I’ve been playing around with trying to start or join a writing group for the past couple of years. I know some people swear by them. But recently when I was at a reading, the two readers were both asked if they had writing groups, and both of them said no. This might be due to the fact that they were both more spoken-word type performers. But I thought it was interesting that they didn’t show their work to anyone before it was performed.
I have not often felt the need to show my work to anyone for feedback. However, sometimes you get the impression that you are operating in a vacuum, so it can be nice to get some feedback. And I know some folks who rely on their writing groups for workshopping.
About a year ago, I started to feel the need for feedback. I had submitted some pieces to a couple of online journals, and had not had any accepted. And I had applied for some grants, and not gotten any traction there either. So I started to think the work needed some, well, work. I met a fellow poet at a reading, and we decided to meet up and workshop with each other.
The first time we met, it was a marathon session, which included a lot of just getting to know each other. I enjoyed it and I think she did too. We met at a coffee shop and it went on for about five hours. That was not something either one of us could maintain, but we agreed to meet again and I think we met once more. Then I helped her out with some childcare while she was taking a poetry class. Then we just never were able to get together after that. Both of us were dealing with health issues, and I think it was hard to find a good time. I liked the jist of it, so it was a shame that it didn’t work out.
After that, I was talking to someone who occasionally does editing work, and I asked her if she would look at a work sample to see if she would be interested in working together (I was looking for an editor in case I received any grant money). I sent her my work sample – and she promptly tore it up. Well, she didn’t really tear it up so much as she simply told me that I needed help – lots of help, more help than she could muster. Nothing specific, nothing actionable.
I tried once more. I took a class, which was supposed to include comments on a manuscript submitted in advance. The day for the class came, we each workshopped one poem, but then all discovered that there were no other comments on our manuscripts. (I think we had all waited until the end to look.) The miscommunication (or whatever it was) was righted with the instructor, who then provided cursory comments on our manuscripts a month later. The actual classtime had been interesting and helpful, but it was not what you would call a good experience (though it had been an expensive one).
Okay, so by this time I am about done with outside influence. I decided to circle the wagons. There was no way that I was going to get help. This had all happened within about four months. I was doing everything I could think to get feedback, to get support, to gain knowledge. And it just wasn’t working. This was the first time in about 25 years that I had tried to get group support for my writing, and it was a disheartening experience, to say the least.
I spent the next several months just writing on my own. Then I took a presentation class, which was three sessions over the period of three weeks. We were instructed on how to use a microphone and various other techniques for presenting your work to an audience. We were asked to read our own work in the process. The response I received here was overwhelmingly positive, as had been my previous experience reading to an audience the year before. The benefit here was that we were not only getting help on presentation skills, but there was one person leading the sessions who provided a little craft commentary as well. It was great.
So now I am no longer looking for a writing group. I am looking for opportunities to read my work in front of an audience. That provided for me a much bigger jolt of encouragement than any group setting had, as well as some helpful tidbits of craft advice. Talk about immediate feedback! I will be reading as part of a festival in May, and I am looking for other opportunities as well.
Now, in terms of writing groups – what has been your experience? Do you thrive and survive in one? Or do you find them hard to manage? Have you experienced groups where the attitude is cutthroat? Or have you found them nurturing and supportive? What are some ways you use to get feedback? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences with writing groups. What do you know?