reading-bugsLITTLE WOMEN: How I Found the Right Writers’ Group

by Debra Spark

Originally published in

As soon as I graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, I went looking for what a graduate writing program should provide-intelligent criticism, support, and community. I went looking for all that É and snacks. Which is to say, I tried to find a writers’ group. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, 13 years ago. I was in town on a writing fellowship and there were enough others-teaching, or acquainted with those teaching, at the University-to form a cozy group.

One night, I signed off on a phone call with my folks by saying, “Gotta go. I’m in this little women’s writers’ group, and we’re meeting tonight.” “Little women?” my father said. “Wee wee women? I could help them with that.”

My father is an endocrinologist, and even now, half the pens I write with advertise growth hormone. I don’t know why I felt compelled to be dismissive-this little group-save perhaps I thought I should be beyond such things by now. Did Nabokov have a writers’ group? Did Alice Munro? Was Alice Munro slicing brownies into tiny little wedges and arranging them on a plate in preparation for literary discussion?

To this day, my father still asks me how the little women writers are. I know we both picture four-inch friends with tiny pens. And how are the little women? The truth is: they’re great. I sometimes add up all the things that helped me become a writer: bits of encouragement in the face of rejection, mentors, even favorite books, but the most important thing was my writers’ group-not the original gang back in Wisconsin, but three Boston friends who helped me shape my novels and served as such steady emotional ballasts as I tried to get them published.

Finding a Group
Not that all writers’ groups serve such a function. It took me a long time to find a group that was right for me. Along the way, I had the equivalent of one-night stands-groups that met and then dissolved immediately. In one case, because a couple in the group broke up. In another case, because the person whose house we met at moved away.

I also had what I’d call three long-term relationships. They foundered for complicated reasons. “The best stories I know I must not tell,” writes Bonnie Friedman in “Your Mother’s Passions, Your Sister’s Woes: Writing About the Living,” an essay about the moral complications of using your family as fodder for your fiction. I feel the same way about my writers’ groups. I know why they failed-just as I know why, prior to my marriage, my romantic relationships failed–but it would seem profoundly disloyal to confess the details.

Of course, just as you can list the traits that might make a relationship fail-lack of communication, infidelity-you can come up with a list for writers’ groups. It’s no good if you don’t care deeply about everyone in the group, if you don’t genuinely love each person’s writing. A tall order, of course, but affection and admiration seem necessary to avoid that other bugaboo of writers’ groups: competition. You have to trust that you’ll be happy for your colleagues’ successes, and they’ll feel the same about yours.

One day, an envelope that I addressed to myself showed up in the mailbox. “Ah, a rejection,” I thought, and because I knew it was a rejection of a story I’d already sent out 17 times, I decided, as I tore open the envelope, to retire the story. Only it was an acceptance! I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I told a member of my then-writing group about my luck, and he said sourly, “I got a rejection in the mail today.”

True confessions: this member of my writing group also happened to be my boyfriend at the time. Another writing group no-no. Spouses, significant others, etc, etc. should find their own group. And it would be best if members of that group were, more or less, at the same place in their writing careers. No tentative beginners with Pulitzer Prize winners, thank you.

Meeting at Andre’s
Many writers’ groups have a putative leader-the oldest member, the one with the longest publishing record or the biggest personality-and this sets up a dynamic that I don’t like. I opt for democracy when it comes to writing groups. That said, I once was in a writing group that met at the home of Andre Dubus, in the years after an accident that left him wheelchair bound.

As I always heard it, the group had been formed by a friend of Andre’s, eager to do something to cheer him up-and to keep people stopping by his house. By the time I joined, the group was in its second or third incarnation, and I had the impression that all the members had a strong personal connection with Andre. They might have met him professionally-there was a magazine editor, a former student and a bookstore owner in the group-but they felt more like family.

Andre’s group met weekly, trading off whose work would be read out loud and discussed. This made for long evenings, and since I lived an hour away from Andre’s home, I sometimes found the meetings a burden on top of my other obligations. Still, I felt lucky for the group. I had recently returned to Boston after eight years away, and I didn’t know many people in the area-save for my parents’ friends. Now I had the people I’d met at Andre’s.

I wasn’t entirely sorry, though, when an illness in the family gave me an excuse not to make the weekly trips. I was tired, and though I liked everyone in the group, something about our collective dynamic made me edgy and competitive, though not in a literary way. Mostly I felt competitive about being interesting. During our meetings, if I was-or tried to be–interesting, I felt narcissistic and foolish when I returned home, and if I didn’t make an effort, then I felt rather worthless.

My problem, I know, and not the group’s. It may, oddly, have been because of something I liked: how funny people could be. Most evenings, the person whose work was slated to be discussed had a habit of apologizing for the piece, in advance. Often, there would be some ribbing about the disclaimer, before we listened to the story. Once, someone even wrote out his disclaimer-a hilarious bit of self-deprecation that was so clever that we decided we’d workshop the disclaimer instead of bothering with the story.

I was in my late twenties, when I was in Andre’s group, and in those days I wasn’t at a point where I could make effective use of criticism. When I read work to the group, what I wanted-what I wanted more than anything-was to be told that I was a good writer. And in fact the set up of the group-where we listened to work, without a copy of the manuscript in hand-made in-depth criticism difficult, though people did make suggestions. Andre, for all his virtues, wasn’t a real critic. Sometimes, after we were all through discussing a piece, he’d look up puzzled, as if to say, What had we done? With our questions and remarks? It was hard to write.

My Group
Andre’s group disbanded and reformed, not long after I left. And then I found my group, the one that truly worked for me. There were four of us, all already good friends. Two of us came from Andre’s group-Jessica Treadway and myself. A third member, Elizabeth Searle, and I shared an office at Emerson College. As for the fourth: one evening, Jessica and I went to hear Chris Tilghman, another friend from Andre’s group, read at the Cambridge Public Library.

Local writers whose work had been published in that year’s edition of Best American Short Stories were being featured. After Chris, a woman named Joan Wickersham read, and we so loved her story that we went over and introduced ourselves. I’m not quite sure who had the idea of forming a group, or even if Jessica, Joan and Elizabeth had connections with each other, independent of the ones I knew about. I imagine they must have, for just before our first meeting, The Boston Phoneix ran a page-size photograph of Joan, Elizabeth and Jessica, each holding a copy of her first book.

As a joke, I pencilled a stick figure version of myself into the group, only I was holding Harold and the Purple Crayon. I did feel like the least accomplished member of the group. Also, like the least talented writer, but rather than seeming threatening, this now seemed thrilling. I’d learn so much. I was clearly in a better frame of mind to be in a writers’ group than I had been before. The ability to revise, according to screenwriter Nora Ephron, is a developmental stage. It certainly was for me, for what I wanted now was direct and pointed criticism. I didn’t want my feelings spared either. I wanted to know what I needed to do to improve my work. And that’s exactly what I got.

The Three Critics
As critics, each of the members of my group had different virtues. Joan was good at the big picture, making broad comments about where work went astray. Jessica was good at articulating a piece’s psychological inaccuracies (and its overall strengths). Elizabeth was the best line editor and the best about reminding me that characters were fleshy beings, and as such, shouldn’t be left too long without a sensation about what things looked or smelled or felt like.

All three made imaginative suggestions about where a work might go. In other groups, I’ve always had to weigh criticism: was so-and-so really right? Could I trust that opinion? With Joan, Jessica and Elizabeth, I simply agreed. Sometimes unhappily–when I felt lazy, when I wanted to think I was through working on something–but always gratefully.

Burning Cookie Wrappers
But I’d be lying if I said criticism was the most important part of my group. Whenever we met-and we didn’t have a weekly schedule, we worked around our parental or professional obligations-we had É well, snacks, the required snacks (Elizabeth’s husband chocolate chip cookies, Jessica’s lasagna, Joan’s famous chicken). Once I brought amaretti cookies, so I could show everyone how to do a trick with the cookie wrappers.

This involved making a tube of the paper and lighting it on fire. After the paper burned down, the still-ablaze wrapper lifted into the air, where it consumed itself, before sending an ash floating down to the floor. Elizabeth put this little stunt into her novel, and Joan’s son took a real liking to it, so the trick became a regular ritual-something we did at our annual Christmas party. And aside from the ritual snacks É there was ritual writers’ talk, complaints about our lives, gossip É just stuff, but the sort of stuff that helps me when I sit down to write.

A great book to read, a reminder that other writers struggle with the should-I-call-my-agent? question. Once we were talking about a mean review that one of us had gotten. A reviewer had complained about an unsympathetic protagonist. “Oh, I don’t like Raskolnikov,” Joan mock-whined, as if in accord with the reviewer’s line of thinking. “He’s not a nice guy.” When I laughed, I felt what I always felt when our group met: this is right where I want to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.

Long-Distance Romance
Which is why it seems so sad that my group has disbanded. We didn’t-as a friend says of her once closely knit writers’ group-“get a divorce.” What happened was that I took a job in Maine. I moved away-not that far, but far enough. As a send-off present, Elizabeth framed snapshots of the group, lighting cookie wrappers in Jessica’s kitchen. I didn’t think my move would break up our group. After all, I came back for meetings, but É long-distance romance is a trick, and it is only just now, after six years of living in Maine that I realize we haven’t met in two years, so I guess I don’t belong to a writers’ group anymore.

And this makes me feel as if I’m suddenly single. In the past, when I ended a romantic relationship, I always felt disappointed, as people do, but also a little relieved, aware that my new independence offered me a chance to grow. I could say the same about my writers’ group. That it’s good I’m no longer in it. But here’s where my analogy falls apart. Because what I truly feel is that I have left my beloved husband in Boston, and I’m stuck here, on the ground floor of my Maine home. Which would be fine, I’m used to being alone, only I’ve got this dresser-and a novel strikes me as the heaviest of dressers- and I’m standing at the foot of the stairs, wondering, “How do I get this thing up to the bedroom, all by myself?”

DEBRA SPARK is the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint (Faber & Faber, 1994; Avon, 1996) and The Ghost of Bridgetown (Graywolf, 2001). Her essay collection, Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing, was published by University of Michigan Press, which has also published her latest novel, Good for the Jews.

Four writers: thoughts and advice on writing groups

Dan Chaon, author of the short story collections Fitting Ends (TriQuarterly Books, 1996) and Among the Missing (Ballantine, 2001) and a novel, You Remind Me of Me (Ballantine, 2004). more

My best writers group experience has been with people I already know in some capacity. My least favorite has been working with people I’m just meeting for the first time in the group. (I’m currently in a group of) four people. We meet once a month. We drop off manuscripts two weeks before our meeting, and then it’s usually a question of winding our way into talking about the manuscript. Often we will have a short and intense discussion of the manuscript that winds off into other sidebars. It’ll become a brainstorming session or a free association session about things that are connected to the story: issues of technique or psychology. Sometimes that’s more helpful than directly discussing the story.

The group had been really helpful, just because it gives me something to shoot for, a deadline. Since writing is a solitary activity, getting any sort of feedback makes you work better and faster. For me, at least, it is hard to go for months and months without anybody seeing something, because I swing between thinking, “I’m writing something really great,” and “Oh, my God, I’m a crazy person.” So it’s helpful to have that grounding. For me, that’s what a writing group is for: to give you that grounding.

Caroline Preston, author of the novels Jackie by Josie (Scribners, 1997) and Lucy Crocker 2.0 (Scribners, 2000). More

My own career was so unorthodox. I didn’t start writing till I was 40, and I never went to grad school in writing. My only training was two summers at the Bennington writers’ workshop. Then I joined a group that I paid for, a group run by Sally Brady, who is a literary agent and writer. Sally’s group met every two weeks. Everyone could read ten pages at each meeting. For me, being in a paid group made me produce pages on deadline at a rapid past. With the ten-page pieces, I got regular feedback that helped me direct and revise the book, so by time I was done with the first draft, my novel was in much better shape than it would otherwise be. There are advantages to a group that is organized by someone. When Sally moved away, the group decided to continue on its own, but it fell apart. We spent most of our time chatting and not discussing the work.

As for advice: You have to figure out what you want out of your group. Are you looking for instruction, support and camaraderie? Figure out what people’s expectations are and what level of criticism people are looking for. In general, smaller is better. The bigger the group, the more likely you are to get a big mouth in there. And be really careful. It is very easy to get misguided, to get trashed in a group. You have to ask yourself if a group is going to useful for you. Are they really supportive of you? Are they on your side? Otherwise, why be in a writing group? I have friends who’ve moved to other areas, and they tried to find a group, and they found themselves with people writing genre romances, and the group was of no use whatsoever. Or they found themselves with very opinionated people who were just wrong. It’s sort of a miracle if you find a group that works. But there’s still good reason to be in a group. Because of the isolation of being a writer, I’ve just got to get out of here and go see other people. That is an important element for me

Chris Tilghman, author of the novel Mason’s Retreat (Random House, 1996) and the short story collections In a Father’s Place (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990) and two novels: The Way People Run (Random House, 1999) and Roads of the Heart (Random House, 2004).More

I wish I were (in a writers group). I had a little one, but the problem was people weren’t producing a whole lot, and we ran out of material to talk about. The primary functions of the writers group are obviously, Number One, to have supportive fellow travelers and the opportunity to live a literary life for a few hours removed from the rest, and, Number Two, inserting discipline and regularity into your life. Even if you’re having a busy week, (the writers group) reminds you that this is what you should be doing. If you’re really serious about this thing, you should meet a lot, regularly. Once a week, make a commitment.

Pagan Kennedy, author of the biography Black Livingstone: A True Tale of African Adventure (Viking, 2001), the story collection, Stripping (1998), a memoir, Zine (1995), a novel, Spinsters (1995), and a book of cultural criticism, Platforms (1994).More

I’ve been in a group for 12 years. I think we started in 1988. Although the people have changed. The only constant for our group is Lauren Slater and I, but we’ve stayed at four members. We meet weekly, or try to, always on Thursday nights. We get it in every one’s head that that’s where we’re going to be. For this kind of group, four is the magic number. We splintered off a group that was larger-it was a great group-but it wasn’t the kind of set up we wanted. The other group was into Xeroxing things and being more professional. We wanted a group to go to every week, just to gab, and we didn’t want to Xerox. We just come in with whatever we’re working on and read it. Sometimes we don’t even do much critiquing. We’re all pretty confident as writers as this point, so if something is in process, we just say, “That’s good. Keep going.” If someone’s about to send something out, we might notice a problem. It depends. Sometimes you’ve just started something, and you’re really excited about it, and you feel it is just genius, and we try not to knock someone out of that state, but if someone has a book proposal , and they want to send it out and for it to be perfect, then we’ll really work on it. I think having Xeroxes in front of you makes people more nit-picky. Sometimes no one has work, and we just sit around gabbing and eating. We consider life problems as well. If you’re upset about something or making a life decision, that is like writing. Whatever it is, you can present it. So it’s almost like a support group.