It’s a pleasure for me to welcome today’s guest blogger, Su Sokol, who will share her thoughts on being a member of a writing group.
It was my friend Sharon who invited me to my first writers’ group meeting.
This was the spring before my year-long writing sabbatical, a sabbatical I had earned over a period of three years by working full-time while having 25% of my salary put aside. Those three years were difficult, and the wait before I could start writing the novel I’d been imagining was frustrating. I tried to convince myself that I was in some kind of important pre-writing phase. I made a list of things I needed to do. In my ignorance, the list was pretty short: Join the Québec Writers Federation. Buy a laptop computer. Take a fiction workshop. Now I had another item I could add: Join a writing group.
In fact, I was clueless about how to become a writer. It’s not that writing per se was an unfamiliar activity. I’d studied philosophy and law and written many papers, legal briefs, and memoranda over the years. However, this was not quite the same thing as writing a novel. The idea of having a writing group that met and exchanged ideas appealed to me. Working with groups and having meetings was something familiar—not only from my job but as an activist. If this method worked for strategizing about legal cases and planning demonstrations, why not for writing a novel too?
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to laugh and say how naive I was, how ridiculous the idea that meetings and groups could somehow help a person become a writer. Writing, after all, is an infamously solitary activity, well-suited to the socially awkward, to misanthropes and introverts, right? Maybe or maybe not, but what I have to say is this: Writing groups have been my single most important tool in becoming a writer and improving my craft, as well as a source of great personal satisfaction and pleasure. Even now, three and a half years and the publication of a novel, two short stories, and a number of reviews later, my writers’ group meetings are, more than ever, often the high point of my week. Lest you think that my life must be awfully dull for me to so look forward to these meetings, I will mention that my weeks are also filled by a satisfying job and wonderful family and friends.
To date, I have been a member of six different writing groups, and at one point, three at the same time. For the past couple of years, I’ve belonged to two groups, both of which meet on a regular evening every two weeks. Each group I’ve been in has had different procedures, styles, and rules. For instance, in one, we read our work out loud for on-the-spot feedback. In another, it was necessary to apply to be accepted as a member and submit a writing sample. Some of my groups have met in people’s homes, others in cafés or restaurants, and one at a bar. Whether everyone submits or the members take turns, whether the feedback is oral, on paper or electronic, whether the discussions happen over a beer or accompanied by a vegan burrito, the one thing that successful groups have in common is the mutual respect and attention that members give to each others’ works, regardless of genre or stage of development.
Don’t get me wrong. There can be bad experiences too: members who frequently don’t show up, or neglect to do their homework; writers who are not looking for honest feedback but simply for praise; people who are insensitive when critiquing another’s work.
Even in the best groups, there are going to be differences along such lines. Level of commitment may range from fanatical (me) to people with many higher priorities in their lives. There are writers who will express deep gratitude—and mean it— for being told that their submission is a piece of crap, while others will fall apart at the slightest suggestion that their story can be improved. Some people have a gift for making suggestions in a way that makes the writer feel encouraged, but some of us have trouble foreseeing how our words will be received.
Honesty is important. If you tell someone that their work kicks ass when you actually think it has serious flaws, you are doing the writer a disservice that will likely result in greater disappointment down the line. At the same time, if you are too harsh, forgetting to mention what works in the story or what was beautiful or captivating or innovative, you risk not only making the person feel unnecessarily bad, but in demotivating them. I have rarely read a piece where I had any trouble whatsoever finding things I liked.
We all have our own tastes, styles, goals and perspectives. It is important to acknowledge when these factors are particularly present. Another important thing I’ve learned is that, in the end, it’s the writer who must decide not only what needs fixing but how to fix it. This is something that becomes obvious when half the people in your group love an element in your story that the other half found problematic. One day, pouring over pages and pages of contradictory feedback and trying to figure out what to do, I simultaneously understood three things clearly: that writing by committee is not a viable option; that I would never please everyone; and that it was all on me to make the final decisions. That last revelation was not only the scariest, it was the most liberating.
When asked about my editorial process, I like to joke that I use something called “community editing.” If it takes a village to raise a child, for me, it took my writing groups to raise my novel to the point where a publisher was interested. Of course, the publisher made me do a lot of editing too, but this does not mean that I forgot who my first editors were. When my novel was published, I’d hoped to be able to personally thank all of the people who’d helped workshop it. Had I done so, my “acknowledgements” would have been more like a chapter than a page. After having made me cut whole chapters out of my novel, the publisher was not about to let me add a new one. In all seriousness, this is something I think I will always regret—not being able to properly thank all of the writing group members who helped me. It is for them that I have written this piece.
Su J. Sokol is a social rights advocate and a writer. Her debut novel, Cycling to Asylum, was published this past spring by Deux Voiliers Publishing. It can be purchased online or at an independent bookstore near you.
You can read Ms. Sokol’s author interview here