Three weeks ago I wrote about how award-winning writer and stellar writing instructor Robin Hemley no longer has patience for writing groups; instead, he has a trusted fellow writer with whom he mutually shares his work. Both in comments and email, I encountered some pushback to Robin’s choice, with many defending writing groups and others wishing they belonged to a writer’s group. I knew from reading her blog that Cynthia Robertson has a vibrant writing group in operation in Arizona, so I reached out to her for a “counterpoint,” if you will. Below is Cynthia’s inspiring response. We would welcome your thoughts/opinions/experiences in the comments.
I’ve been going to writers groups for years. The first, in California, was filled with students who loved the romance of being writers. They read obsessively, wore big, pilly, stretched out sweaters, and wrote wild, experimental stuff that never manifested into anything polished. The group in Virginia had published writers, snarky and vicious; my memories are of eyes narrowed on me through arabesques of cigarette smoke when they condescended to let me read. The post meeting depression often took days to dispel. The next was in New Hampshire, and except for the accents and salt-rimed snow boots, the discouragement delivered down from on high was not much different from the Virginia group.
My husband got stationed in Italy, and that was the best thing that could have happened to me, because there were no writers groups on the island of La Maddalena. There was just me and my word processor, alone in our villa at the top of the island, French doors open to the hot, rosemary scented air and the curtains gently twisting and lifting to reveal turquoise slices of the Mediterranean. And there, without critics and naysayers all around me (and in my head), I wrote my first publishable story.
Years later, living in Arizona and at work on a novel, I found myself longing for the company of other writers. Older and wiser now, the community of writers I imagined would be knowledgeable and honest, but encouraging and fun. I began trying out the various groups already established in the valley: a group out west turned out to be a bit of an ‘old boys’ club; a central group, huge and unwieldy, met in noisy coffee joints where reading was difficult—the fun factor was there and they were friendly, but it was almost impossible to get serious feedback over the howl of the espresso grinder; another group was dominated by a tyrant, yet another derailed by lengthy off topic monologues that left me checking my watch and preferring to be home on my precious free Saturday afternoon. I felt a little like Goldilocks searching for the chair that felt just right—only I was doing a whole lot more trying than she did, and not having any success finding it.
I was meeting some good writers though. Every group had a few. The folks that interested me were writing regularly and knew about shitty first drafts and polishing what they wrote. They were as frustrated as I was with correcting spelling and punctuation, and arguing the difference between a run on sentence and a compound. We wanted to be discussing character development and plot, story arc and tension.
I was hungry to learn more; to take my writing from proficient to whatever came next. And to do that I needed to surround myself with writers who had a deeper knowledge of language and craft. I also craved the depth of feedback that comes with continuity, and that was lacking in these other groups, with their changing faces and projects.
Then one afternoon when I was whining about all this my daughter said, Mom, why don’t you start your own group?
Oh I could never . . . I started to say. But, a little voice inside me thought maybe I could. And so with the help of a couple of cool writers I’d met at one of the local groups, we did.
From previous experience I already knew what my ideal writers group would look like, and with that vision in mind we put out the word and held our first meeting. Our criteria were simple: an ability to write and a novel in progress, a passion for writing coupled with commitment, and a willing and friendly personality.
That first meeting was an incredible afternoon of listening to writers read and observing how they meshed with others. Those who did not fit the vision we were striving toward were later gently let go with words of encouragement. The rest were invited to the next meeting. We had false starts with a few folks: some could write, but lacked discipline or drive, others wanted to submit their work and have it read and critiqued, but refused to return the favor; a shame really, because they will never discover that, next to reading, critiquing is the single greatest tool to teach a writer what s/he needs to know.
Our vetting process was not without its trials and errors, but we’ve learned along the way, and we’ve achieved what we set out to create. The Arizona Novel Writers Workshop is sanctuary and literary companionship, coupled with fiery inspiration and warm support.
Cynthia Robertson writes reviews for She Reads , is a freelance editor, and the founder of the Arizona Novel Writers Workshop. She writes historical fiction, and is at work on a novel set in 10th century Jerusalem and England. She lives in Arizona with her husband and their five pound Pomeranian, Zeus.
Cynthia can be found on her blog, on Twitter @Literarydaze and on Facebook.
What has been your experience with forming or working in a writing group? Have you found it rewarding? Frustrating? Sustainable? Let’s hear from you?
34 thoughts on “Guest Post: Creating the Workshop of Your Dreams”
Cynthia, thank you for sharing your story with us on The Artist’s Road! It is an inspiring post. I’ll confess I’ve enjoyed a writing group I helped start a couple of years ago, but it has been a bit on the rocks lately as we all have found ourselves pulled in different directions. I’m impressed with the momentum you’ve maintained.
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Thank you for hosting me here, Patrick!
Our group has not been without its setbacks. We had a wonderful meeting place for a couple of years. A spacious, glass walled conference room at the back of a coffee house. But that place of business went under, with the economy the way it’s been, and we couldn’t find another place to meet. Even the libraries in the valley, which have rooms standing empty, began charging for use of the space. Our solution was to take turns hosting meetings at members homes, and it’s turned out to be fabulous fun.
We’ve also had people complete their projects and drop out to spend time promoting. And of course people move away. But we always have our feelers out for some special Arizona writer who would be a good fit. We have a strong core group, and we keep going. The turnover is very low, but occasional new members keeps the group from growing static. Core principals remain fixed: no aggression or bloated egos. Kindness toward each other creates a less fearful, safe atmosphere and fosters creativity.
Thanks Patrick, for hosting Cynthia. And thanks, Cynthia for discussing this topic that feels very pertinent to me at the moment. I’ve always yearned for a good writer’s group and am struggling to find one. Recently I thought about starting my own. I just don’t have a lot of contacts. Truthfully, if I could find a trusted fellow writer like Robin has, I think that would suit me quite well.
I’m in a writing group that has potential, but wavers a bit.
When I get some energy and drive back again, I think I will be able to come up with something that works for me.
But this was helpful. Thanks.
Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Christine!
You’ve been through a lot in the past year, my friend. You need some downtime, and deserve some too. But recalling the beautiful memoir you wrote, I have no doubt this struggle will result in something wonderful down the road a bit, once you’ve had time to heal.
Wow, Cynthia, even though I was one of the first members of The Arizona Novel Writers Workshop with you, I had no idea until now of the long and winding road you took to starting it. I’ve always been grateful to be a part of that dynamic, talented, and positive group of writers, but now I’m doubly so – thank you so much for letting me share the writers’ journey. I can’t wait to buy a copy of ‘Sword of Mordrey.’
Thank you, Liz. YOU are part of what made our group what it is. I very much miss you and your wit. I hope someday, when life permits, you will be back with another novel to work through.
Thanks, Patrick, for hosting Cynthia. And thanks, Cynthia for sharing your insights. This is good stuff. I’ve read many pieces about how to start a writer’s group, but yours stands out in one way in particular to me — trial and error. It is hard to find a good fit, and I love that you didn’t give up until you found something that worked for you. Too many people get frustrated and give up, I think. It’s OK to try something, determine it isn’t working for you, and then try something else. That’s how we grow, both as writers and as people. The key is to keep at it. Thanks for that reminder.
“It’s OK to try something, determine it isn’t working for you, and then try something else. That’s how we grow, both as writers and as people.” You’re so right, Jessica. It’s important not to allow fear of failing to keep us from attempting those things we dream of, whether it be a new group, or a novel, a relationship, or new job. I was afraid to start this group, but the company of my two friends helped me get past that.
Cynthia, what an eloquently written, inspirational post! I’m so glad Patrick asked you to guest on The Artist’s Road. As far as I’m concerned, you’re right on the money about nurturing kindness and a safe, truly supportive atmosphere in a productive writer’s group.
I, like CM, don’t have a lot of creative contacts in the tangible world, but I keep trying to make a few valuable connections at the occasional networking event in the hopes I’ll find a kindred writing buddy who wants to meet locally with me on a regular basis. A long time ago I started a writer’s critique group in the city I was living in, and after a few years I left. The group subsequently fizzled out. I basically was burned out helping a few ‘vampires’ who were too selfish and needy and not really serious about progressing in their writing life.
Reading your wonderful essay makes me tempted to try to start another group as there doesn’t seem to be one I could join locally in the rural area I live in (or that I have discovered).
Thank you, Carole, I’m happy to be here today, Patrick is such an inspiration. His blog is a great success, and I look forward to reading his memoir.
Yes, keep getting out there and meeting new writers. It took a large chunk of my life to pass before I began to meet the kind of kindred spirits I enjoy the company of now. It happens at the oddest moments, but only when the time is right.
Vampires – uh huh, I know exactly what you mean. A relationship like that is very draining. When you meet a wonderful writer, gather him/her to you as a friend. Try Meetup.com for starting your group. Keep the intention of what it is to be in mind, and don’t be silent about your expectations. You can do it!
That red glow you see all the way across the country is me blushing! 🙂
I just have to say, writing in Italy sounds absolutely wonderful 😉
I am also a huge fan of writing groups, and I agree that it may take some trial and error to find the right one, but when you do, it’s worth it. (Just like any other relationship, I guess!)
I’ve had really good luck finding groups at writers’ conferences. Most of the people there already have a novel-in-progress, and them being there shows a big commitment already. At the last conference I went to, I hit it off with four other writers, and we started meeting monthly after that. We’re still meeting, 3 years later!
Italy was an adventure, Natalia. Being multi-cultural yourself, I’m sure you know how different it can be, to live in another country. My children enjoyed it and are better people for having seen how others live. Good memories.
I’ve hard you mention your writers group before. They sound wonderful! You’re so fortunate to have them. And they showed up in your life right when you most needed them too, I think.
Fabulous post, Cynthia. (And thanks, Patrick. I learned more about Cynthia than I previously did; a villa opening on to turquoise waters … swoon!). Cynthia is dynamic; I met her in real life for the first time – finally – at Tucson Festival of Books!)…
I really think a lot of writers miss huge opportunities by not seeking critique – whether it’s individual critique or in a group. For me, personally, I like to work with other writers AS I write, since they 1) make suggestions that I often don’t see myself 2) those suggestions improve my writing and plot and 3) they help me avoid so much more revising at the end. Though I confess, I also do envy those writers who can sit down and right a book from start to finish, allowing the muse to guide them, uninterrupted, then revise at the end.
I’m not sure, however, that beta readers who come in at the end — once the book is completely written in one fell swoop — are as honest as that support group of critique partners you mention above, with whom you’ve worked on the entire book, who know your story, and with whom you’ve established relationships (and who are, hopefully, brutally honest). Are betas as honest? I don’t know… Curious of your thoughts as I approach another book and analyze new review methods.
I’ve been designing a writer’s group recently and have just invited people to join. It’s called the Memoir Momentum Project, and its main purpose is to help people start or keep writing consistently, but there will also be a way to share your writing and respond to others’ work. That was the part I really had to “design” because I have witnessed so much discouraging feedback, as Cynthia describes.
My group will have a feedback protocol in which the writer asks readers to answer specific questions about the writing. The people who choose to respond will address exactly what the writer is asking and do it in a way that focuses on their response as a reader, rather than attacking the skill or character of the writer.
In other words, they might say, “I didn’t understand what made them say such-and-such,” instead of “You didn’t develop that scene adequately so it was really confusing.” The first is a statement of fact, while the other is an opinion that’s not specific enough to be helpful. And all of this would only be said if the writer had asked something like, “Is there anything in this scene that is unclear?” or “What questions do you have after you read this scene?”
Cynthia’s writing group sounds wonderful because she also designed it intentionally. I think writing groups need a leader with a clear vision of what the group will be and an ability to communicate that to the participants so they’ll know if it’s right for them or not.
I think it’s important to have critiques along the way (for me, anyway) just to make sure I’m not being boring and my characters are developing, etc., but good beta readers are a necessity at the end, to make sure it all hangs together, ya know? The issue is finding the right ones, who are familiar with your genre, and who are not afraid to be honest.
Regarding a place to hold the writing group — here in Mazatlan we use an otherwise vacant open-air space behind a café-gift-shop. They charge us nothing, but we agree to each buy a coffee and we also leave a tip for the barista who arranges the table and chairs. It’s rustic, quiet, perfect.
Great to see Cynthia here! I, too, have found a writers’ group that feels like a good fit (most days, haha), and I love that you shared this here. “Next to reading, critiquing is the single greatest tool to teach a writer what s/he needs to know.” <– So, so true!
I zeroed in on that line, too, Annie!
When Cynthia called me and told me she wanted to form a new critique group, my initial reaction was YES!!! I had a reason to be excited. In the two plus years we’ve been meeting, I haven’t had a moment of regret or disappointment. This group has been vital to my writing and I know the other members feel the same way.
It isn’t for the timid. We critique about 60,000 words before every meeting and everyone is expected to attend on a regular basis. Members have to be vetted in and we’ve put the cap at ten so there’s always a waiting list. Our meetings are incredibly dynamic and I think we owe that to the careful blend of talent and personalities. And though we all write in different genres, we have a common goal–honing our writing skills and publishing.
It’s a great group that I’m grateful to be a part of.
Thanks Cynthia for being the catalyst that started it all.
Welcome commenters! I’ll run through things here:
@CMSmith: Thank you for your comment. You’ve clearly given some thought to what might work for you, and recognize you need to be in a position in your life to pursue that path before you do so.
@Liz M.: How wonderful to have a group veteran join us!
@Jessica: Hey friend! I’m thrilled to host Cynthia. And your comment makes me feel a little better about the struggles I’ve had with my group. People change, groups change, and you keep working toward what works best.
@Carole Jane: Hey to another friend! You know, I have heard about online writing groups. Blimey, I think there’s a link to one in the comments of my Robin Hemley post. That might be a solution to your rural situation.
@Natalia: Kudos on the success of your group! And good thinking on tapping into writing conferences.
@Melissa: So good to see you here! Happy to host Cynthia. You’ve got me thinking about at what stage I want my work read. I think for a workshop I’d like it rough, when I need feedback on structure and pace and voice. But I’m also intrigued by that “final reader,” and you can’t really ask a writing group to devour a book-length manuscript.
@Sue: Thanks for your valuable input there, discussing what you are assembling and your objectives. For the edification of readers, that is going to be online, right?
@PJ: Once again I want your life.
@Annie: I often get far more out of a workshop by forcing myself to analyze someone’s work and then hearing other’s interpretations than I do from the feedback I get.
@Diana: Thank you for providing more detail on the group. I’m a bit stunned at the 60K of reading beforehand; I’ll confess I wouldn’t be able to make that commitment right now, not with a full-time MFA program and a full-time job. But it means the people participating must be really committed.
Yes, Patrick, my group will be email-based, using a Yahoo group, after an initial get-to-know-you conference call. Many people, like Carole, really value the ability to meet in person, but an online group allows what Melissa mentioned where you can check in with the group even as you’re writing. There’s a lot to consider when choosing or creating a writing group.
Thank you, Patrick, for having me here today. It’s been fun! 🙂
Another great topic, Patrick. Thank you, Cynthia, for your insightful contribution here. I think your willingness to set a “vision” for your group (and adhere to parameters that supported that vision) likely made a big difference. I, too, have experienced several groups over the years. The one that really “worked” for me began as a paid-class with a good teacher. When she moved away, we continued to meet using her parameters. It lasted quite awhile but, eventually, people moved, passed away, and became more involved in other aspects of life. We were just emailing each other today, in the wake of a reunion, about the special bond we share after “listening” (really listening) to one another for so long. When I first set about creating my own group (years ago), I didn’t set solid parameters for membership. What a mess.
In time, I realized that I’d learned a lot about facilitating through my previous teacher (and via art classes I’d led for years) … enough to form a paid workshop. I was able to hold a creatively-safe space, pull the quieter folks out of their shells while gently asking the more talkative folks to hone the art of listening. I was able to be the “heavy” when someone was unkind, etc. I even got brave enough to hold “mini-retreats” at my very (very) humble abode. Doing this helped my own writing because, as you pointed out, one learns much through offering concise, thoughtful critique (and through the creation of weekly lessons).
All of that said, I’d like to revisit creating a peer-based group at some point. If I do so, I will be much more discerning about its “vision” and membership. That used to feel exclusive/arrogant to me but, now, it simply feels like a natural extension of years of practice and commitment to the craft … much like any other craft. If I were, say, a welder … I wouldn’t want to be in a group of folks who wielded torches without a fair amount of experience.
Thanks again for sharing and all the best to you and your group, Cynthia!
Good to have you here again, Terri! It’s interesting what you say at the end, about your lessons learned and how you would pursue things the next time. The welder analogy is perfect!
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Finding a writing group that fits is a bit like Goldilocks — that’s a great way to put it, Cynthia! I had similar experiences with writing groups that were too this or too that, never quite right. Then a few months ago I sent some emails to friends asking if they wanted to get together and exchange work. We’ve been meeting monthly ever since. We offer feedback and share ideas, but the most important benefit is a group of trusted friends who are expecting my best work. It keeps me very disciplined when I know I have to submit my pages.
Patrick – How wonderful to be introduced to you and your site through Cynthia’s guest post. And I see you’re a fellow Loft instructor. I’m also teaching an online course at the Loft this summer!
Great to meet you too, Jackie!
All, I just looked up Jackie’s Loft class. It’s Back to Basics: Creative Writing Techniques, and it starts June 10, so sign up now! https://www.loft.org/classes/detail/?loft_product_id=25094
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Hi Cynthia! Love seeing you here and it was very cool to read about your group. It for sure sounds like a special and dedicated group. I think I’m more like Patrick’s previous guest. . . after several writing workshop type classes at The Loft (shout out to Patrick’s employer!) I grew a little weary of reading too much of other people’s stuff. However, a class where the people are randomly assigned is quite different from a group that stays together for years by choice. You’re so lucky to have found one. Well, not lucky– I’m sure you’ve worked very hard on MAKING it work!
Yes, we did work hard to get the group to where it is. But it’s been worth it. Thanks, Nina.
I loved going along on the journey to your supportive writing group, Cynthia (and your description of Italy: “There was just me and my word processor, alone in our villa at the top of the island, French doors open to the hot, rosemary scented air and the curtains gently twisting and lifting to reveal turquoise slices of the Mediterranean.” Oh, my word!). Thank you for telling people a thriving writing group is not impossible!
It’s a lot of work, Jolina, but I’m a believer that we get what we give.
Loving your novel, btw, I have so many questions for you!