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.}


Joanna Roddy said...

I love our group too and I'm floored by what we've already collectively accomplished in the last few months.

I just wanted to add that i think respect is so key. I sincerely love everyone else's work and I feel spurred on to greater things because of it. It would be hard if we didn't have that innate belief in each other. I think that also makes our time of critique genuinely helpful, and not some exercise in competition.

alisha said...

So true! I guess we got lucky to have such a talented group, but I also truly believe in each person's ability and work and know that everyone else has my back. I think that's part of the magic of the group. :)

Rachel said...

I love you ladies, and am so encouraged by your encouragement. I've felt like such a dud lately, but have renewed excitement. I am continually inspired by your devotion and talent. It's been a blessing to spend time with you.

Jenny said...

I was kind of hoping for a big reveal...that you actually turn into magical creatures and that if I joined I might transform into a unicorn. rats!

I'm so thrilled for your writing group as well...and though I'd love to be a fly on the wall...I just can't write a lick.

I enjoy a good craft night to keep me accountable and motivated!

alisha said...

Jenny, you could just happen to be at the same place at the same time, one booth over. :)

Piper said...

What an incredible outlet this has been in my life, encouraging, life breathing, and always inspiring! I am even more grateful for the intentional beings that remind me in my chaos that there will always be words on the page and pie in my belly should I choose to enter.

Alexis Grant said...

Great ideas! Here's another: A friend and I who live in different states meet online for our virtual writing time :) Sometimes she'll email me and just say, I'm writing tonight! And I'll write, too, and after that hour we check in. Great way to hold ourselves accountability to be productive!

Rebekah said...

love your group but am with Jenny - I think I will join her in the craft booth for spying and pie :). Glad you all have found such a supportive outlet!

Claire Carey said...

What a gift!

I love when someone's ideas, someone's words, are rattling through my head during the week. Sometimes it is just a phrase, or a character, but it reminds me how fortunate I am to spend time with such creative people.

And, Rebekah and Jenny you are both SO talented. :)

alisha said...

Yes, we can definitely install a craft booth!

Alexis, love the idea of a virtual writing group. Anything that gets you reading is good in my book!

Shannon said...

love this idea... maybe I should try something like that with all this academic writing I am doing... You made me miss the NW with the bottomless cups of coffee in cute spaces!

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