What to Do After Your Summer Vacation: Guides to Starting Your Own Writing Group
By: Ann Dobie
Date: October 2008
Summary: Ann Dobie reviews five books that help aspiring writers form and maintain writing groups that fill the gap left when summer institute is over.
The summer institute is drawing to an end. Your writing group has become more than a reading-response group. It has become a circle of friends who can be counted on to celebrate your successes and even help you create them.
They hear the mixed metaphors you've not noticed in your poems and question all those statements that you thought sounded so self-explanatory. They find the clunker as well as the felicitous phrase, and you realize that they have become critical to your writing process.
And then the summer institute is over. Your writing group is disbanded, and how, you wonder, can it be recreated? How can you keep it going?
In the past few years five books have appeared that are devoted to helping writers who ask this question. Two of them, Writing Alone, Writing Together and The Writer's Retreat Kit, are by Judy Reeves. Both provide specific suggestions for what to do when writers come together to practice their craft and make it better.
Also, a group known as The Monday Night Writers Group has brought out a slender volume with the intriguing title of Coffee and Ink: How a Writers Group Can Nourish Your Creativity. Not so much a "how to do it" book as it is a "how our writing group did it" book, it is short on instructions but rich in examples.
Two other books round out this collection: Pat Schneider's Writing Alone and With Others and a collection of essays by a variety of authors edited by Lisa Rosenthal, The Writing Group Book. Each of these five texts has its particular strengths, and together they tell the writer in search of others of like mind just about everything he or she could hope to know about writing groups.
The Benefits of Writing with a Group
On some matters the five are in complete agreement. For example, all five books tout writing groups as helpful for just about everything except losing weight. The positive outcomes they cite include getting encouragement to keep going, learning from each other, and deepening connections with one another and with one's writing.
As Judy Reeves points out, "Writers who could never get started and keep going on their own take wing and soar with the support and nurturance of a writing partner or group."
Reeves, who values the writing that takes place on a retreat, talks about the importance of taking time out of the ordinary day-in and day-out routine to set everything aside and give oneself over to writing.
However, she cautions, writers must be ready for the group experience. Writing Alone, Writing Together lists essentials for being a good group member, such as "a desire to work with others" and "openness and flexibility." Reeves also suggests techniques that will enhance the effectiveness of the group—advice such as, "Come with an open heart," and "Forget personal agendas." She says that the group that honors these essentials creates the two conditions that writers are often searching for: safety and freedom.
Writers who could never get started and keep going on their own take wing and soar with the support and nurturance of a writing partner or group.
Finding (or Making) a Group
Putting together a group is a concern to each of these authors. In her detailed instructions for starting a group in Writing Alone, Writing Together, Reeves suggests contacting potential members by putting up notices at cafes and on bulletin boards, sending out news releases, posting on websites, and leaving fliers at libraries and other public places that writers are likely to frequent.
Most of the authors recommend forming a group that has diversity of race and ethnicity, age, economic and educational levels, writing experience, and genres. Several suggest mixing genders, though they admit that some people are more creative in gender-specific groups.
Keeping It Going
The guidelines for a functioning group honor similar processes as those enjoyed by fellows in a summer institute. For example, Schneider enumerates five "essential practices," each of which helps to keep the writer safe. The group, she says,
- maintains a nonhierarchical spirit along with an appropriate discipline
- honors confidentiality about the writing
- offers no criticism, suggestion, or question about first-draft work
- teaches craft by using exercises
- has the leader write along with the participants and read at least once in each session.
The Monday Night Writers Group, by contrast, is far less directive. Mostly, group members write. At a typical meeting participants have two 20-minute writing sessions, based on a prompt drawn from a box to which they have all contributed, then read aloud what they've written. The writings generated by the prompt can be developed in any genre and may digress into something far distant from their beginnings. The prompt is, they say, "a starting point, not a straight jacket."
Several of the authors also give attention to the writing environment. In The Writer's Retreat Kit, for instance, Reeves addresses the value of rituals: the ringing of bells, a set order of proceeding, the presence of certain artifacts. Reeves believes ceremonies and rituals that are familiar and comforting not only strengthen the sense of community, they also seem to set the stage for the act of writing.
Reeves understands that most writing groups will inevitably have conflicts and disagreements, but she believes preventive measures can be put in place to spot danger signs. She cites lack of commitment to the group or to writing, failure to address problems and resolve conflicts, and sometimes disruption by a group member as common causes of failed (or failing) writing groups.
To prevent such situations she recommends that a group create a set of guidelines and state its values, objectives, principles, and expectations. To ensure the health of the group, Reeves suggests taking an inventory of its status at least once a year.
What Each Book Offers
Despite the many similarities to be found in these five books, each of them has particular attributes that will be of interest to people looking to form a writing group or to improve their existing group.
Schneider, for instance, provides a rich treasury of applicable writing workouts. There are 55 pages of explained exercises, many of them with examples, followed by a list of 50 more. They are prefaced with a discussion of what makes the exercises effective and include guidelines for their use.
The Writer's Retreat Kit explains how to organize and facilitate retreats built around twenty different themes and offers a wealth of useful writing exercises and prompts. But Reeve's other book, Writing Together, Writing Alone is the more useful. In this book the material is organized around three types of writing groups: read and critique, writing practice, and writing workshop. She discusses the structure and protocols for each in detail. But her suggestions have applicability beyond the structures she is detailing here. For example, she discusses how to conduct a response session (or read and critique, as she calls it), pointing out that consensus is not the goal.
She adds, "There are as many different styles and structures of read and critique groups as there are sprinkles for frozen yogurt."
The information in The Writing Group Book, edited by Lisa Rosenthal, is more general, less probing and specific than that of the other books. This collection of short essays by different authors mostly provides stories of how their various writing groups work, rather than explanations of how other groups can work. The book's strength lies in the lists of favorite resources and favorite exercises that follow each essay. A final section on resources is also helpful. It includes, for example, the section "Tips to Marketing Your Work."
Despite its colorful title, Coffee and Ink is, in the end, not very helpful. The many examples of writing that have come from the prompts used by the group are entertaining, but specific guidelines and suggestions are few The text redeems itself to a degree with an extensive list of prompts at the end of the book. "Juicy Prompts and Creative Jump Starts" is useful for classrooms and writing groups alike.
All this said, any long-time member of a writing group will testify that reading about the experience pales in comparison to that moment when heads go down over paper and all goes quiet. It is then that the collective power of the group energizes the individual, infusing her with a creativity she might not otherwise have had. Writing together enhances the experience in a way that may not be entirely understood, but is certainly valued by those who have lived it.