by Debra Spark
Originally published in Pierport.com
As soon as I graduated from the Iowa
Writers Workshop, I went looking for what a graduate writing program should
provide-intelligent criticism, support, and community. I went looking
for all that É and snacks. Which is to say, I tried to find a writers'
group. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, 13 years ago. I was in town on
a writing fellowship and there were enough others-teaching, or acquainted
with those teaching, at the University-to form a cozy group. One night,
I signed off on a phone call with my folks by saying, "Gotta go.
I'm in this little women's writers' group, and we're meeting tonight."
"Little women?" my father said. "Wee wee women? I could
help them with that."
My father is an endocrinologist, and
even now, half the pens I write with advertise growth hormone. I don't
know why I felt compelled to be dismissive-this little group-save perhaps
I thought I should be beyond such things by now. Did Nabokov have a writers'
group? Did Alice Munro? Was Alice Munro slicing brownies into tiny little
wedges and arranging them on a plate in preparation for literary discussion?
To this day, my father still asks me how the little women writers are.
I know we both picture four-inch friends with tiny pens. And how are the
little women? The truth is: they're great. I sometimes add up all the
things that helped me become a writer: bits of encouragement in the face
of rejection, mentors, even favorite books, but the most important hing
was my writers' group-not the original gang back in Wisconsin, but three
Boston friends who helped me shape my novels and served as such steady
emotional ballasts as I tried to get them published.
Finding a Group
Not that all writers' groups serve such a function. It took me a long
time to find a group that was right for me. Along the way, I had the equivalent
of one-night stands-groups that met and then dissolved immediately. In
one case, because a couple in the group broke up. In another case, because
the person whose house we met at moved away. I also had what I'd call
three long-term relationships. They foundered for complicated reasons.
"The best stories I know I must not tell," writes Bonnie Friedman
in "Your Mother's Passions, Your Sister's Woes: Writing About the
Living," an essay about the moral complications of using your family
as fodder for your fiction. I feel the same way about my writers' groups.
I know why they failed-just as I know why, prior to my marriage, my romantic
relationships failed--but it would seem profoundly disloyal to confess
Of course, just as you can list the traits
that might make a relationship fail-lack of communication, infidelity-you
can come up with a list for writers' groups. It's no good if you don't
care deeply about everyone in the group, if you don't genuinely love each
person's writing. A tall order, of course, but affection and admiration
seem necessary to avoid that other bugaboo of writers' groups: competition.
You have to trust that you'll be happy for your colleagues' successes,
and they'll feel the same about yours. One day, an envelope that I addressed
to myself showed up in the mailbox. "Ah, a rejection," I thought,
and because I knew it was a rejection of a story I'd already sent out
17 times, I decided, as I tore open the envelope, to retire the story.
Only it was an acceptance! I couldn't have been more thrilled. I told
a member of my then-writing group about my luck, and he said sourly, "I
got a rejection in the mail today." True confessions: this member
of my writing group also happened to be my boyfriend at the time. Another
writing group no-no. Spouses, significant others, etc, etc. should find
their own group. And it would be best if members of that group were, more
or less, at the same place in their writing careers. No tentative beginners
with Pulitzer Prize winners, thank you.
Meeting at Andre's
Many writers' groups have a putative leader-the oldest
member, the one with the longest publishing record or the biggest personality-and
this sets up a dynamic that I don't like. I opt for democracy when it
comes to writing groups. That said, I once was in a writing group that
met at the home of Andre Dubus, in the years after an accident
that left him wheelchair bound. As I always heard it, the group had been
formed by a friend of Andre's, eager to do something to cheer him
up-and to keep people stopping by his house. By the time I joined, the
group was in its second or third incarnation, and I had the impression
that all the members had a strong personal connection with Andre.
They might have met him professionally-there was a magazine editor, a
former student and a bookstore owner in the group-but they felt more like
Andre's group met weekly, trading
off whose work would be read out loud and discussed. This made for long
evenings, and since I lived an hour away from Andre's home, I sometimes
found the meetings a burden on top of my other obligations. Still, I felt
lucky for the group. I had recently returned to Boston after eight years
away, and I didn't know many people in the area-save for my parents' friends.
Now I had the people I'd met at Andre's.
I wasn't entirely sorry, though, when
an illness in the family gave me an excuse not to make the weekly trips.
I was tired, and though I liked everyone in the group, something about
our collective dynamic made me edgy and competitive, though not in a literary
way. Mostly I felt competitive about being interesting. During our meetings,
if I was-or tried to be--interesting, I felt narcissistic and foolish
when I returned home, and if I didn't make an effort, then I felt rather
worthless. My problem, I know, and not the group's. It may, oddly, have
been because of something I liked: how funny people could be. Most evenings,
the person whose work was slated to be discussed had a habit of apologizing
for the piece, in advance. Often, there would be some ribbing about the
disclaimer, before we listened to the story. Once, someone even wrote
out his disclaimer-a hilarious bit of self-deprecation that was so clever
that we decided we'd workshop the disclaimer instead of bothering with
I was in my late twenties, when I was
in Andre's group, and in those days I wasn't at a point where I
could make effective use of criticism. When I read work to the group,
what I wanted-what I wanted more than anything-was to be told that I was
a good writer. And in fact the set up of the group-where we listened to
work, without a copy of the manuscript in hand-made in-depth criticism
difficult, though people did make suggestions. Andre, for all his
virtues, wasn't a real critic. Sometimes, after we were all through discussing
a piece, he'd look up puzzled, as if to say, What had we done? With our
questions and remarks? It was hard to write.
Andre's group disbanded and reformed, not long after I left. And
then I found my group, the one that truly worked for me. There were four
of us, all already good friends. Two of us came from Andre's group-Jessica
Treadway and myself. A third member, Elizabeth Searle, and I shared an
office at Emerson College. As for the fourth: one evening, Jessica and
I went to hear Chris Tilghman, another friend from Andre's group,
read at the Cambridge Public Library. Local writers whose work had been
published in that year's edition of Best American Short Stories were being
featured. After Chris, a woman named Joan Wickersham read, and we so loved
her story that we went over and introduced ourselves. I'm not quite sure
who had the idea of forming a group, or even if Jessica, Joan and Elizabeth
had connections with each other, independent of the ones I knew about.
I imagine they must have, for just before our first meeting, The Boston
Phoneix ran a page-size photograph of Joan, Elizabeth and Jessica, each
holding a copy of her first book.
As a joke, I pencilled a stick figure version
of myself into the group, only I was holding Harold and the Purple Crayon.
I did feel like the least accomplished member of the group. Also, like
the least talented writer, but rather than seeming threatening, this now
seemed thrilling. I'd learn so much. I was clearly in a better frame of
mind to be in a writers' group than I had been before. The ability to
revise, according to screenwriter Nora Ephron, is a developmental stage.
It certainly was for me, for what I wanted now was direct and pointed
criticism. I didn't want my feelings spared either. I wanted to know what
I needed to do to improve my work. And that's exactly what I got.
The Three Critics
As critics, each of the members of my group had different virtues. Joan
was good at the big picture, making broad comments about where work went
astray. Jessica was good at articulating a piece's psychological inaccuracies
(and its overall strengths). Elizabeth was the best line editor and the
best about reminding me that characters were fleshy beings, and as such,
shouldn't be left too long without a sensation about what things looked
or smelled or felt like. All three made imaginative suggestions about
where a work might go. In other groups, I've always had to weigh criticism:
was so-and-so really right? Could I trust that opinion? With Joan, Jessica
and Elizabeth, I simply agreed. Sometimes unhappily--when I felt lazy,
when I wanted to think I was through working on something--but always
Burning Cookie Wrappers
But I'd be lying if I said criticism was the most important part of my
group. Whenever we met-and we didn't have a weekly schedule, we worked
around our parental or professional obligations-we had É well, snacks,
the required snacks (Elizabeth's husband chocolate chip cookies, Jessica's
lasagna, Joan's famous chicken). Once I brought amaretti cookies, so I
could show everyone how to do a trick with the cookie wrappers. This involved
making a tube of the paper and lighting it on fire. After the paper burned
down, the still-ablaze wrapper lifted into the air, where it consumed
itself, before sending an ash floating down to the floor. Elizabeth put
this little stunt into her novel, and Joan's son took a real liking to
it, so the trick became a regular ritual-something we did at our annual
Christmas party. And aside from the ritual snacks É there was ritual
writers' talk, complaints about our lives, gossip É just stuff, but
the sort of stuff that helps me when I sit down to write. A great book
to read, a reminder that other writers struggle with the should-I-call-my-agent?
question. Once we were talking about a mean review that one of us had
gotten. A reviewer had complained about an unsympathetic protagonist.
"Oh, I don't like Raskolnikov," Joan mock-whined, as if in accord
with the reviewer's line of thinking. "He's not a nice guy."
When I laughed, I felt what I always felt when our group met: this is
right where I want to be. I don't want to be anywhere else right now.
Which is why it seems so sad that my group has disbanded. We didn't-as
a friend says of her once closely knit writers' group-"get a divorce."
What happened was that I took a job in Maine. I moved away-not that far,
but far enough. As a send-off present, Elizabeth framed snapshots of the
group, lighting cookie wrappers in Jessica's kitchen. I didn't think my
move would break up our group. After all, I came back for meetings, but
É long-distance romance is a trick, and it is only just now, after
six years of living in Maine that I realize we haven't met in two years,
so I guess I don't belong to a writers' group anymore.
And this makes me feel as if I'm suddenly
single. In the past, when I ended a romantic relationship, I always felt
disappointed, as people do, but also a little relieved, aware that my
new independence offered me a chance to grow. I could say the same about
my writers' group. That it's good I'm no longer in it. But here's where
my analogy falls apart. Because what I truly feel is that I have left
my beloved husband in Boston, and I'm stuck here, on the ground floor
of my Maine home. Which would be fine, I'm used to being alone, only I've
got this dresser-and a novel strikes me as the heaviest of dressers- and
I'm standing at the foot of the stairs, wondering, "How do I get
this thing up to the bedroom, all by myself?"
DEBRA SPARK is the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint (Faber & Faber, 1994; Avon, 1996) and The Ghost of Bridgetown (Graywolf, 2001). Her essay collection, Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing, was published by University of Michigan Press, which has also published her latest novel, Good for the Jews.
Four writers: thoughts
and advice on writing groups
Dan Chaon, author of the short
story collections Fitting Ends (TriQuarterly Books, 1996)
and Among the Missing (Ballantine, 2001) and a novel, You
Remind Me of Me (Ballantine, 2004). more
My best writers group experience has
been with people I already know in some capacity. My least favorite
has been working with people I'm just meeting for the first time
in the group. (I'm currently in a group of) four people. We meet
once a month. We drop off manuscripts two weeks before our meeting,
and then it's usually a question of winding our way into talking
about the manuscript. Often we will have a short and intense discussion
of the manuscript that winds off into other sidebars. It'll become
a brainstorming session or a free association session about things
that are connected to the story: issues of technique or psychology.
Sometimes that's more helpful than directly discussing the story.
The group had been really helpful,
just because it gives me something to shoot for, a deadline. Since
writing is a solitary activity, getting any sort of feedback makes
you work better and faster. For me, at least, it is hard to go for
months and months without anybody seeing something, because I swing
between thinking, "I'm writing something really great,"
and "Oh, my God, I'm a crazy person." So it's helpful
to have that grounding. For me, that's what a writing group is for:
to give you that grounding.
Caroline Preston, author of
the novels Jackie by Josie (Scribners, 1997) and Lucy
Crocker 2.0 (Scribners, 2000). More
My own career was so unorthodox. I
didn't start writing till I was 40, and I never went to grad school
in writing. My only training was two summers at the Bennington writers'
workshop. Then I joined a group that I paid for, a group run by
Sally Brady, who is a literary agent and writer. Sally's group met
every two weeks. Everyone could read ten pages at each meeting.
For me, being in a paid group made me produce pages on deadline
at a rapid past. With the ten-page pieces, I got regular feedback
that helped me direct and revise the book, so by time I was done
with the first draft, my novel was in much better shape than it
would otherwise be. There are advantages to a group that is organized
by someone. When Sally moved away, the group decided to continue
on its own, but it fell apart. We spent most of our time chatting
and not discussing the work.
As for advice: You have to figure
out what you want out of your group. Are you looking for instruction,
support and camaraderie? Figure out what people's expectations are
and what level of criticism people are looking for. In general,
smaller is better. The bigger the group, the more likely you are
to get a big mouth in there. And be really careful. It is very easy
to get misguided, to get trashed in a group. You have to ask yourself
if a group is going to useful for you. Are they really supportive
of you? Are they on your side? Otherwise, why be in a writing group?
I have friends who've moved to other areas, and they tried to find
a group, and they found themselves with people writing genre romances,
and the group was of no use whatsoever. Or they found themselves
with very opinionated people who were just wrong. It's sort of a
miracle if you find a group that works. But there's still good reason
to be in a group. Because of the isolation of being a writer, I've
just got to get out of here and go see other people. That is an
important element for me
Chris Tilghman, author of the
novel Mason's Retreat (Random House, 1996) and the short
story collections In a Father's Place (Farrar, Straus &
Giroux, 1990) and two novels: The Way People Run (Random
House, 1999) and Roads of the Heart (Random House, 2004).More
I wish I were (in a writers group).
I had a little one, but the problem was people weren't producing
a whole lot, and we ran out of material to talk about. The primary
functions of the writers group are obviously, Number One, to have
supportive fellow travelers and the opportunity to live a literary
life for a few hours removed from the rest, and, Number Two, inserting
discipline and regularity into your life. Even if you're having
a busy week, (the writers group) reminds you that this is what you
should be doing. If you're really serious about this thing, you
should meet a lot, regularly. Once a week, make a commitment.
Pagan Kennedy, author of the
biography Black Livingstone: A True Tale of African Adventure (Viking, 2001), the story collection, Stripping (1998),
a memoir, Zine (1995), a novel, Spinsters (1995),
and a book of cultural criticism, Platforms (1994).More
I've been in a group for 12
years. I think we started in 1988. Although the people have changed.
The only constant for our group is Lauren Slater and I, but we've
stayed at four members. We meet weekly, or try to, always on Thursday
nights. We get it in every one's head that that's where we're going
to be. For this kind of group, four is the magic number. We splintered
off a group that was larger-it was a great group-but it wasn't the
kind of set up we wanted. The other group was into Xeroxing things
and being more professional. We wanted a group to go to every week,
just to gab, and we didn't want to Xerox. We just come in with whatever
we're working on and read it. Sometimes we don't even do much critiquing.
We're all pretty confident as writers as this point, so if something
is in process, we just say, "That's good. Keep going."
If someone's about to send something out, we might notice a problem.
It depends. Sometimes you've just started something, and you're
really excited about it, and you feel it is just genius, and we
try not to knock someone out of that state, but if someone has a
book proposal , and they want to send it out and for it to be perfect,
then we'll really work on it. I think having Xeroxes in front of
you makes people more nit-picky. Sometimes no one has work, and
we just sit around gabbing and eating. We consider life problems
as well. If you're upset about something or making a life decision,
that is like writing. Whatever it is, you can present it. So it's
almost like a support group.
Articles & Advice >>