Since my husband and I moved last year, I’ve met with my writing group only three times. We continue to edit for one another by email, and we talk about gathering on Skype, but meeting online just isn’t the same. When we’re together, the energy is palpable, an electric zing in the air, as we think and argue and flesh stories out.
In six years, we Ladies-in-Writing, as we call ourselves, have produced a memoir, A Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, and three novels—Save Your Own, In Leah’s Wake, and Sleeping Tigers—along with countless newspaper and magazine articles.
Besides the fact that we’re all professionals who genuinely like and support one another, the group has been successful in part because our skill sets are diverse. Yes, we’re all middle-aged moms, but we’re also very different. Holly, a magazine writer, offers humor, energy and topical knowledge, Elisabeth, a professor with a Ph.D. in Literature, pushes us to polish our prose, and Virginia, a former acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, brings a keen editorial eye. This dynamic atmosphere works for us.
I miss my ladies in writing. Yet I know, as surely as I know anything in my writing life, when we gather later this spring or early summer, the electricity will still be there. We’ll share stories, we’ll laugh, we’ll think, we’ll argue, we’ll tease the gold out of whatever piece we’re discussing—and we’ll be better, stronger writers for it.
Here are 6 reasons for joining a workshop and why I believe all writers need one.
Let’s face it: writing is a lonely profession. Office workers, while they may not always love or even like their coworkers, have company. They have other people to talk to and commiserate with. Constitutionally, writers may be loners; this doesn’t mean we don’t feel alienated. A group provides companionship—in just the right dose. My group shares tips, ideas, industry notes. We may not see each other every day, but knowing that the others are available—I can email or, if I need to hear a friendly voice, I can pick up the phone—warms my heart, makes me feel less alone.
A few lucky writers receive detailed comments from an agent or editor. If you fall into that category, I hope you count your blessings. The majority of us don’t have that luxury. No matter how sharp your editorial skills, it’s nearly impossible to edit yourself. After a while, we—both experienced and emerging writers—stop seeing mistakes. We skim over boring passages, miss obvious logical leaps. We know our intent, we’ve read and reread our manuscript, and we assume that readers, who can’t read our mind, will make the same connections, come to the same conclusions.
Family and friends may try to help, but the relationships are often too close. Maybe they don’t possess the critical skills, or maybe they see mistakes and hold back, not wanting to hurt us. Either way, such critique may make us feel good, but it doesn’t help. A good group, assuming that the members are supportive and take the time to offer in-depth critique, can provide honest feedback and keep us on the right track.
Working alone, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at our work from our own single-minded perspective. In my experience, the most helpful groups provide diversity. The differences could be cultural, racial, ethnic, or gender. The women in my group, though culturally similar, have had unique work and career experiences.
Because we all approach our work, as well as our critique, from different angles, we tend to notice different things—positive and negative—in the manuscript under discussion. We compare notes, argue our positions, and bounce ideas around. These exhilarating discussions result in rich new possibilities. We don’t—and shouldn’t—incorporate every suggestion into our work, but the workshop opens our mind.
Workshops are one of the best ways for a writer to hone his or her critical skills. Critiquing the work of others forces us to analyze the writing and articulate the reasons a piece is or isn’t working. As we become better critics, we sharpen our own craft techniques, and, inevitably, we become better writers.
Early in a semester, when I try to make this point with students, I usually manage to raise a few eyebrows. As the semester progresses and students develop the clear language necessary to provide an articulate critique, they see growth in their own writing. I’ve watched students with absolutely no experience blossom into wonderful writers and editors—often as a direct result of the workshop experience.
This happens with emerging as well as experienced writers and even published authors. An experienced writer may understand craft and know intuitively what works and what doesn’t, and yet be unable to articulate the precise reasons for her instincts, preferences or choices. The women in my group are all well-educated and they were wonderful writers before we formed our group, yet we’ve all grown as a result of the workshop—partly because we push one another and partly from our critique.
Nothing like friendly competition to push us to new heights, the key word being friendly. Harsh competitive groups can tear a sensitive writer to shreds. Friendly competition in a safe, supportive atmosphere, where the writers truly care about and want the best for each other, can push us to work harder, reach higher.
Writing is tough, and rife with rejection. Rejection, the first, the fifteenth, or the millionth, whether from agents, editors or readers, eats at your soul. We may learn to live with the reality of rejection and shrug it off, but I don’t know any writer who’s learned to ignore it. No one, however well intentioned or loving, understands this as well or as deeply as another writer.
It doesn’t matter how it comes—an email, a phone call, a suggestion that we drown our sorrows in chocolate—knowing that someone understands and cares makes all the difference. We encourages each other, and we help one another deal with rejection and disappointment, so we can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and face another day at our computer. And we cheer one another on when we succeed. This, I feel, is the best reason for joining and working with a supportive writer’s group.
Do you belong to a group? Has your experience been positive? Why or why not?
Terri Giuliano Long is the bestselling author of the novel In Leah’s Wake. Her life outside of books is devoted to her family. In her free time, she enjoys walking, traveling, and listening to music. True to her Italian-American heritage, she’s an enthusiastic cook. In an alternate reality, she might be an international food writer. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College.
In Leah’s Wake is her debut novel.
For more details about Terri and her book events, please visit her website: www.tglong.com, www.tglong.com/blog, Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter: @tglong