et's start with a truism: When we launch toward any goal for which it's hard to build momentum, we're more likely to succeed if we have some like-minded companions and mutual support. This axiom holds for writing as it does for any other challenging goal. The writer who might otherwise feel isolated, maybe uncertain of her route, can feel her wings lifted by the support of a writing critique group.
When you start looking around for a group to work with, though, you'll find that writing groups are of many varieties - different size groups with different priorities, different requirements or procedures, and different writing genres. Some groups are packed with over-achievers, while others seem lackadaisical - maybe they're recreational writers. Some groups have such rigid rules, they're scary.
So how do you find the group that best fits your style and needs?
First, think about people you've met in writing classes and workshops or at conferences. Do any of them belong to critique groups that work in your genre? Do you talk about your writing in social groups? Perhaps some of your book club members or Red Hat friends or other PTA moms know of critique groups that are open to new members.
With the first critique group I joined, nearly 13 years ago, Luck just took me by the hand: A member of the group approached me one evening after a personal essay workshop. She said she was one of a half-dozen women who met every couple of weeks at a nearby café to work on their draft writings, and they wanted me to visit and check it out. Of course, they were checking me out, as well.
I fell in with that group as if they were the sisters I never had. We were all so alike in our passion for writing personal essays and memoirs and in our intentions to see our work published. At the same time, the variety in the group enriched our writings and the group experience. Our ages ranged from young (24) to recently retired (mid-60's); we were married, never-married, and divorced; some had children, some did not; our jobs ran the gamut from rescue-squad EMT to attorney.
At each meeting, we started with a relaxation-breathing exercise, then moved into a timed writing practice after the Natalie Goldberg model. (Anyone unfamiliar with Goldberg's technique should read about it in Writing Down the Bones or her other early books.) I surprised myself to learn I could write for 10 minutes on almost any subject and shared the results freely because there was no fear of criticism.
The real meat of our gatherings, though, was in the reading and critiquing of new and revised work that each of us brought to the table. We trusted each other with intimate details, painful personal histories, cherished hopes and frustrations. We offered support for those brave writings and offered suggestions for improvement that did not de-value either the experiences or the way they were told. Just as often, we shared in our writings the joys and triumphs of family, career, and personal growth.
Easily, I committed to the group - thrilled that those talented women thought my creative nonfiction worthy of their attention - and it became the springboard for my venture into freelance creative writing. Two Saturday mornings a month, over uncounted cups of coffee, we shared our writing efforts and offered one another the careful and caring critique that allows a writer to learn from her mistakes and gain confidence in her work. Nearly all of the original group transformed from unpublished to published status in the first 6 to 24 months.
"We trusted each
Photo montage by Franko Khoury
Those women who helped me grow as a writer, and who graciously accepted my help, became dear friends as well as colleagues. I stayed with the group for more than 12 years, until I moved to another state.
At our 10-year anniversary mark, we began to talk about collecting some of our writings into a booklet we could give to friends and family. The notion grew and expanded such that in November 2006, with assistance from iUniverse, we published a 168-page collection entitled, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Broom: Memoirs, Stories, and Poems. I was honored to be a co-author and the overall editor for the anthology.
The group, who call themselves the "Stromboli Streghe" (find the name explained by clicking on the book cover at www.bshinewrites.com), still meets twice monthly at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, with two of the original members and one who's a 10-year veteran. New talent is continually joining the group, and I won't be surprised if they produce another collection to mark their 20th anniversary.
What if you're not lucky enough to have a good critique group come to you? Then, just as I had to do after moving to Virginia, you'll need to do some research, stake out the richest hunting grounds, and go forth determined to find the group you want.
You could start with local and state writing organizations. Every state has some kind of an association for writers, many with local chapters. In my new home state, I found the Chesapeake Bay Writers, Virginia Writers Club, and Virginia Press Women - a chapter of the National Federation of Press Women. Try a Web search for your state or country name and the term "writer's organization" or "writing center."
When you find a writer's center in your region, you'll probably find critique groups there, too. No independent writer's center nearby? Check with the closest college. Most university English departments have a resource center for writers, where you can find writing groups on-site or, at least, a referral to an appropriate group. You could try Web sites that list university writing centers and online writing labs (for example, The Writer's Garden).
Libraries and book stores can be helpful, also. Your local librarians and booksellers will know the names of established writers in your region, whom you can contact to ask for information about writers' groups. Go to your nearest independent book shop and look in the "local writers" section for authors who write in your genre and whose work you appreciate.
If you're fortunate enough to have several critique groups to choose from, think about your own goals and priorities before committing to a particular group. For instance, you might feel more comfortable in a group that's only women writers, or that works only on short fiction, or that uses the meeting time for free writing as well as critique. You might have time to attend meetings only once a month or, conversely, feel that you need the stimulus of a meeting every week or two.
If possible, visit meetings of different groups to get a feel for the members' compatibility, their level of seriousness about writing, their goals for the group, and how they conduct the meetings. Hold out for a group that fits like your favorite jeans. Remember, you'll be investing a lot of time and emotional energy with these people, so you want that time to be both profitable and enjoyable.
Finally, what if there is no appropriate group already functioning in your area? Prepare to make yourself into a cornerstone and start a group that fits your own preferences. This is what I chose to do after moving away from my old group in Maryland to my new home in Virginia.
This region is rural and writers somewhat scarce. I found one writers' group advertised in a weekly newspaper, but after visiting a couple of meetings, I felt it wasn't the fit I needed: the members worked in various genres and met to read their work aloud once a month. I was the only writer of creative nonfiction. The larger problem, though, was that the members were too kind and uncritical. Abundant praise is a sweet balm, but I wanted the kind of manuscript review that would help me improve my writing.
So I went scouting for other writers outside that group whose interests lay in memoir and personal essay. Through our Friends of the Library organization, I met a novelist who lives nearby, and she introduced me to a poet from her church. Over a lunch meeting we confirmed our wish to start a critique group. Then the three of us posted flyers in libraries, post offices, banks, schools, shops, and supermarkets across four counties; and we talked to everyone we ran into about starting a nonfiction writing group.
In just a few weeks I had received calls from a dozen men and women who were interested in a critique group for nonfiction writing. Most of them had been writing for some time but had never participated in such a group.
After a preliminary planning meeting at my home, we soon were under way with seven members and an agreement on how often we'd meet and how the meetings would run. We also developed a handful of necessary understandings about confidentiality, what we each expected of the group, the gentle art of critique, and the importance of commitment to our work and to each other.
Now we've been meeting steadily for about 18 months, and I believe this group will be long-running and the friendships we're developing will endure. Some of the initial members have left the group, and new writers have been invited to fill those slots. We've also broadened our focus to include fiction writing.
It's not surprising that I've grown further as a writer in this new critique group. I've learned I can work comfortably with men in the group, even when we're writing on sensitive topics. And I've been encouraged to try my hand at short fiction.
Who knows? Perhaps there's a published collection in this group's future, too.
Barbara Shine is a freelance writer and editor, writing workshop leader, and public speaker who lives in Virginia's Northern Neck, an old and beautiful, uncluttered, and slow-paced region that's bordered by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. She fills her days with writing creative nonfiction and articles, and with teaching others interested in writing the multitude of stories their lives present. Barbara's recently published collection, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Broom: Memoirs, Stories, and Poems, co-authored with 10 women from the DC-MD-VA region, is available in soft cover and e-book formats at www.iuniverse.com. Readers can purchase a copy signed by Barbara at www.bshinewrites.com.