how to get published, the process and even the vocabulary surrounding all that. For a more experienced group member going through all that again can be quite tedious. Also, people usually don’t join writing groups to teach grammar. If what you bring to the meetings makes the other members feel like they are being asked to correct papers, you may be asked to get up to speed or find another group. Always proof read before you present; so your group can focus on craft, not basics, unless basics is precisely the purpose of the group. That would be annoying for some and enriching for others.

The other aspect of level is your intensity level. If you want to have a chance to read your poetry among friends once a month, that can make for a great group. It could however be frustrating for someone who is trying to transition to earning a living as a writer or get a chapbook published. When I was discussing intensity recently with a non writing friend, she said it reminded her of those book groups that get together to eat, drink wine, and talk about the neighbors. Yes, like that. Any level of intensity can make for a great group; just make sure it’s fairly consistent among the members.

Speaking of members, how many writers is the perfect number? Trick question, of course. There is no perfect number but again this may go back to intensity. If you are in a group of 10 who discuss their poetry once a month, you’ll either have long meetings or you won’t get your poetry reviewed very often. If having your poetry discussed every third month or so works for you; that could be just right. I would find it frustrating, but I’m not in your group.

In my group there have been two of us for two years – me and my writing partner, Carol Glover. We know. That sounds a bit exclusive. We get together every two weeks and work quite seriously. At the retreat in July, where we met and which we both attended again this year, we invited a third person to join us. Welcome, Laura Packer. We have known her as a storyteller, but now she is becoming more interested in the written word, focusing on her blogs. One is on stories and one on food, both are being added to my blog roll. I’m looking forward to another opinion, a third ear.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Carol and I were writing each others books in a composite voice. We have been good for each other because of our opposite problems. I’m always telling her to get right into the story, to leave out so much boring explanation. She said my writing is not terse, it’s stingy. Again, welcome Laura.

Good luck to you if you have a writing group, are joining one, or forming one. Please share your experiences here.


jayda said...

I do understand how frustrating it can be to work with other in a group who aren't at the same level.

Apart from the people in that workshop I was telling you about, where the teacher moved, I can't think of more than one additional person I know who writes. It's strange that the people in that workshop never broke into groups. We saw each other once per week and that was it.

Eleanor Stanton said...

Love this description of writing groups. It's got everything in it so I know not to take it personally if I'm not invited by a friend and (perhaps my favorite part) it helps me understand why it wouldn't be the smartest move on my part to invite a lot of my friends either.

Could you say more about "chapbooks?"

Ellie O'Leary said...

Jayda(Joy), It's sad to hear that you do not know other writers. I'm nourished by my relationship with other writers. There must be a writer's association or some such group in Jamaica. I belong to the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. I hope you can find something similar.

Ellie O'Leary said...

Hello Nelle, Chapbooks is a funny name. I believe it is short for chapter books, not the children's kind, but more like the Charles Dickens variety when books were sometimes published one chapter at a time. Now it means little books, sometimes self published. Chapbooks now are almost always poetry.

jayda said...

I'm gonna do some investigating and see if any organization exists.

The Sister Project said...

Wonderful to read this, to catch up on your writing. And so true. All so true. Write on, sister.

Ellie O'Leary said...

Hello Sister Project, Marion I assume. Good to see you here. We had another great retreat at Pyramid. I'm still working on the same old memoir, but I think I have it ready to wrap up now. I made great progress at Pyramid as well as lots of learning, community, and contemplation.

jayda said...

Time to update your blog, Ellie.

Ellie O'Leary said...

You are absolutely right. I have the topic, just haven't written it out yet.

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