Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writers' Groups: on playing nice and riding the changes

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Have you ever been part of a writers’ group? I’ve participated in a variety of workshops, courses and closed writing circles. When they function well, they offer opportunities to network, give and receive feedback on works in progress, and to talk about the industry. They can renew confidence and provide a shelter from the publishing world’s storms. On the other hand, writers groups’ can be dysfunctional, poorly run or have the wrong mix of people.

As both a workshop facilitator and someone about to join a new group, these issues are very much on my mind. I asked two writers, Laurie Leclair and John Miller, about what they’ve learned from being in writers’ groups. Scroll down for their bios.

I think writers’ groups are essentially support groups. My social work training convinces me that their success depends on delicate chemistry and good behaviour. We have to manage our foibles, insecurities and personalities in order to give and receive feedback openly and honestly. We have to be generous with one another and respect the group's rules.

Here’s what Laurie had to say on this:
Do your homework: Come prepared to your writer’s group meeting. That means different things to different groups, but if you’re expected to have read your fellow group member’s submissions, then do so. Don’t just show up for a free ride and some cheap Malbec. It’s bad manners.

No English 101 bullshit: You’ve just read four of your colleagues’ submissions and you’ve drawn a blank. That’s okay, it happens to all of us. When it’s your time to proffer feedback, be honest. If you’ve ever used the words “Byronic” and “personal journey” in any way other than ironically, you’re bullshitting and wasting people’s time. If you don’t have anything truly constructive or positive to say about someone’s work, just sit back and keep drinking.

Play Nice: Be careful about who you invite into your little coven. One noxious personality can spoil a perfectly functioning group. Instead of discussing your recent turnips you will expend all your good karma bitching about that person when he/she has stepped out for a smoke. You might vote them off the island, but remember that when it comes to tender egos a Montessori class filled with eight-year olds has nothing on writers. Recrimination is nasty and its name is Facebook.

Groups are also living organisms, their mandates and memberships shifting and evolving over time. I’ve been in circles that worked beautifully for a while, and then seemed to lose steam. One group met my needs perfectly for about a year, and then no longer seemed to fit. I had to reassess, and decide whether to stay or go.

Here’s John’s two cents on this:
You have to ride the changes, adjusting course when necessary: In our group, we’re primarily novelists and as such we publish only every three to five years, surfacing into the literary world for six to twelve months to hustle new work. During this time, we experience either praise or harsh critique, usually both, but we feel once again like we belong. In between, while we’re producing new work, we recede into literary exile. Meanwhile, we write, and occasionally, painfully, we don’t. When we complete a novel, we anxiously wait for it to sell.

These literary seasons pass against the backdrop of our others lives, which are punctuated by events that propel the writing process forward, delay it, or completely interrupt it. We move. Partners come into our lives, or relationships end. Loved ones die, we have financial crises. Children are born. We become distracted, overwhelmed, pull back and eventually, because we want it badly enough in spite of everything, we re-engage.

In the eight years our group has been meeting, our lives have changed dramatically. At times, it’s hard to continue meeting but we keep at it. Last year, a confluence of stresses in each of our lives led us to the difficult decision to go on six-month hiatus. We didn’t disband. We used the time to re-examine our purpose, focus, structure, even our membership…we’re changing our name, imagining new possibilities. Our story is still evolving. This is only chapter two.

Want to share your thoughts about writers’ workshops, circles or groups? What works, what doesn’t? Comment below!

Laurie Leclair has worked as an archaeologist and historian and now runs a small research firm specializing in aboriginal treaty rights and resource use. Her main influences as a creative writer are E. F. Benson and David Sedaris. You can read her material on Exquisite Corpse, a blog devoted to serial writing she keeps with three other middle-aged Torontonians: Roy Shultze, Ron Thompson and Kathy Bischoping.

John Miller is the award-winning author of two novels, The Featherbed, and A Sharp Intake of Breath. He has also written on culture and politics, and in his spare time provides consulting services to local and international non-profit organizations and governments. Read more about his thoughts on groups on his website.

2 comments

Thanks Dorianne! Glad to hear about Outwrites. Inspiration for conflict is very valuable.

I go to Outwrites, the queer writing group that meets at the 519. We're an open group so anyone can just show up, which can certainly cause some interesting dynamics, to say the least. Regardless, I find it very valuable to do writing exercises, have a regular thing to write towards, etc. There are some core people who provide excellent feedback, and even when a meeting gets uncomfortable it's a great inspiration for developing characters and conflict in your fiction!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based author and the recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada's Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an emerging gay Canadian author (2011). Her first novel, Stealing Nasreen, received critical acclaim and earned a devoted readership upon its release in 2007. She is currently touring her second book, Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn 2011).

Go to Farzana Doctor’s Author Page