Wednesday, 20 April 2011

How to start a writing group

One of the best things that's happened to me as an author this past year has been being a part of a writing group. Not just any writing group, mind you—a magical one! Now, all the ladies in my group know that fantasy is hardly my forte (or interest whatsoever), so I'm not talking about talking animals or vampires showing up every week to the cafe and ordering coffee while wrestling prose alongside us muggles. When I say magical, I mean that our group has been a cauldron (sorry!) of momentum, community, encouragement and direction for a group of women who needed all of the above.

While living in New Zealand for six months I wrote full-time and finished the first draft of my manuscript. I enjoyed the independent work and it was nice to get all my thoughts onto the page without showing anyone. But when I moved to Seattle I started to feel thirsty for creative community, people to share the isolating writing process with.

I attended a local writing group and author talks and looked for an established community to link into. But nothing quite seemed to click.

I heard that Natalie Goldberg (writing muse and author of Writing Down the Bones) was going to be in town speaking at a Writers Conference, so I rustled up a few friends to attend with me. That changed everything. Natalie said that her biggest writing trick is to agree a public meeting place with a writer friend and say, "Next Monday, 8pm. You, me, cute cafe." They'd meet and just start writing for twenty minutes. Then they'd stop and read what they'd written, no matter how awful or brilliant, and then do another timed writing.

After the talk, eager to action Natalie's tip, I put it out there. "How about it? Next Monday? 8pm?"

They were in!

Then, within a few days, friends of friends were expressing interest. They were in too! And then we were six. English teachers, mothers, young adult fantasy enthusiasts (whose fantasy writing I actually love, so it must be good), memoirists, screenwriters and the next Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, gathering together weekly for coffee, pie and timed writings.

Seven months later, two manuscripts have been finished. Film schools have been applied to and narrative arcs formed and re-formed. We invited local author Janna Cawrse Esarey to talk with us about the writing and publishing process and have a retreat planned for a few weeks' time. We also started a critique element, so that if someone has a chapter they want advice on, they bring it in and we share our impressions, what works, what feels flat, where the energy is. It's scary, but empowering.

I've heard time and again that the most important thing to do when you are pushing into any sort of creative endeavor is to surround yourself with like-minded people to spur you on (and remind you that you're not crazy for spending years on a project with no guarantee of payment!).

If you're looking to start a writing group, here are my tips:
  • Research any existing groups in the area first on and go and see what they're like. Who knows, you may find the perfect fit! If you do need to reinvent the wheel, then at least you'll have some inspiration, thoughts on what works and doesn't, and you'll certainly meet some interesting folks. Just get out there and do something that gets you going in the right direction!
  • If you want to start your own group, don't wait for a full attendance roster to be handed to you. Start with one writer friend and be bold in getting the word out. I was surprised to see how many people popped out of the woodwork once they heard about the opportunity.
  • Find a location with a big corner table and bottomless coffee that doesn't mind your funny group typing away silently and reading intimate yet therapeutic essays. (It's amazing what comes out when you start tapping away at the keyboard after a long day!). Our location is by no means the coolest place in Seattle, but the staff is friendly and happy to let us do our thang.
  • Six or seven people has been a good size for us.
  • Start with two timed writing sessions for twenty minutes each. We love the pomodoro timer widget our on dashboards that tell us when we're done in their robotic, tomato-y voices.
  • It's always awkward to share our unedited, imperfect writing, but like jumping into a cold lake, it's stimulating. (I say this like jumping into cold lakes is routine for me, it's not.) Instead of justifying and going on and on about how crap what you've just written is, just read. Perfectionism is the enemy of the creative mind, save it for the editing stage.
  • Your group will probably develop over time, based on your needs. Roll with it and develop organically. We introduced the "critique time" element a few months after we started, once we were really comfortable and knew each others voices.
There is something so rewarding about having a group of fellow writers who are encouraging me, believing in me, laughing at my jokes (!) and pushing me forward. What can I say, I love my writing group big time, and hope you can find (or start) the perfect group for you as well.

How has community (on-line or in the flesh) helped you in your creative pursuits? What's worked well for you in the past? What support are you craving?


{I'm loving this new header font from by the way! What do you think? The "Journal Bandolier is from the cleverhands etsy shopvery clever indeed.}

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Got any good book recommendations?

My life-long tendency has been to have about 20 books on the go. As a child I'd pack a good five to six books for a twenty-minute car journey, you know, to have options. I never knew if it would be a Samantha Learns a Lesson, Number the Stars, or Baby-Sitters Club Super Special type of day. My reading selection had everything to do with what was in stock at the library or featured in the Scholastic school book order (!).

These days a lot of my recommendations come via the interweb, so I thought it would be fun to share some of the books we're loving right now.

I just finished Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House by Meghan Daum and am raving about it. It's hard to live up to a title like that, but the author does it with flying (and hilarious) colors. I'm also looking forward to reading The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker. Apparently I'm in a female-penned-long-titled-memoir phase, but I'm fine with that. It's much lighter than previous Russian literature phases.

So, what book(s) are you excited about right now? Can't wait to hear!

{Isn't this embroidered book cover by Jillian Tamaki amazing, by the way? There's more flossed goodness where that came from here.}

Friday, 8 April 2011

Do what you love to undo what you hate + CD giveaway!

Who am I to want happiness in such a hurting world? 

Have you ever asked yourself this? I certainly have. It's always more subtle though, and usually feels less like a philosophical discussion and more like a nagging guilt. Who am I to want to write books and flourish creatively when 5,000 children are dying per day of diarrhea-related illness? (It's true.) Who am I to want more than what I already have when I already have more, materially, than 90% of the world? Who am I to want to surround myself with beautiful things when there is so much ugly in the world? A professional background in communicating global-poverty issues gives me plenty of ammunition for guilt.

I know I'm not the only one who's felt this. I've seen friends stay in bad relationships because they felt that asking for happiness would be too much. I've known plenty of people to stay in jobs that suck the life out of them because they felt they couldn't leave a "good" job. I should just be lucky to have a job in this economy, right? (Great post by Laura on Stratejoy about this, by the way.)

It's a constant dance between tending to your heart and living in your strengths and the sacrifice necessary for collective responsibility to a world that has quite a lot of need.

Jennifer Louden, a writer based on Bainbridge Island who I've come across recently, calls this intersection the sweet spot, and has committed to pursuing that sweet spot for a year on her Savor and Serve website. Check it out!

Some more amazing people to check out are Curtis and Grace Romjue. They are the founders of Jubilee, an abolitionist band (beach town folk rock, to be specific) that encourages their fans to take action on modern-day slavery. (You can read my husband's review of their album launch concert for KEXP here).  They're the first band also officially registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, giving a portion of all their income to an organization (International Justice Mission) that works to fight human trafficking around the world. I love the way they describe the sweet spot of engagement. They call their guilt-free, compassion- and passion-driven work as "thrive activism". Love it! They also coined a phrase that I wish I came up with:

Do what you love to undo what you hate.

It's not just "do what you and forget everyone else". But it's also not "undo what you hate, even if you're miserable". It's about finding the convergence.

It's Friday. I'm in Seattle's Belltown doing a few choice activities that I love (drinking coffee, reading and writing!) and thought I'd give a bit of weekend encouragement. I also thought I'd do a CD giveaway.

If you want a chance to win Jubilee's new album, To See You Well, just leave a comment below, somehow, however loosely, related to the idea of doing what you love to undo what you hate. If you put it on twitter or facebook and tell me, you'll get even more chances to win. I'll draw the winner next Friday. Woo hoo!

**Update, using, I've drawn the winner: Joanna! I'll get this to you today and thanks for entering. 
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