By Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center Maryland-based writer Steve Majors recently published his gripping, startlingly honest debut memoir, High Yella, with The University of Georgia Press. He talked with us […]20 Jun 2023
A Little Help from My Friends
THREE WRITERS ON THE BENEFITS OF WRITING GROUPS
By Amy Freeman
Writing is, of course, a solitary pursuit, which is perhaps all the more reason that writing groups are such a boon. They can meet in person or virtually, live or asynchronously. They can provide focus, accountability, inspiration, skills, or any mix thereof. I reached out to folks in different types of writing groups to talk about what each strives to achieve.
Jiadai Lin is in a group of three women who, although sharing thousands of words, live on different parts of the planet and have never met in person. Despite a bit of a recent slow-down, the group has worked together since 2017. The group focuses on editing long-form fiction.
AF: Jiadai, how did you and your partners find each other?
JL: We found each other on Facebook through a large writing/networking group. One woman (who we soon learned is a born organizer) made a post looking for novel manuscript critique partners and I responded. I’m generally shy about social media, but the timing was so fortuitous. I was starting yet another rewrite of my manuscript and struggling with returning to a non-writing day job. I needed community and inspiration (in addition to really great critique partners) and our group has provided all of that to me and more.
As strangers, how did you build trust?
I think it starts with a leap of faith. You don’t know these people but you know that they are ostensibly making a writing commitment and something about that alone places them in your community. And then real trust is built over time. It was pretty obvious from our early weeks that my partners were great writers and smart editors, but it took months of consistent emailing, feedback, encouragement, and support to really develop our writing friendship (in my inbox, I count 227 threads among us over the past 4.5 years). I think we also recognized in each other a similar attitude of being acceptive of critiques and not taking things too personally. We all wanted to be better writers. We saw the dedication that each of us put into this shared goal and I think we really developed a respect for one another along with trust.
Logistically, how has the group shared work?
For the first year or two, we shared pages and chapters from our manuscripts on a weekly basis or so. The other two women had full drafts; I was still working as I was sharing. We did everything through email, with inline comments on Google docs, and it worked well. Sharing feedback only through writing allowed us to provide fully formed and edited comments, which, as an introvert, I really liked.
We share work less consistently now, but still with such genuine enthusiasm and support. Some of us have finished our manuscripts, queried, submitted to publishers, started new jobs, moved cities, had babies, etc. We’ve all worked on other writing projects and written in other genres. We’ve been there for each other through lots of personal things that we might not even easily share with our “real life” friends. Our friendship is the best thing by far to come out of our group.
What has been the most helpful aspect of this partnership?
At first, it was the consistent critique and feedback. It was having a small writing community to help me stay motivated and working and writing. Now, it’s the friendship, which still comes hand-in-hand with community, critique, and feedback.
You’ve gotten to know each other by sharing your work, which can be an intimate experience. Yet you three could pass each other on the street and not recognize each other! If you were able to work together in person, would you want to?
Yes! But I will say that one thing that I think helped our writing group succeed is the fact that we weren’t friends in real life at the outset. There’s baggage that comes with having someone who knows you read your work. We didn’t have that; we just had shared dedication and appreciation of craft. We got to know each other as writers first, then friends. And even though we’re good friends now, I think we appreciate going into our writing mindsets and working on each other’s work from a technical perspective, which includes giving honest critiques in one paragraph and talking about our kids in the next (although all of our “talking” remains written!).
Fiction writer and essayist Vonetta Young participates in several standard-format writing groups. During the pandemic, though, she found herself in a bit of a writing rut. She tweeted as much, and someone she knew from a past writing workshop said she was in the same boat. Seeking inspiration, the two formed a loose partnership they call “Saturday, Caturday.”
AF: Ummmm, what’s with that name?
VY: Great question! We meet on Saturday mornings and we needed something to get us writing, and rhyming came to our minds, even though neither one of us is a poet. We use two words that rhyme or are homophones, just to open us up: “bar” and “guitar,” “would” and “wood,” “stair” and “stare,” etc.
How does this “group” work?
There’s only two of us, so we login to Google Meet or Facetime, catch up on life, pick our words, then get to writing. We spend 20 minutes on mute free writing, then we read what we wrote. We usually do that twice, if we have time.
Can you really create something coherent in twenty minutes?
It depends! I’ve been impressed with how coherent some of the pieces come out. Of course, they usually begin with “What am I going to write that has anything to do with these words” or something “throat-clearing” like that, but it gets the mechanism going. We usually wind up touching on something emotionally resonant eventually, getting to the heart of the piece in really unexpected ways.
Have you or your partner turned any of the sprints into finished pieces?
I’ve been able to take what I’ve started with and turn them into longer essays, or, in one case, I was able to revive a whole short story based on what I started one Saturday morning in that 20 minutes. I’m pretty sure my writing partner has published a piece or two from what she’s drafted during our time together. Even if we don’t wind up finishing something (or it is incoherent babble, which happens sometimes), we wrote something. Mission accomplished!
A poet, Chad Robinson wasn’t quite sure how to find critique partners; reaching out to strangers can be pretty daunting. Discovering that The Writer’s Center trains volunteer leaders and oversees dozens of writing groups, Chad decided to throw his literary hat into the ring.
AF: What made you decide to launch a group? What were you hoping to find?
CR: I loved the idea of a group specifically focused on poets reciting poems to the fellow group members. There are several real benefits to reading your work aloud, and I knew I personally needed a literal sounding board. I was hoping that others would have this same need.
How did the launch go?
Well, I was trying to have fun pretending to be clever by writing poems for the website’s group description. I thought a little couplet and tanka could be a fun way to introduce the group to people, but it clearly didn’t excite anyone else the same way that it excited me. After a month, I hadn’t had a single person reach out to me. There was also concern about the planned group location, so we decided to make the group an online group.
Within a week, we had the folks we needed to get launched. I’m taking this as a sign that I should probably stop pretending to be clever.
How are you and your partners deciding what the group should look like? How often to meet, how many words to share, etc.?
We are currently meeting on a monthly basis, and we had our first monthly meeting this week! It was really fun to put faces to names and words to poets.
Right now, I’m mostly struggling with how much to share about myself and how much to share with the other group members about one another. I know that this past year has been a source of some serious challenges for most of us, and I wouldn’t want to add to anyone’s anxieties by oversharing their personal information with a bunch of strangers.
So much of poetry can be deeply personal, so I can appreciate that some group members might come to the group with their guard up. For that reason, I’m also encouraging the recitation of other poets’ works. I want our group to focus on reading poetry, whether the person reciting it wrote it themselves or not. My hope is that they get comfortable enough with the group that they become ready and willing to read their own work before the group.
I was surprised by how excited I was to make sure I was working on my poems to read to the group. I was certainly excited to read some things, but the night before the first meeting I was tweaking a poem I started months ago so it would be ready. I wasn’t prepared for how the opportunity to share the work would drive me to get more done. It was truly a pleasant surprise!