Before heading off to school to study creative writing, I had been a member of two different writing groups. The first consisted of a number of my journalist colleagues who had novels and screenplays stashed in the backs of their desk drawers. A few significant others and friends joined the group, until it became an unwieldy size for any real critiquing to take place, and I think it proved to be more social than anything else. Plus, I felt strange showing my creative writing to people I worked with — it felt too personal to share with professional colleagues, even if those colleagues were my friends.
The second writing group was more of a success. We were a group of about six women, writing and sharing short stories. I think all of us had been through a writing workshop or two — one woman had an MFA — so we had more discipline and the skills for reading and critiquing others’ work. All of us worked at media outlets, but not all of us worked together. We met for a year or so, and I think I can say all of us looked forward to our meetings, which were held monthly. We talked and gossiped, but we also seriously discussed each other’s work. The feedback was helpful. It was, alas, one of those strange confluences of lives overlapping that formed the group, and when our lives diverged, the group fell apart. Two of us left to begin MFA programs; another woman moved back to the East Coast. Those who remained in San Francisco lost momentum.
I miss that writer’s group. It’s taken me three and a half years of recovery from MFA workshops to be able to get to this point. I knew, when I completed my MFA program, that I needed other writers. That was, strange as it sounds, something that I learned in my program. Writing is a solitary practice, and yet…there’s only so far you can go on your own. You can revise and revise, but at some point another set of eyes can help see what you can’t. It helps if that other set of eyes is familiar with narrative, is a critical reader of the type of writing that you do, and is honest, but not brutally so. (I don’t, for example, turn to my husband for a response to whatever I’m working on. He’s very honest, and I love him for his views on many things, but he’s a businessperson and lacks the vocabulary and expertise to critique my writing. His responses are often “I liked that one,” or “that was depressing.”)
All writers need go-to readers, whether it’s a writing group, or just a friend who is willing to read all of your stuff and has the expertise to provide the appropriate commentary. I’ve reached a point in a number of pieces of writing where I can’t progress without some feedback. Does this piece of memoir ring true? Is it a problem that this character uses broken English? Does this scene seem believable? I think I’m ready to look for a writer’s group again, though the task is a daunting one. I tried it last February and failed. I answered a well-worded ad on Craigslist that made the group sound like a perfect fit. I went twice, and it was not, for various reasons. It’s hard to find a group of writers who are working at the same level, are at similar points in their publication histories, and who can read and comment on each other’s work in a way that works for everyone involved. Personalities have to click, but the writing and the goals for the writing have to as well.