So You Want to Join a Writing Group Part V: Find Your Tribe
Being part of a writing group can be a harrowing experience. No matter how seasoned a writer you are, it’s already difficult to share your work, whether it’s with people you know or complete strangers. Knowing you’re going to hear things you won’t like doesn’t make it any easier.
Sometimes, people in workshops can be downright brutal. I’m not talking firm, constructive criticism here. You can get used to that, and frankly, as a writer, you need to. What I’m referring to is blood and guts, take no prisoners behavior. These folks say despicable, mean things. Whether it’s because they shouldn’t be awake past six p.m., they received one too many rejection slips from The New Yorker, or they subsist on the tears of distraught critique victims, it’s hard to say.
In creative writing programs they call this phenomenon the “shark tank,” and it can make you want to hide your head in a fish bucket that still contains a decent number of fish. It’s not quite as bad when it happens in real world critique groups, since in those cases you can leap from your chair and run for the hills, but it’s still tough.
Despite this, taking part in a writing group can be the best experience of your writerly life. It can help you gain new perspective on your work, see it through someone else’s eyes, and give you that most valuable gift of all: honest feedback from people who speak a similar language. Even a mediocre group can help, but when you find relatable people who seem to know your work as well as you do, then you’ve found your match.
But what if you don’t already have a network of writer friends to choose from? Here are a couple of ideas:
If you do know any writers, ask them if they know about any meetings. Check for writing clubs or conferences in your hometown. Even if they don’t have an official critique group, these organizations may sponsor or help coordinate others. You might also think about checking or posting on bulletin boards in libraries, bookstores, schools, or community centers. You can do all this online, too, through listings like Craigslist and Inked Voices. The primary drawback there is it takes longer to get to know people via Skype or WebEx, and it’s tough to beat sitting across the table from someone as a way of getting acquainted.
While you’re looking, beware of proofreading services masquerading as writing groups. These can sometimes be legit, but they may also involve someone taking your money to give you “professional” or “authoritative” advice on your story or novel. If you’re willing to pay for this kind of feedback, go for it, but remember that just because someone claims they’re an expert doesn’t mean they are. As with everything else, research is your friend.
Commit, But Be Cautious
Once you think you’ve found a group, try to get an idea of how they do things. How often do they meet, for instance? Once a week can be too demanding for people with day jobs, whereas only meeting every six to eight weeks can make it difficult to develop a good habit. Miss one meeting and you’ve gone four months without exchanging work.
Also, be sure everyone is contributing and critiquing, not one or two people. In those cases, it can turn out to be a one or two-sided affair, existing mostly for a couple of people to run pages by a ready-made proofing service. If you don’t mind doing that for someone, of course, it’s fine. Chances are, though, if you’re interested in joining a writing group, you want more than that.
No matter what happens, if you start to feel like things aren’t working for you, remember you always have the right to bow out. Unless you signed a contract, of course. (Pro Tip: Don’t sign a contract.) Never tolerate abuse of any kind. It’s not worth it.
Your own writing group experience may go any of a thousand directions, but there’s no way to find out other than jumping in. You can sit on the sidelines, watch other people get the critique, but until you ante up and put your baby on the table, you’ll never know. It may take a few months or even years to become comfortable with your group, and you may end up moving around in the process. That’s okay. Somewhere out there is your tribe.
From a practical standpoint, collaborating will help your writing, which in turn will improve your chances of publication, if that’s what you’re into. But even if you’re one who writes first of all for the sheer joy of creating something new, and you run across a group of people who share that sentiment—or even one person, for that matter—you can’t afford to let the opportunity go. If you don’t try, there’s no telling what you’ll miss.
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One of the most important and beneficial things an artist can do is join a community with others who are doing similar things. Writing groups aren’t right for all writers, and finding the perfect fit can be a difficult process, but the potential rewards are well worth the effort. This piece is one of a five-part series on the ins and outs of navigating writing groups.