Ode to my Writer’s Group

The article posted below was written by my friend Joe, who also belongs to my writer’s group. His thoughts are spot on, and I can’t express how beneficial it has been to be involved with the Pasties. Yes, that’s what we call ourselves. No, I’m not telling why.

When I first met these folks at the workshop Joe talks about below, I remember thinking it remarkable that we didn’t talk about our personal lives at all. It didn’t matter who had kids, or who worked where doing what — what mattered was the story and if the words were working. We grew to know each other’s protagonists as well as our own. We grew to trust each other enough to call bullshit when something wasn’t working, and to actually believe each other the rare times it was.

Through the months and years, small and large details of our lives slipped through the pages and now, these folks know enough about me to make a run for public office impossible. Because they’re also warped individuals writers, they understand me in a way others don’t. My life, and certainly my writing, is richer for it, and I am grateful.

6 Reasons You (Yes, You!) Must Belong to a Writer’s Group

Since the summer of 2009, I have actively participated in a writers’ group that started in a novel writer’s workshop through the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. The workshop lasted eight weeks during which time a strong chemistry developed among the participants. Writers who examine and critique a piece of writing can become a rowdy, engaged bunch, and the strong dynamic and sharp intuition that developed made for some thought-provoking conversations.

After the formal workshop ended in late summer 2009, we began meeting at locations around Denver. The meetings were helpful, challenging and friendly–as useful as the actual workshop in which we had participated–and now represent one of my best memories from living three years in Colorado. About a year later, a former employer from the Washington, DC region asked if I might want to return to that job. A lot of consideration went into that decision but, in the end, it turned out to be the right move to make.

After I broke the news to my writers group, I feared it was good-bye. I was leaving the Rockies for the East Coast; I would no longer be able to meet with everyone. That was it. C’est la vie.

Incredibly though, now in 2013, I remain involved. It’s amazing what can be done in the age of the Internet and social networking. I had a good thing going with the group and didn’t want to give it up, geographical constraints be damned. If you’re lucky enough to find a solid group of writers to meet with on a regular basis–whether in person or virtually–you must keep that relationship going.

If you’re a writer off on your own, you should reach out, network and do what you need to do to find such a group. Here are six reasons why:

1. Professional feedback –By professional, I don’t mean the others in your writers’ group need to be ridiculously successful published authors. In fact, the greater similarity that exists between you and they, the better, since it means they’re likely going through experiences similar to yours. Anyone who writes with aspirations of publication is likely a pretty shrewd reader; they need to be and that’s all the professionalism you’ll need from the writers in your group.

Joining a writer’s group means you have an opportunity to help other members by critiquing their work; in turn you get the benefit of having your work reviewed. That feedback, if given consistently and respectfully, can do wonders for your skills as a writer. The trick to getting feedback, of course, is not taking constructive criticism personally. Accept feedback to learn and make better choices; this doesn’t mean you need to respond to every comment. You’ll never finish anything if you do! But if you start hearing the same feedback from two, three or four people, you’ll likely realize it’s time to make a change.

2. Validation and Accountability– As any life coach or leadership consultant will tell you, how you feel about yourself informs what you do. If you think of yourself as a writer–and being a writer is why you would choose to belong to a writers’ group–then you’re going to be motivated to do what writers do: write.

People tend to feel compelled to perform when they belong to a group dedicated to the same interests. When I was 30 years old, I took up martial arts. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life and for five years, I was a tae kwon do junkie. I was even going to class Friday nights! But  it was also physically challenging beyond anything I had tried before. I remember taking special Sunday classes in preparation for my black belt exam. There were five of us in that second-floor studio, sweat-drenched t-shirts plastered to our frames, arms and legs shooting out in every which direction, punching and kicking, Mr. Surage’s thunderous commands in Korean, all of us working as a single unit to ensure we did not let each other or ourselves down. And I didn’t let anyone down; I just could not do that.

The same attitude and discipline are required for your participation in a writer’s group. It won’t always be easy; you’ll have other obligations or pure ennui that make you not want to sit down and write. But when you know you have a meeting coming up with your group in five days, well, then….

3. Gather new ideas for your writing — It’s important to participate in a writer’s group for the same reason it is so important to read. No one can say where your next great idea will come from for your stories but it could quite possibly come from something one of the other writers is working on. The manuscripts of others in your writers’ group can provide just as much sustenance as the hardcover novel you purchased for $22 from an established, published author.

Beyond just story ideas too, you’ll get a chance to see what narrative choices and connections other writers make. This won’t necessarily come up in professional feedback, in terms of what the group members choose to discuss. This is something more personal, something you simply identify through the process of reading. You may really like a choice one author has made in a piece of writing that is under review and use it yourself.

It’s astonishing to think about the fact that the longer you participate in a group, the less likely you are to make distinctions between the writing of established writers and those of your group members. If they (and you) have committed to the group long enough, it likely means you’re a committed and professional group of writers and the quality of your work will ultimately reflect that.

4. Networking — If you participate in a novel writer’s workshop for long enough, eventually one of your members will finish his/her book and start looking for a literary agent. If you stay even longer, more members will start looking for agents and they will eventually get one. One member may enter and WIN a writer’s contest or attend a writer’s conference.

The fact is, you can learn not just from your own experience during the writer’s journey, but from those of the others AFTER your books have been completed. It’s been said that finishing your book is only the first step and that it’s what comes afterward–the marketing and literary agent research–that represents the real work.

Getting to this phase in your relationship with a writer’s group also reflects writers who have demonstrated keen commitment to their craft. While finishing a book may be the start of the journey to publication in the publishing world, in the world of writers, finishing a book or the persistence in finishing one is a huge achievement. It essentially says: I mean what I am doing. This is important to me.

5. If you can’t make the meeting, you can still commit to your job. We all get busy with work and family. I’m a lucky man on both fronts.

Sometimes you’ll miss meetings with your writer’s group because of a hectic schedule. In fact, with my Denver group (including one member who has since moved from Colorado to Florida), I haven’t attended any meetings since 2010 except for a virtual one via Skype!

Missing a meeting doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you can’t do your job and critique another writer’s work. I have successfully participated for more than three years with my group in this manner. Manuscript selections scheduled to be reviewed at the next meeting are sent out by the author via email, everyone congregates at the meeting location and then the work is reviewed. Since I’ve been a remote participant, I need to read the work on my own, use MS Word to make my comments and line edits (using the Track Changes feature) and email the edited manuscript not just back to the author but to everyone in the group so they know that, even if I’m not physically there, I still am a member in good standing.

Hopefully, you’ll never be in my position of being consistently apart from your group due to a geographic move. Some might argue that I should find another local writer’s group. However, I’m satisfied with the dynamic I have with the members in the Rocky Mountains. Online social networks can go a long way toward helping you keep a fundamental connection with the other writers. And by the time you’ve been in a group this long, remote our not, you’re likely to call the other members of your group not just writers, but friends as well.

As a final comment, I will say you DO miss something by not attending a writer’s meeting, which is socializing. That leads me to the sixth reason you must belong to a writer’s group…

6. It’s the perfect excuse to drink beer. Writers can be a bit odd. We spend lots of time by ourselves; we often make great excuses, as Paul Theroux once wrote, so that we may dash away from the company of our friends, head home and start writing. We imagine things that aren’t there and somehow believe this is as important if not more so than paying bills, catching the latest episode of Breaking Bad or, well, yes, socializing.

The fact is, however, that writers are like everyone else, which means we enjoy: food, friends and frangelico. (I used “frangelico” by the way as an alliterative stand-in for alcohol in this case, not because I’m the greatest fan). People gather in bars, restaurants and a million other locations for the sheer fun of enjoying the company of others.

Even if writers do spend a great deal of time in our heads, we do, typically, like other people, as well. The heady rush of jousting conversations in a dark bar & grill, the hasty moves to the restroom, the server personalities and the laughter that comes from recognizing some hilarious aspect of fiction or in our lives makes for one meaningful reason to connect with other writers.

So, there you have it. The final message regarding writer’s groups: Write, meet and drink!

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6 thoughts on “Ode to my Writer’s Group

  1. This is great, Beth. Thank you for sharing it. It was great to see you at the show a couple of weeks ago! (I’ve always wanted to refer to something as “the show”…it sounds so young). =)

  2. Thanks, Beth. I’m honored you would want to repost this on your blog. I had a great day at the James River Writers conference today. I hope to find time to blog about it soon.

  3. Thos post makes me get so misty. I love you guys so much, and I’m so thankful my path got to intersect with all of yours. This was (and is, and always will be) a profound moment in my life, and I am so thankful to have you all.

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