Sunday, July 12, 2009

4 Unexpected Benefits to Being in a Writing Group

Right now, I'm sitting in the coffee shop where I wrote much of my novel. I love this place. The coffee is great, the food is good--and cheap--and my writing group meet here every Thursday night for about half a year.

I'm moving out of town tomorrow morning, and that leaves me feeling a sense of loss. Don't get me wrong. I'm excited about the journey ahead. It's just that right in this moment I am realizing that some things worked, and I'd like to reflect a bit on what worked with the writing group. Perhaps it will help you to have a good writing group experience. This was my first group, and I had never made an attempt to join a group before. My biggest reasons were that I thought it might be counter productive, and possibly even negative. The truth, in this case, was the opposite. There were many unexpected benefits of being in the group.

UNEXPECTED BENEFITS OF BEING IN THE WRITING GROUP

1. I JOINED TO WORK ON MY NOVEL, BUT FOCUSED ON SHORT FICTION

This could have been a negative aspect, but members of the group read each others novel on their own time and meet outside the group to exchange that feedback. Also, the first two chapters got a good focus.

Patrick has quite a few short stories published. He really lead the way by bringing in flash fiction, which was fun to read. I caught the spirit and found that even though I was busy with this and that I could still find the time to write a few short pieces for the writing group. One of those was posted on this blog. It was More Work to Be Done in the City, if you were wondering.

2. WE DID A READING AT CENTRAL WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

When we first started the group, I don't think that any of us had imagined that we would read a short piece in front of around fifty people at the local university, but that's what happened. And, I can say that it was a great experience, not so much because I felt that I had a great reading that day, but because I could see the personality of the readers showing through as they read. Stories are meant to be heard or read by non-writers. Aspiring writers need to experience stories connecting with people. Even the challenge of having that happen elevates the quality of writing. The focus increases.

It was nice to have one of my group members say that he heard new layers of meaning in the story I read, even though he had read it three times in the writers group. There really is something extraordinary about reading to an audience. Consider how you can do a reading at a school, library, or university.

3. INTELLIGENT DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE CRAFT OF WRITING

Before I joined the group, I thought that a writing group would be about giving and receiving feedback. And, it certainly is, to a degree, but I found that it can also be about having a discussion about the craft of writing. There was a guy that was in and out of the group who had what we called a fragile style. It was soft, beautiful, and ephemeral. It seemed that if he followed too much of the standard advice it would destroy his style. And, I think that we each felt that we had once been like that, when we first started writing. It focused on what was important in life more than active verbs and concrete details. It had them, of course, but you could tell that what he was really focused on was the meaning of the moment, and not so much on following the rules. It was like writing innocence. In the end, when he did his reading, I felt that he had made the right revision choices. The images in his story came into focus, but his style retained that quality we all so admired. It was so nice to see how his story evolved and found an audience.

4. IT WAS FUN: COFFEE, LAUGHS, AND BEERS IN THE END

I think the last meeting was a good testament as to how well we all got along. We, meaning the core of the group, had drinks. We talked about life, and love. Our dads and our writing. The point here is that despite all the tough feedback--and there was plenty of that--we liked each other in the end. I once had somebody tell me, in reference to work, that if you are not having fun you are not doing it right. Well, the same principle holds true with a writing group. As a teacher, I can add in that one of the reasons for that is brain chemistry and how we learn. Positive feelings help to create chemical reactions that promote learning. Defensiveness, and negative feelings in general, do the opposite. When giving and receiving feedback, I think it is best to create a sense of trust. And, ironically, that can come from telling someone that you are not a good reader for a piece of writing. I told one of the guys that his story was lost on me, because I could not relate to many of the things he was writing about. His response was that he was glad to hear it because that somehow made my over the top--this story is great--praise of a previous story more believable.

Well, that's it for today, and I might miss my post on next Sunday because of the move. We will wait and see. At any rate, this is my last post from Ellensburg, the place where the air is so hot and dry you get a good electrical zap when you touch your car door.

Any thoughts on writing groups? What have your experiences been?

4 comments:

  1. Dave,
    May there be smooth sailing on your journey ahead, along with adventures and new friends. If you don't find a ready-made writers group where you are going, you sure will be well-prepared to start one.
    I'm in two groups and find the group dynamic interesting. My own skills in critical thinking and seeing the big picture have increased dramatically by the exercise of using my brain that way every week. I also realize that not everything each person contributes is right for you. It's good to reflect on the comments and see what fits. But I know my work has gotten much better with the input.
    Once you get settled, I will be looking for your posts, which I always enjoy. Cheers.

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  2. Good luck with your move. What an adventure!

    The only group I've ever been in is an on-line critique group (and I just joined that very recently). So far it's been far more valuable than I could have imagined. I learn from the feedback, learn from reading other pieces of fiction that are similar and different from the genre I write, and I continually learn from these wonderful women. Daily experiences and their passion for life, their families and writing.

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  3. I have a real tough time finding people for a writing group, because most of the writers that I know, are interested in different types of books than what I write. I can find lots of readers, but most of them are not great critics. They are good for an "I liked it", or "Didn't care for it", but that's about it. It doesn't really help me figure out what does or doesn't work.

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  4. I've toyed around with joining writing groups but haven't yet until now. There's a new writing group that's forming this summer at my neighborhood library. I've been hesitant to join writing groups because I, too, feel it may be a negative experience or a huge time waster. But after reading this post, I'm more optimistic.

    PS: I like how you stated, "Aspiring writers need to experience stories connecting with people." So true. Excellent thoughts.

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