Another thought-provoking blog post from Eric John Baker … this one on writing groups.
The first writing group I ever belonged to was in my community college and we actually called ourselves a “literary guild.” We had a faculty adviser and a small stipend to produce a literary magazine. They were a very encouraging, supportive group and the faculty adviser provided much needed guidance. Everyone was published in the journal. No one was left out. We also had quarterly readings and met for group readings and critiques about once a week. For a very young writer, it was a wonderful experience. But I was very young (still in my teens) and everyone was so much older (like 20 or so) and I was pretty much treated with kid gloves which was fine because my skin was very thin. I wrote more than I would have without them, and my writing improved because they did offer constructive criticism.
That said, I haven’t had quite the same experience since. I’ve tended to “join” groups such as university writing workshops, probably trying to replicate the experience of my community college days. I like having a faculty member who guides the group; the faculty is usually the one (for me, anyway) who offers the most useful advice. And I have gained, both in quantity and quality, from the workshop experience. But occasionally someone rakes you over the coals, and having that happen in public is unnecessarily humiliating. It can stop your writing dead in its tracks and has no useful purpose. I don’t think a writer has to have a thick skin. She just has to keep writing.
I recently commented on Eric’s blog about an experience I had many years ago but still resonates with me today. I was taking an Article & Essay Writing class for my graduate degree in English. We had been assigned to small groups where each of us would read and critique the other student’s paper. A couple of students in my group were PhD students. I chose to write a book review of a biography of Virgina Woolf and was quite pleased with the scholarly style of my paper (omniscient third-person). I believed the PhD students would like it, even praise it for being far advanced for your average Masters student. But they were not pleased. They tried to be kind but before they could even get the words out I knew what they were going to say: it was boring. My paper was boring. I don’t know if there is any more devastating critique of writing but to say that it is boring. They did try to be kind (they actually were very nice people), but their struggle to find something redeemable in my review was painful to watch. And I was devastated and I know I didn’t hide it very well. Later that day I went home and cried and cried and cried. I would have stopped writing, too, except that this was for a class and I didn’t want to flunk it.
I had to revise my paper. That was part of the course. That was the purpose of the groups: to get feedback and then revise. But every time I sat at the computer and started to revise, I broke down crying. I felt ashamed that I had even thought of myself as a writer. Still, I had to do something. And then I remember one thing that each of the students said to me: “I want to know what you think of the biography. What did the biography mean to you?” And then I realized what they meant and why the review was boring to them. It was such an objective review that there was no life to it. It was as dry as the desert. So I threw away the original and started over. I wrote about my personal interest in Virgina Woolf and why I thought this particular biography was the best of all that I had read. I wrote about why it interested me as a writer. I used “I” throughout my review.
I submitted the final paper to the class at large and had the pleasure not only of hearing that it was wonderful to read, but also that it was far, far better than what I had originally turned in. On a lark, I sent the review to the Journal of Biography and a year later it was published. When I received the galleys for my review, I compared the edited copy to my original. They had only changed one word.
I came so close to just giving up. Fortunately, I had an obligation to deal with that paper and, fortunately, I had received excellent advice. I had only needed to be open to it. I only had to write the kind of book review that I would enjoy reading!
So groups are tricky. I’m partial to university-style writing workshops but maybe that’s because they are so familiar to me (having spent the bulk of my adult life in college). I shy away from local writing groups because I’m shy. I’m not physically or psychologically comfortable in group settings. Instead I prefer online writing groups such as Zoetrope.com. I’ve gotten a mix of feedback from writers on Zoetrope, but there’s always at least a couple that provide good, solid criticism. And I can read those critiques in the comfort and solitude of my room.