April 13, 2016KR BlogBlogWriting

Literary Magic: On Finding a Writing Group

I’m sitting down to write this post an hour after I finished teaching the final class in a community short fiction workshop. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to my students—a group of insightful, talented women who brought some stunning stories to the workshop table. As we prepared to say goodbye, one writer asked if anyone would like to continue meeting on a monthly basis as a writing group. “It’s so difficult to meet strong writers who are also looking for critique groups,” she explained. “I’m not ready to let this go yet.”

Her proposal was met with universal enthusiasm. Yes, these women wanted to keep meeting and sharing their work. No, they weren’t ready to leave this experience behind.

I’d been having a rough day for reasons unrelated to the workshop, but watching my students eagerly discuss their new writing group improved my mood. While I was pleased to see that our workshop had been a success, I mostly felt relieved for these women—relieved because they had found one another, and in such a relatively short time.

In “Everyone Needs a Writing Tribe,” Janis Cooke Newman points out that emerging writers often feel isolated. She shares a particular phenomenon that unfolds at the writing conference she runs every year:

As the conference winds down, these writers begin coming to me with the same request—stopping me in the dining hall, on the dirt path to my cabin. It’s not the email address of the agent I’ve flown in from New York they’re after, or the contact information for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who workshopped their piece. Who they most want to be in touch with once the conference is over, is each other.

I know the feeling. It took me years to find the writers I’d eventually come to trust in critique groups. When I moved to Cleveland, I knew almost no one, and certainly no writers. I joined every writing group I could possibly find, never mind the attendees’ experience levels or preferred genres or critique styles. The results were mixed, to put it politely. I attended a new group at a local library, but the workshop was structured around writing something on the spot and then offering nothing but shallow praise. For a few months, I drove to an abandoned futon factory (is that right—an old futon factory? I swear it’s true, even if it does sound like an industrial fairy tale to me now) for a workshop that seemed promising but ultimately led nowhere. I found more than one group on a meetup website, but those groups soon fizzled out, too.

I eventually became a regular at two public workshops, but I wasn’t satisfied. Both groups had large, rotating memberships, and while I did meet some lovely and talented writers, other attendees offered critiques ranging from generally unhelpful to borderline hostile. On more than one occasion, my now-husband asked why I put myself through this. From his perspective, the groups weren’t doing much to help my writing and instead only frustrated me. But I couldn’t give up. I needed a writing community.

Things gradually started to change. In one workshop, I struck up a tentative friendship with an aspiring memoirist. Then a woman in my other longstanding group wanted to meet for coffee. Before long, these two women and I formed our own critique group and literary friendship. Meanwhile, a past workshop instructor invited me to his writing group, one with authors so experienced and sharply insightful that I stumbled through the first few meetings in a kind of grateful shock. It was as though all those other writing groups had been a test preparing me for the real deal.

I don’t regret my long and exasperating search for a writing group, but I also wouldn’t wish it on other emerging writers. So earlier tonight, when my workshop students vowed to meet on their own, I felt I was witnessing a little bit of literary magic. I looked at them and remembered those awkward, unhelpful, or misguided writing groups I had attended years ago, back when all I wanted was some writerly camaraderie and support.

You are lucky, I thought as I waved goodbye to my students. You’ve found each other. Now don’t let go.