Take a look at this group. Formed in the city that is now Vilnius, Lithuania, before World War II, it called itself "Young Vilna." It went on to become one of the most famous writers’ groups in history.
Over the years, I’ve been a member of five writers’ groups, none of them famous. One had only two members; we met at a café, wrote while sipping, then read our scribblings out loud to each other. The next one met online; the discussion took place through Instant Messaging. Another, which grew out of a class with Ursula LeGuin, leaned heavily toward sci-fi. Then there was one that discussed a writerly topic each month, instead of critiquing.
Each one had its strengths. But the last one was the best. It lasted for years and was very valuable to me.
What made it so good?
1. We were serious. There were six of us, all deep into well-developed writing projects that were profoundly important to us. That gave us an ample supply of new work every month. Each meeting was devoted to two people.
2. We were diverse. Among us, we were writing a screenplay, a historical novel, two memoirs, a dystopian feminist piece, and (me) a nonfiction work about Lithuania’s encounter with its Jewish past. I can’t tell you how useful I found it to run my drafts by people who didn’t know where Lithuania was, had not read everything they could put their hands on about the Holocaust, and weren’t quite sure what Yiddish was. And conversely, I found that articulating what I did and didn’t like about work very different from my own was an extremely useful exercise.
3. We had rules. Not that we ever articulated them – we didn’t need to. Everyone read and marked up the work under discussion ahead of time. We all showed up. The chit-chat at the beginning didn’t go on too long. We went around in a circle, speaking in turn; no one hogged. We were kind, but not too kind. Most of the time the person being critiqued didn’t get defensive.
4. People were – well, great. One comment that still keeps me going was: “Ellen, this is your sacred work.” A comment that spoke volumes with its faint praise was: “There is nothing wrong with this.” And a comment that I still don’t know what to make of, which I’m quite sure was meant as a compliment, was: “After reading this I asked my doctor to increase my dose of anti-depressant medication.”
5. We shared nuts and bolts advice – about query letters, agents, classes, software, book talk venues. It was from this group that I got the idea of the Virtual Writers’ Retreat, where you tell family members that you’ll be unavailable for three hours or a day or three days – however long you can swing it – and then go off and get a chunk of work done.
6. We got to be friends. We clapped and cheered when something good happened, offered a shoulder to cry on when times were tough.
Eventually things ran their course and we stopped meeting. But we’re still in touch, and we’re getting together soon for a reunion.
To find a writers’ group, or start one of your own, check out your local bookstore, community bulletin boards, writers’ centers and classes, and the Internet. And, of course, try putting out the word on She Writes. Issue a call for writers in your geographic area who will meet face to face, or suggest a genre or interest area and “meet” virtually instead.
Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), for which she won the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize for non-fiction. Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.