Sometimes it Takes a Community
Kate McDevitt | August 2018
Words of my latest writing piece fly easily through my head as I drive home from my writing group meeting. Lately, at no time am I more inspired to write than after I spend two hours discussing techniques and critiquing fellow writers’ pieces. The Pohick Writers’ Roundtable group was begun over twenty years ago by a librarian at Pohick Regional Library in Northern Virginia. It attracts writers of many different genres and at different stages of their careers, from published novelists and poets with MFAs to aspiring genre fiction writers and retired individuals picking up their pens for the first time to write memoirs for their families. The variety of ages, ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and styles of the members is one of the factors that makes the group so interesting and the feedback so useful; our audience during each meeting is a cross-section of our local community.
When I went to my first meeting of the group more than ten years ago, I had no idea that a year later the reigns to lead it would be handed to me. Since then, I’ve tried to provide my writers with whatever they require to help their writing. Sometimes this means a gentle critique and mountains of enthusiastic reassurance to someone who is just starting out and finding her voice; other times, it’s discussing what technique a writer might use to improve his writing; and once it even meant taking home a novel-length manuscript and providing line edits and feedback on the overall story.
Over the years, we’ve done writing prompt exercises, shared useful resources, and had writing book giveaways. We even hold an annual holiday party where we play games and exchange writing-related gifts—everything from coffee shop gift cards to astronaut pens to entire cases of printer paper. It has been an unexpected joy to watch my writers succeed with their projects and grow in their abilities. “I just finished a draft of my second book and would not have been able to do it without Pohick Writers and my local group here in Rochester,” says author Anne Staab. “It's impossible to see your own writing from someone else's point of view. The feedback has helped my writing process so much, and the community has been good for my soul!”
Every writing group has a different structure, tone, and feel, so the trick is to find the one that works best for you. Or, in my case, get a group thrust upon you and turn it into what you want it to be. Some groups follow strict guidelines and formats, sticking to a timer so that every writer gets equal time to workshop a piece every meeting. Others require members to read pieces ahead of time so that group meetings can focus entirely on critique. There are writing groups where writers only listen as their pieces are critiqued and those that allow for open discussion between the writer and those providing feedback. At my writers’ roundtable, we follow a casual approach. We read pieces out loud at the meetings and discuss them openly on the spot; the combination of getting readers’ immediate reactions with the ability for a first-time attendee from the community to walk into the room and join us at any time is what works best for us. “I like our group because I have a lot of dialogue in my novels, and I think it's good to read it out loud to see if it rings true,” says author Jud Sage, who has been a member of several beneficial writing groups.
Writing groups can also be a great place to network and develop professionally. Pohick Writers’ Roundtable member Falan Memmott appreciates “the thoughtful insights shared by other writers on submission experiences and attending conferences. Sharing industry experience is very valuable.” Edwin “Ted” Mosser is a member of several writing groups that meet in community libraries. Of the Writers of Chantilly, he says “One added positive aspect of that group is that they put out an annual publication. I'm fortunate to have two stories and one poem published in three of their annual anthologies.”
The best group for you might not be geographically convenient. Author Catherine Petrini explains, “I once belonged to a critique group that was local, but the other writers in it were beginning writers, women who had had other careers and were now choosing to focus on the writing they had always wanted to do. They were lovely people and some were excellent writers, but the critiques were too gentle to be helpful for me.”
Some community writing groups have no critiquing or sharing aspect at all and merely exist as regular meetings where writers write side-by-side. These groups have write-ins every month or every week, where the normally solitary act of writing becomes more social. Something truly wonderful can be felt when you suddenly find yourself amidst a bunch of writers putting pen to paper or, more often, typing away on laptops or tablets. A thoughtful writer in the group might even bring a power strip to ensure that everyone can keep working. Groups can engage in word sprint competitions and give you tough love to help you accomplish a goal (do not think about touching that chocolate éclair until you finish writing that chapter). Inspiration and words seem to come more easily when you have a dozen people encouraging you to keep going and keeping you accountable. And, if you get stuck trying to name a fictional brand of toothpaste, that same group of people are right there to offer suggestions.
One such group began in Manassas, Virginia as a series of write-ins during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The write-ins continued far after November, transforming into regular meetings and turning strangers into friends. Several of these friends would joke “When we start our own publishing company…” and so they did. Golden Fleece Press (you may have visited their table at the #AWP17 or the #AWP18 Bookfair) is a full service publisher of diverse publications, where some of the proceeds of each sale go to a charity of the author’s choosing. It seems fitting that a business that arose from one community now gives back to so many different communities in need.
The writing group that Catherine Petrini found to meet her needs has a similar story. Noble Fusion began in Kansas in 1993. Its leader moved to Philadelphia and started a new branch. The original Eastern Court members are still in the group, which is now made up of six writers, some of whom are published with major publishing firms. This group, too, has expanded into publishing with its own small press, Noble Fusion Publishing. Petrini attends the monthly meetings even though it requires making the drive from Virginia to Pennsylvania. “The in-person component of the critique group is just so valuable that few of us want to lose it. I like the way we build on each other's comments to make critiques more thoughtful and multi-dimensional than if each person had given critiques separately, via email.”
Jackie Davis Allen is a member of the Pohick Writers’ Roundtable but also several online poetry groups. Like in-person groups, it might take some looking to find the right one for you, but one of the benefits is being able to access the group’s resources any time and from anywhere. “It has led me to a more disciplined approach to writing and a wider audience for my poetry than I ever could have imagined.” The groups also presented her with publishing opportunities. She is “now a monthly contributor (four years running) to the magazine The Year of the Poet” and has published two poetry collections.
Freeing yourself from the day-to-day distractions of life for a few hours in a group with other writers from your community can be one of the most beneficial ways of moving forward with your writing projects. Not only does it force you to dedicate regular time to your writing, but it gives you experience sharing your work with an audience of your choosing and of learning ways you might improve it. Writing groups also give you a support system you can turn to for help and advice, especially helpful for those writers who never attended an MFA program or who have long since graduated from one. I have learned something about writing from every single writer in my group and always come away feeling inspired to work harder on my own pieces.
Kate McDevitt received her BS in computer science with minors in creative writing and mathematics from Virginia Tech. Also at Virginia Tech, she worked on her MS in computer science. Kate has designed and developed websites for many educational, governmental, and commercial organizations. She is currently AWP's Director of Web Services & Systems Administrator. In her free time she volunteers at local libraries, BookCrosses, and writes genre and young adult fiction.