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.
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?