How to Tell if a Writing Group is Right for You

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Dear Sara,

Creating requires solitude, so finding a creativity support network seems like an oxymoron. I joined a writer's group and quickly became filled with doubt about my own work and overwhelmed when seeing other members publishing credentials, academic degrees, and reading savvy. Not to mention my creating time is limited, whereas others in the group have lifestyles conducive to primary focus on the writing craft. Any suggestions on how to participate in a group that helps your own work flourish? And is it possible to provide helpful feedback to others when you have no experience writing in their genre?

- Searching for My Peeps

 

Dear Searching, 

I’m so grateful that you’ve raised the issue of writing groups, because the search for a group that meets your needs for community without simultaneously sucking the life out of your creating practice is pretty nearly universal.  With that in mind, let’s see if we can unpack this gnarly cluster of concerns you've shared...

Balancing solitude with connection.  

First, I want to acknowledge and echo your statement that ‘creativity requires solitude,’ and I’d go even further to say that for a writer, ‘solitude’ is far from an empty or lonely place.  In your solitude, you are in a deep and intimate relationship with the images, words, perceptions and emotions that emerge from your internal world.  When you are alone, you are not ‘in silence’ – you are listening deeply to the currents of thought and awareness arising in your inner world, so that you can articulate and shape them into your art.  

Preserving the quality of this precious relationship is paramount, which means that part of your job as a writer is to fiercely guard this inner space.  Only you can protect the realm of your deep knowing and ensure that your work is allowed to emerge without imposition, criticism, examination, or poking and prodding of any kind from the outside world.  As Carolyn See puts it “…your first writing is as delicate as a seedling.  Don’t show it to some yahoo who wouldn’t know an orchid from kudzu.”

And yet, as a writer and a human, you are also a social creature, in need of connection, support, and community.  Feeling held by a support network can enable you to be even braver about going deeply into your inner world, knowing that you will not be lost there, or at least that you will be greeted warmly when you find your way back.

What kind of connection?  

The question, then, is “what kind of connection?”  Or, as you put it, what kind of group will “help your own work flourish?”  You mention two names for such a group:  “a creativity support network” and a “writer’s group” – and it sounds as though you are realizing that these are not necessarily synonymous.  In fact, I would venture to say that writer’s groups that truly function as ‘creativity support networks’ are the exception and not the rule.

How to assess the fit between you and a group.  

Writing groups fall on a spectrum from genuinely supportive and empowering to absolutely toxic – and it is vital to assess for yourself as early as possible where your group falls on this spectrum.  Please be clear that your assessment only needs to be true for you – it doesn’t matter one whit whether the same group you feel diminished by is experienced by someone else as the answer to their prayers, or vice versa…this is an assessment of the group’s impact on YOU, not anyone else.

Here are two key questions that will help you assess where your writing group falls on the spectrum:  

Question 1.  How do you feel when you walk away from a session with the group?  

The bottom line is this:  If the group is serving the function of “creativity support group” for you, you will leave it feeling eager to continue creating.  You will leave feeling encouraged to do your best work.  You will leave feeling re-affirmed in the value of writing in general and your writing in particular.  You will leave with renewed commitment to putting in whatever effort it takes to  make your work sing. You will feel a happy buzz of excitement that comes from having been stimulated and challenged and inspired.  

I can’t help but notice that this does not seem to characterize your current experience with the group you’ve joined.  In your question, you’ve shared that you are feeling quite the opposite:  you leave the group with increased self-doubt and a heightened sense of inadequacy with respect to your credentials.  

A quick pep talk about other people's credentials

I'm going to interrupt the flow here to give you a stern pep talk urging you to question with every ounce of strength in your being the notion that anyone other than you has any expertise worth a hill of beans when it comes to your work.  I’d also invite you to remember that there are brilliant writers who have never set foot in a writing class and really stuck, cramped, and unhappy writers who have graduate degrees.  Don’t be fooled by credentials.  At the end of the day, they are of no use as a hedge against the essential vulnerability of the writing process.  What matters in the face of this vulnerability is not credentials, it is perseverance, kindness, an eagerness to learn, and the willingness to allow yourself to be changed by your encounter with the work.  Can you have these qualities AND a pile of degrees?  Of course.  But you can also have a pile of degrees with none of them.  

I’d also like to suggest that you will be well-served by assuming full responsibility for your own susceptibility to experiencing doubt and overwhelm.  If these are ‘go to’ emotions for you that you recognize from other experiences in groups, I invite you to explore ways to doubt less and become more secure in your ability to stand your ground.  This is life-work for all of us, and well worth the effort!

But, digressions aside, all I really need to say is - pay attention to what your gut is telling you as you leave a session with this group.  These signals are your truth.  Period.

But let's say you want one other test to help you gauge whether the group you are in is on the empowering versus the toxic end of the spectrum...

2.  What kind of language do group members use when discussing each other’s’ work?  

If you are hearing phrases like “I think you should…” or “If I were you I would…” or “You really need to change…,” do yourself a favor and run for the hills.  There are some good reasons to share your work with others, but getting flooded with pseudo-objective advice on “ways to improve” is never one of them.  

The kinds of things you DO want to hear in a group that is intent on sharing feedback are phrases like, “as a reader I got kinda stuck here,” or “I feel like I don’t really understand who this character is, could you talk a little about how you see her?” “I was so excited by this part, it seems so lively.”  

What these comments have in common is that they are:  

a. clearly identified as the subjective response of a thoughtful reader (not cloaked in any pretense of expertise or higher knowledge)  

b. focused on inviting the author to explore and expound further on their intentions – without questioning the intentions themselves, and  

c.  specific about places that worked particularly well for you as a reader and thus might provide clues to the author as to a direction possibly worth leaning into.

If you are following these criteria, the answer to your question about whether it is possible to provide helpful feedback to someone working in another genre is an emphatic YES!  Your willingness to be honest about your experience as a reader is the only qualification you need.  

Having said that, I must also say that it matters whether you are interested in reading people’s work in other genres.  If this diversity excites and stimulates you, great!  If it feels like a chore to be so far afield from your ‘happy zone’ as a reader – pay attention to that response!  

If this is not the right group, don’t give up your search for empowering support!  

There are many alternatives to the ‘critique group’ model that might be interesting for you to explore.

In the December, 2013 issue of “The Writer” magazine, for example, there is an article about “Prompt groups” in which writers gather to write together in response to a prompting word, phrase, object, or image.  After writing for a set period of time, they read their work aloud.  No ‘critique,’ no ‘expert opinions,’ just the fun of playing with language, having company as you stretch your writing muscles, and appreciating being in the real-time act of creating with others.  

Other writers find the support they seek in a single “writing buddy” with whom they check in on a regular basis to talk about the writing life, how they are doing with respect to their goals, etc.

The right answer for you will be easier to find if you get clear on what you want from a group.  

Do you want critical/analytical feedback?  Honest emotional reactions?  Or is ‘feedback’ not at all what you really want?  Do you really want people to play with in a writing sandbox that stirs up your creative juices (a la a prompt group)?  Or would you really like to have some people that you trust to ask you “how’s the writing going?” and listen well to your answers, whether or not they ever read your work?

Final thoughts

You deserve a community that truly supports and energizes your solitary creative work, and it is well worth the effort to test out some different ways of meeting that need.  Just remember, this is about finding what works FOR YOU.  This requires being willing to let go of experiences that seem to work for others, but just aren’t a good fit for the person you are. 

At the end of the day, the only truly supportive connections are those that send you back into your relationship with your own inner life feeling confident and energized and ready to trust what happens there.  Anything else is working against what matters most.

- Sara