Two By Two

February 20, 2018 § 20 Comments

I’ve never been a writing group person.

We can’t leave until Janie gets back from the bathroom. Again.

1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.

2) It’s hard to find the right group.

Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?

The right people are worth a lot of effort.

The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.

Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:

Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.

Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’

I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.

I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.

Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.

Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.

Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.

Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 14 Comments

I think my mother knows more than she’s telling…

Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”

But should you?

One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.

As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?

By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.

For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.

Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:

In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.

Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Who Do We Read?

February 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

4-algonquin-frank-case-dorothy-parker_650Many new writers worry that the literary world is closed. A hotbed of nepotism, mutual back-scratching, and willful avoidance of anything or anyone from over the transom. And in a way it is–no matter what our level, whether our work is in the local coffee-house’s literary journal or a respected national publication, writers read our friends, we read the people our friends told us to read, we read people with whom we have something in common, and then–if there’s time–we read everyone else.

This can be deeply frustrating when a writer is starting out. Over at LitHub, Jeff Sharlet writes an open letter to a stranger convinced his work is being overlooked, about the priorities Sharlet sets when deciding how to fill his limited reading time:

You seem indignant that I’ve not read your work; you don’t mention whether or not you’ve read mine; and you can’t imagine that there might be work by those besides you—besides me!—worth reading.

For instance, work by young writers, students, for whom I’m often the only reader. You could say, “Sure, but those kids are privileged, they can afford college.” Fair enough. But reading their work is the job that allows me to afford groceries. It has the added benefit of being deeply pleasurable, in part because so few students presume their own genius. They tend to be grateful for a single reader, even one who’s slow, sometimes, because he procrastinates by answering crank emails from strangers.

Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.

Here’s what I’ve read since you first wrote to me instead of clicking on your link:

Sharlet discusses the circumstances that create communities of mutual readers, and how literary citizenship arises inextricably from personal connection–but also, how that “personal” connection isn’t something that springs fully-formed, how personal connection and literary “friends” are cultivated and maintained, largely through mutual interest in each others’ words and subject matter.

Are you reading your friends’ work? Are you reading the places you want to be published, and having small interactions in person or in email or on social media? Are you looking for places to meet other writers online or in person, in workshops, classes, forums and interest groups? Are you reading widely in the subjects or genres you care about most, and letting those authors know you exist and you appreciate their work? Those are the first steps. And what we’re all heading for is not tumbling down the walls of the literary Jericho we stand outside in supplication, but creating a new world of our own. One holding the citizens we most admire, encompassing the writers who came up with us and ourselves.

Read Jeff Sharlet’s When a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece: In a Letter to a Total Stranger, Why I Read What I Read, at LitHub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her literary community is largely former classmates, fellow workshop attendees, and writers she knows from a LiveJournal community.

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