Writing Groups: How? Why?

September 30, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Aimee Christian

A few years ago, I took a ten-week class at the creative writing school in my city. As the sessions drew to a close, we talked about what we would do next: a break, another class, a writing group, work with an editor? I couldn’t decide. I was so fired up about my writing that I wanted to do everything but take a break. 

I went for coffee with a classmate who seemed to have all the answers. I downed my Americano and asked her if she wanted to be in a writing group with me. 

“No,” she said with confidence. “Writing groups and classes are too much work spent on other people’s writing. I don’t want to read and edit other people’s pages anymore. I’m going to invest my time and money in an editor to work on my own pages.”

I thought she was wrong, so I wished her well and took another class. And another one. She was right: the classes were a lot of work on other people’s pages. But I was learning. With every editorial letter, every line edit, my eye got sharper. With every reading assignment, I was becoming better-read.

And when it was time to keep revising the same pages I’d generated in class, it was time for writing groups. During the pandemic, I’ve created and participated in groups that have helped my craft, my process, my accountability, and my entire writing life. Writing groups have solidified writing in my life in seven ways: 

1) Accountability

Some of my writing groups provided, or were specifically for, accountability. People who commit their goals to another person are more likely to accomplish them. Knowing someone can see me keeps my ass in the chair! I have ignored my family and foregone beautiful weather, woken early and stayed up late in the name of completing assignments I said I would.

2) Process

Making time for thought. Making time for my words to breathe. Making time for revision. Having two and three and four opportunities to workshop the same piece. Having group members to read something on deadline at the last minute, or cry with when something gets rejected for the tenth time. Making time to try again and again. Having a proverbial drawer for all those drafts moving through revision cycles and the many pairs of eyes they need. That’s process. 

3) Learning

Writers are notorious introverts—but we also love to talk, and we memoirists love to talk about ourselves in particular. Even in my silent Zooms, we use the chat function like crazy. Ask a memoirist for help and you will hear all the details about how they edited, who helped them, what classes they took, what books they read, where they submitted, what tier rejection they got, and more. You will get offers to read drafts—maybe even an offer to edit. 

4) Editing  

Editing other people’s pages and writing feedback letters have helped me see similar issues in my own writing. When I resisted someone’s feedback suggesting I kill a particular darling, cut a section I loved, or clarify something I felt the reader should understand, it became crystal clear to me why only when I found myself giving that very same feedback to someone else.

5) Motivation

Connecting with other writers and seeing their growth is powerful. Hearing where they’re submitting, where they’re being accepted, helping them achieve their goals always makes me feel like their success could rub off on me, and often it does! I belong to one online group that holds submission parties, and another whose participants commit to getting 100 rejections in a year. 

6) Hive Mind 

I subscribe to lots of writing newsletters and scan calls for pitches and submissions on Submittable and elsewhere, but a group of writers means a lot more sets of eyes. I love getting texts, Slack messages, and emails with calls for pitches and notes saying “Thought of you!” or “Have you seen this?”

7) Camaraderie

Meeting other writers, whether newer or further along in their work, is the best thing about any group. Writers are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. Writers better-published than I have read and edited my pieces, recommended and loaned me books, connected me with other writers, and suggested outlets to pitch. In turn, I have done the same. We are the only people who understand each other’s writing woes, and because of this, I’ve made lasting friends.

So yes, a writing group is time and work spent on others’ pages. But it’s also time and work for your own. A group can improve your writing and introduce you to a life of literary citizenship. Want to know more about how? Create one. 

Join me in conversation about writing groups! How to form one, why to form one, how to improve yours. Leave with tools to make the most of your time, minimize your efforts, and achieve your goals. First session is Sunday October 10th7:00 – 8:30 pm EST. Info and registration on this page

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Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net

Writer Camp

June 3, 2015 § 14 Comments

Writers meeting informally in the library at Atlantic Center for the Arts

Writers meeting informally in the library at Atlantic Center for the Arts

When I’m at a residency, I get up very early, usually around four. I don’t go on social media, or argue in comments sections. I lie in bed and think about what I’m working on for a little while, then get up and brush my teeth in silence instead of with podcasts. I go to whatever place I’ve made “my” place (at Atlantic Center for the Arts it is this small and beautiful library, pictured right), and write until the sun comes up. Then I have coffee and cereal, then write some more.

Around noon it’s naptime. Sometimes there’s a class in the afternoon, or I meet with another writer to discuss our work, or there’s lunch with other writers around a big table. Dinner is cooked by someone else–in fact, I do not have to plan a meal or think about groceries or make a list. That’s always the most surprising freedom–how much mental space is opened up by not spending any time thinking about food, by sitting down to a meal I know will be delicious and healthy and taken care of by someone else.

In the evening I watch the sun set and write some more, enjoying the dusk turning into darkness and the sounds outside becoming nighttime sounds. I walk back to my room, passing studios with lights on as other writers work through the night.

It’s like camp for grownups.

Artist residencies are one of the great gifts we can give ourselves, and one of the greatest things that foundations and organizations do for writers. It’s lack of responsibility, mild-to-medium structure, very mild networking, and open time. It’s where we can discover what our process is like when we’re not squeezing our process into the all-too-small spaces in our lives.

Generally, residencies fit into one or two of four broad categories:

Pay-to-Play: If you’ve got money, you can go. Residencies like Wellspring House and Cambridge Writers Workshop ask for a resume and work sample to demonstrate seriousness of purpose, but they are open to writers of varying skill and experience levels. It’s often possible to apply for a grant from your own local arts council to cover the expenses.

Juried: There’s a serious and sometimes highly competitive screening process. Writers submit some combination of work samples, project proposals, resumes and recommendation letters. Usually these residencies–like Headlands and Atlantic Center for the Arts are free or the cost is low. Some, like Jentel, even offer a stipend, or have fellowships available to defray the cost of travel or childcare.

Workshop-based: The teacher is frequently the draw for residencies like Omega Institute (where Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will be teaching Mindfulness and Writing July 10-12) and Dani Shapiro’s Sirenland workshop.

Wide Open Space: The writer is on their own–it’s your project time to use as you wish, and “productivity” might mean pages or it might mean long walks, deep thought, and a new understanding of your own process. Residency big dogs like the venerable Yaddo and The Macdowell Colony are structure-free but provide meals; Writing Between The Vines is free of even other artists.

Many residencies are a mix. For example, Ragdale provides meals and fellow artists, has a moderate fee, and is highly competitive. The Kenyon Writers Workshop is a juried pay-to-play that’s focused on workshops and generating assignment-based work.

If you can, you should. It’s astonishing how much we are responsible for in our daily lives, and how little falls apart when we step away from our ‘duties.’ Not all of us can take two months, or even three weeks, but residencies like Omega’s Mindfulness and Writing and Hedgebrook’s Vortext are three-day weekends that can refocus your work, re-energize your process, and reassure your writer self that yes, you’re doing it right.

There’s a great list of writing residencies at The Write Life, and I’ve found the directories at ResArtis and the Alliance of Artist Communities to be terrific resources. If you’ve had a residency you found transformative, please tell us about it in the comments–one of the best ways to find a residency is from another writer’s willingness to share a place they love.

Happy camping!

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. So far she’s applied to five residencies for 2015-2016, and hopes to get one. Fingers crossed!

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