12.16.2008

Writing group

Debbie over at Girl with Pen had a post about the challenges of starting a writing project, and she asked readers what strategies they've developed to help them see a project through. Her query was the motivation I needed to write about something I've been wanting to share for some time now: the importance of having a writing group.

A little more than three years ago, I was at the beginning of writing my book on zines by girls and women. I'd spent a whole summer researching and attempting to write a chapter about the materiality of zines and why that materiality matters, and I had struggled, coming up with draft after draft that had no core, no heart, no momentum. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say, and I got to the point of realizing that my writing days were done. Unbeknownst to me, I had already written the last intelligent thing I was ever going to write. The semester was about to start, I hadn't finished a chapter, and I was sliding into a pit of despair.

Fortunately, I encountered Conseula at a campus meeting on a day that I was trying not to cry, and she, too, was feeling pretty despairing about her own writing project. So we decided to start a writing group.

Claire, Conseula, and I have been a writing group ever since. It's fantastic. The group buoys us emotionally, keeping us from staying long in those places where we feel like we have nothing to say, and it helps us to be productive: all three of us have finished book manuscripts in the time we've been together.

So here's the structure that makes our writing group work. Please feel free to take these guidelines and use them to create a group of your own.

1. Have no more than three (maybe four) people in the group. It helps if they're people who aren't doing exactly what you're doing, but have some common ground with you.
2. Every week the group reads one person's writing. The person whose turn it is emails us her writing a day or two before our meeting, and we read and comment on it in advance, and then discuss our comments and suggestions during our meeting. You don't want to have more than three (or at maximum four) people in your group because you don't want to wait too long between turns.
3. Try to allow two hours for each meeting. You'll need time to have your catching up on life conversations and to discuss the writing. Don't try to skip the catching up on life conversations, because they're important, but be sure to get to the writing.
4. Offer real critiques. In our group we do a good job of pointing out the things that are working well in the writing--a very important thing--and we take seriously our task of helping each other make our writing better. The writing group provides an opportunity for all of us to see how our writing plays to an audience and to get feedback on how to reorganize, clarify. Many, many times my writing group has helped me to realize what the three key ideas in my chapters were, when I wasn't sure that I even had any key ideas.
5. You never get to skip your week. This is probably the most important rule of all. The writing group works in great part because it makes you accountable. In an academic life (honestly, probably in anybody's life) there are always things that are more urgent than your writing, and so the writing will always be on the back burner. If you had the option of skipping your turn in writing group, you would do that all the time, and then the writing group would be pointless. Even if all you can do for your turn is spend fifteen minutes writing some stream of consciousness crap that you email to the group the night before your turn, then that's fine. That counts.
6. It helps to have a name. In the acknowledgments to Sisterhood, Interrupted, Debbie thanks the Invisible Institute--which I presume is her writing group. I thought that was really cool, so we named our group the Super Ninja Writing Force. It's hard to be cooler than that.

2 comments:

hazel Ketchum said...

Happy Birthday

Deborah Siegel said...

CHEERS and HUZZAH for the Ninjas! I absolutely love it Allison. I relate to the tears. And I love the way you've laid out guidelines here. I'm off to link to you, back atcha :)

Meanwhile, I am now part of two writing groups: The Invisible Institute is my authors group, where we gather monthly to talk about the business aspects of being writers (we're all in NYC trying to make a go of a semblance of a living from writing nonfiction) and another one that actually shares writing, like the Ninjas. That one's named Matilda, after the cat at the Algonquin Hotel, which is where we held our first meeting. So here's to the Invisibles, Matilda, Ninjas, and all other writers groups that keep us all going, and have kick ass names to boot! Write on!!! :)