Literary Hub

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Writing Group

writing group

I met Supergroup for the first time in the fall of 2008. Or rather, I met the members of Supergroup that fall, in a class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called “Working on Your Novel.” We wouldn’t officially begin to call ourselves Supergroup until at least a year later and it would be another two years before we donned the first T-shirts with our writerly crest printed upon them. Had you asked me, while I was in the throes of MFA poetry workshops whether I would join a writing group someday I would have likely shook my head and said politely, if not a little condescendingly, “A writing group? No, no, I don’t think so.”

But two years after bidding my MFA classmates goodbye I couldn’t seem to write anything of worth. I don’t think this is particularly rare but it was still particularly devastating. (I use the word “devastating” with only the amount of heft someone who has the privilege of completing two MFAs is allowed to wield.) I knew, after four years of perpetual workshops, all the ways a poem could go wrong. I couldn’t write a line without feeling that the “I” was too coy or that the central image was paltry, unstable. And where was the urgency in my poems? I was a white, 29-year-old adjunct professor, lucky enough to have a job at a college that paid a fair salary, with a brand new husband, a rented condo, a Honda that didn’t produce heat, and a poetry manuscript that no one seemed to want.

Eventually, I started working on a novel instead. No one expected me to know how to write a novel so it was a beautiful arena into which I could step and dramatically fail. Working on that novel felt secret and delicious, but after about 50 pages, serious doubt started to set in: I’d spent four years studying poetry and no one was clamoring to read those words; what made me think that I’d have any better luck in a far less familiar genre? So, grasping for some level of accreditation, I signed up for the novel-writing class.

I would never before have thought to describe myself as pretentious. Privileged: absolutely. Spoiled: sure. Ignorant: often. But I can honestly tell you that I was shocked when it turned out that the majority of people in that class were not, in fact, attempting to write literary fiction. I had never been in a class where literary fiction was not the assumed goal. Of course I knew thrillers and romance novels and science fiction epics existed, but I had never given a lot of thought to where those writers went to hone their craft. And really, to be honest, perhaps I always thought that genre writing was a thing you did if you couldn’t hack it as a “real” writer.

But three months later I was a much happier camper; the instructor and my classmates had offered not only motivation but also keen insights and so, during our last meeting at a hole-in-the-wall Cambodian restaurant, when a few of the other members of the class asked if I wanted to be in a writing group, I swallowed my Curry Tam Yan and said “yes.” I figured I could always say “no” later. Because while I really liked these classmates of mine, there was still a niggling feeling in the back of my brain that to have joined a writing group was the death knell of my fledgling career.

“I believed in the solitary genius myth, but believing in it had made me sad and lonely and depressed.”

Was this anti-writing-group sentiment mine alone? I don’t think so. Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.

And yet. I missed school, and I was lonely for people who wanted to talk about language. Not just over email but real live humans whose tonsils you could see when they laughed. I believed in the solitary genius myth, but believing in it had made me sad and lonely and depressed.

So I went to the first meeting of the writing group. And then the next. And the next. This January marks our ninth year together. And yes, this is a group that offers plenty of affirmation. We praise what’s working well in the piece at hand, we ask at the beginning of each meeting how each person’s writing is going (even if it’s not up for discussion that day), we show up at readings and launch parties and cheer loudly.

But Supergroup is not, as one of my former mentors might have suggested, a “petting zoo.” In fact, the members of Supergroup, whose writing genres and styles differ widely from my own, have taught me an incredible amount about writing.

First of all, they are incredibly fierce about the basics. We all love stories. And within our group we’ve written a lot of stories: Kristi writes crime thrillers, Jana writes romances, and Sarah writes historical epics. Kate’s penned a YA novel about a girl in search of a shark and Brian’s YA book spans galaxies, literally. Coralee’s just beginning to query her novel about the first female poker player to win the World Series and each of Sean’s delicious Tom Robbins-esque romps is more absurd and hilarious than the last. We all love stories, but because we write so many different kinds of stories, there is no set way a story needs to behave. But Supergroup demands the basics: to be entertained, to be transported, to have our insides jostled, to wonder. And so, while the group is always kind about praising my language and descriptions, they quickly move on to other concerns: pacing, character arc, the revelation of information, world building, plotting inconsistencies, etc. I don’t mean to suggest these areas of craft aren’t covered in creative writing workshops. Of course they are.

But these workshops always involve an authority figure. And so, as much as we might deny it, participants sometimes jockey to say the smartest thing possible about the piece in question: to unlock it, to dethrone it, to show how it works, all the parts laid bare. We proceed with the idea that the more the author understands about how her project works, the better. Rarely do we let the writer tell us the kind of feedback she would appreciate. We often don’t honor the process or the writer, instead we poke at the imperfect product before us. And we believe that by pointing out all of its imperfections, all of the ways it fails to be whole, that we can help make it better.

Of course, pointing out flaws is important. Criticism and editing are necessary and sometimes change poems and essays and novels in hugely important ways (see: The Wasteland). But Supergroup has taught me to care about the writer and the process first—and to tailor my feedback about craft accordingly. Over the course of nine years, Supergroup has seen each other through a lot: births, deaths, weddings, relationship woes; some of us have gotten sober and some of us have poured more wine; we’ve been employed and unemployed and underemployed; we’ve started grad programs, lost and found agents, won awards, lost hope; we’ve signed contracts with HarperCollins and Dutton and Bloomsbury, and navigated the choppy waters of self-publishing. Supergroup has taught me that no novel is written in a vacuum. We write from inside our lives, and while sometimes what we need most is to have our genius-bubble broken, there are other times when what we need most is to have our fragile attempts at stories handled gently and with compassion. The quagmire of gossip and casual conversation I feared from a writing group is not peripheral to the work; the details of a writer’s life help us better coax the writer toward deeper engagement with the work that is trying to be born.

Writing groups don’t work for everyone, of course, and I’m certain there are writing groups that turn petty or competitive, or maintain a more stiff formality. But in an era where the notion of the “stable genius” is starting to wear a bit thin, perhaps we might come to see participation in a writing group not as a potential marker of milquetoast prose but as a serious investment in sustaining the long-term development of ourselves as artists and as human beings.

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