Writers’ groups are like workshops, only less compressed and more ongoing. Writers’ groups are generally free. This is a big plus when you don’t have much in the way of disposable income. Unlike workshops and classes, they usually don’t have instructors. They may have a leader, official or unofficial, but that person’s job is generally to keep things on track, not to teach. In writers’ groups we learn from each other.
You may have had bad experiences in writers’ groups. If you hang out with other writers, you’ve almost certainly heard about a Writers’ Group from Hell. I know they’re out there.
Nevertheless, I’ve been in several writers’ groups over the years, formal and informal, and they’ve taught me a lot. If you aspire to write for an audience of more than one, i.e., yourself, a writers’ group can be beneficial in so many ways. Each meeting is a deadline for you to meet — very helpful if your writing is always taking a backseat to everything else going on in your life. The more work you share with other writers, the braver you’ll get about sharing your work. Other writers’ comments can help you see your own work from different angles — and your comments will help them likewise.
My first writers’ group included mostly poets and fiction writers, all women. Our numbers fluctuated, but there were about six regulars. At each meeting we’d talk about how our writerly lives were going and discuss the work of two or three members. Ideally we’d each get copies of our work to the others before the meeting, but this was long before email so this wasn’t always possible. Once we produced a potluck group reading in which more than 60 women crowded into a smallish community space to enjoy good food and good writing. This was the first public reading I’d ever done. It was wonderful.
A group I was in several years later usually met in the cozy kitchen of one of its members. The kitchen had a fireplace; except in the warmest weather, there’d usually be a fire going. We sat around the kitchen table, sipping coffee (and sometimes Black Bush whiskey), nibbling homemade chocolate chip cookies, and discussing our writing, which included short essays, one-act plays, memoir, and fiction.
At each meeting we’d do some freewriting, all with pen or pencil on paper. We took turns giving a starting word or phrase and setting a time limit — usually 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Then we’d read what we’d written aloud. We didn’t have to, but we nearly always did.
The group I’m in now meets weekly in the sitting room of its leader. She provides popcorn and beverages (usually wine, fruit juice, and water, with hot cider in season); members often contribute other goodies. At each meeting, we pass out copies of our work to everyone else and then read it aloud. As we listen, we mark our hardcopies — a check mark or “good!” for things that stand out, a question mark for things we find puzzling, perhaps an alternative word or wording if one pops into our heads. Then we discuss the work, and when everyone’s had their say, we pass the marked-up hardcopies back to the writer.
As you can see, writers’ groups vary a lot. No one group is going to be everything to all its members. My current group doesn’t lend itself to in-depth critique: we’re all hearing each piece for the first time, and each piece gets about 20 minutes of our attention. Since most of us are writing book-length works — fiction, history, and memoir — we only see a small chunk of it each week. For comments on overall structure, we have to wait till we’ve finished a complete draft, then enlist volunteer readers or a professional editor to read the whole thing. But the weekly deadline has been invaluable, and so is reading my work aloud, and hearing others read theirs.
Yes, I have been in some groups that weren’t so helpful and that sooner or later fell apart. Keeping a group together is a group effort. I could go on, but instead I’ll quote from Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To”: “The real writer is one / who really writes.” If a group is monopolized by writers who talk incessantly about the writing they didn’t do, or were going to do, or mean to do before the next meeting, it will quickly become useless to the writers who are really writing.
So how to find a writers’ group? Libraries and bookstores are a good place to start looking. I know of groups that have spun off from adult ed classes: the course ended, but the writers decided to keep meeting on their own. If you can’t find one, or one that’s currently open to new members — it’s definitely possible for a group to get too big — try starting one. Start small, say with one or two or three writer friends.
And please share your experiences and tips in the comments!
Aside: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or How to Choose a Writers’ Group,” by the novelist and teacher Holly Lisle, is a wonderfully detailed guide, not just to choosing a group but for starting one.