Writers tend to have strong feelings about writing groups—both for and against. I’m definitely in the for column.
I’ve been in a writing group for as almost long as I’ve been writing. It started in my first Writing for Children class. New York City is full of writing classes, and I was lucky enough to land it a beginner’s class taught by the wonderful Miriam Cohen.
It was my introduction to the workshop method and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide into that world. Miriam listened attentively to whoever was reading that week, launched into a discussions of the piece’s virtues with a big smile on her face, and then—gently—suggested ways to improve the piece. The rest of the class followed her lead and did the same.
Like many beginners’ classes, it was filled with “dabblers,” but a few of us were more serious—had already finished novels and were revising, or were even working on second novels. I was waiting for the crosstown bus after class one night about midway through our ten-week session when Josanne LaValley, one of those other “serious” writers, asked if I was interested in starting a group. She had already talked to Shirley, the other serious middle grade writer in the room, and she was interested, too. I was a little scared, but I said yes.
We picked up where class left off, meeting weekly at each other’s apartments. We didn’t have snacks—too distracting—but at our first meeting Shirley served peppermint tea and that became a tradition. And unlike class where only two people could read each week, we all had a chance.
For most writers, it takes a long time to write a novel good enough to sell. It takes a long time to read and write enough hone our craft. I can say without doubt that if not for the support and encouragement from my group I would probably have given up writing long before I was published. And I learned as much from their journeys and from critiquing their work as I did from my own.
People in our group have come and go. We added a fourth person. Then Shirley left New York, and we invited another someone new in. That’s happened a few times now. But Josanne and I are still showing up every week. I love how that weekly deadline keeps me on track. I love hearing other writers’ novels build chapter-by-chapter. And I really love celebrating when one of us sells something.
I try to channel my inner Miriam Cohen every week, to smile while I delight in what’s working, and being gentle in my criticism. I don’t always remember. Sometimes I grumble around like an angry bear. But we all know that at the bottom of every piece of criticism we’re giving or receiving is a dedication to story, and to making the work be the best it can be.