Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Right Writers' Group

Tuesdays with Amy

The first writers’ group I joined met every Monday. Eight to ten women would arrive (we were never really sure how many would show) some empty-handed, others clutching pages: one wrote angst-ridden memoir; another, picture books; and still another would burst in with a flash of brilliance scribbled in the margins of her shopping list. The rules were that everyone read aloud up to ten pages to the group, and then the group would devote the next few minutes to critiquing the writing sample. All of this was preceded by lots of personal chit-chat.

Clearly, this wasn’t productive.

There was no order, no real structure, and worst of all, no expectation of momentum concerning either our meetings or our writing. We were a dysfunctional group and we knew it.

Most agreed to part ways, and Hannah, one of the newest members, offered to host a farewell party. Somehow -- I don’t recall the particulars -- Hannah, Lisa, and this new woman, Lynne, whom we met for the first time at that party, cajoled me into giving it another go – shhh, just the four of us.

Now, I am not a person to be cajoled into anything. People who know me well can attest that asserting my will has never been a problem for me, but these three women were all so…eager.

Reluctantly, I agreed, but with several caveats. Not only did they agree to these conditions, they had some of their own:

- We would meet every two weeks. Once a week was too cumbersome to our other lives and created unnecessary pressure to produce pages instead of good writing.
- Two people would present up to 20 pages, no fewer than 15, at each meeting. That meant each of us had to generate a certain volume of respectable pages once a month; manageable and productive.
- Pages had to be sent at least a week in advance and edited by the other members before the meeting.
- At the meeting, the person whose work was being critiqued had to remain silent until the others were finished discussing her pages.
- We had to begin each critique with several compliments about the writing.
- No unnecessary chit-chat about topics unrelated to the writing life.

I knew before the first meeting that I would soon withdraw. The dynamic of the last group had worn me through, and I didn’t believe that this new group could hold fast to this terse structure. That first meeting, though, even I had to agree it went well. Still, I planned to tell them the next time we met that I was leaving. But the next time, I couldn’t because I had agreed to read their pages. The next meeting, then. It went on like that for a couple of months, until one night when they were work-shopping an early section of my novel-in-progress. They understood the themes, quickly identified the weaknesses, and were genuinely supportive of my project. They got it. More than that, I recognized I was working with individuals intent on creating something beautiful with their words. Without even realizing it, I had become devoted to their writing as well.

Since then, they’ve become the critics swirling in my head as I write, the ones who understand what it means to type for hours and never notice the time, they have become my dear friends, and my needed touchstone.

And together, we have become a writers’ group.

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