Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Dark side of writing groups? Editor Lorraine Bodger has seen it...
HALLIE EPHRON: I've been in writing groups ever since I started writing fiction and for the most part found them enormously encouraging and helpful until about a year ago.
I'm no longer in one, so I was interested when freelance editor and writing coach Lorraine Bodger told me how she and writers she's worked with who've not found that the group experience made them better writers.
Lorraine, what are some of the problems writers encounter in writing groups?
LORRAINE BODGER: First let’s define an average writing group—is that possible?
The sort of group I hear about most often is one that comprises about eight writers who meet once a month for two to three hours, to present and comment on new or ongoing work. Not everyone presents work at every meeting, but designated presenters circulate their new pieces to all members ahead of time, and everyone is expected to read the work and be prepared to discuss it. In some groups work is read aloud; other groups just launch straight into the comment/crit/discussion part.
I’m going to go right out on a limb here: From my own experience in this kind of writers’ group and even more from what I’ve heard from the writers I’ve worked with, it seems that this approach may be standard—but it may not be optimum if you’re seriously trying to move your work forward.
HALLIE: Why do you think that is?
LORRAINE: For one (obvious) thing, if you’re in a largish group that meets only once a month, you’re not going to be presenting your work very frequently. If you’ve joined a group for the purpose of making progress, this could be a pretty slow pace.
For another thing, if you’ve joined a group of writers who are inexperienced at writing or at analyzing writing, you’re less likely to get help that’s truly helpful. It may be important for you to have the support of a group, but if the members can’t give you the kind of constructive input that sends you back to your computer bubbling with ideas for improving your work, how helpful is that?
Positive comments are important (and should be part of every critique), but incisive analysis of the work is equally important. That’s how you move forward—by feeling encouraged and by getting insight into problems you may not be aware of and by discussing possible solutions to those problems.
HALLIE EPHRON: How can you tell if your group is really helping your writing, and what are some of the 'tells' that it's not?
LORRAINE BODGER: That’s tricky. If you’ve never had the benefit of a read by a professional, you may not know the difference between “help” and “real help.”
A group of published writers will be more likely to give each other real help, simply because they’ve all been through the process of being edited; they’ve had the experience of being queried on matters of structure, character development, language, logic, voice, and so on. They’ve also had the experience of taking the editing suggestions, deciding if they’re appropriate, and then making changes in the work. Experienced writers internalize the lessons they learn, and they can address each other’s work effectively by using what they’ve learned.
What are the not-helping “tells”? You feel misunderstood, as if the person commenting doesn’t get what you’re trying to do and her comments aren’t appropriate to your work. You feel that the commenter has an ax to grind or is competitive with you. The questions you’re being asked and the comments you’re getting show that your readers haven’t read your work carefully. You feel as if your group is nit-picking instead of addressing larger, more important issues. And you may find yourself getting unhelpful or even damaging remarks from someone who just plain doesn’t like your work.
Let’s face it—how one person feels about another person’s work is very subjective; so-and-so’s subjective opinion of your work may temporarily lead you down the wrong path or may do real damage if you give it too much weight.
Of course, you’d also be wise to consider whether the fault is in the group—or in your work.
Which brings me to my favorite hobby-horse: Have your work read by an objective professional, to get some serious perspective on its merits and problems. A professional might be a private editor (like me and my colleagues), a published writer you happen to know, a teacher of creative writing. (It’s usually better not to go to your spouse, your sister, or your best friend for this sort of read; even if she’s a pro, she might not be objective about you.)
HALLIE: Tell us about the group you're leading.
LORRAINE: It's different from other groups in many ways. For starters, it wasn’t random in its formation: four highly motivated women came to me to invite me to lead their group. They were completely clear about their book projects and completely committed to doing the work, and they agreed to do whatever it took to accomplish their goals.
We meet every week (and it was murder to find a day and time that suited everyone—but we did) for two and a half hours, and we start on time. Each week two members submit work; we call it “being at bat.” (My job is strictly to lead; I don’t submit work.)
On the Sunday night before the Wednesday meeting, each batter e-mails roughly fifteen pages of new or rewritten work to everyone; it’s the nonbatters’ responsibility to read the work carefully and be prepared to discuss it in depth. We devote an hour to each batter, and we go around the circle giving each nonbatter (including me) about fifteen minutes to praise, comment, crit, and question. We try not to interrupt each other, though the batter is welcome to interrupt to ask questions or ask for clarification. We delve deeply and respectfully into the progress and problems of the current piece, and this process has become richer and more penetrating as we’ve become more intimate with each member’s work.
The remaining half hour (if we don’t run over) is mine. Or so I always claim. In my half hour I like to address writers’ issues: how to get going when you’re feeling resistant; finding and holding onto your voice; revealing too little, enough, or too much in memoir; what books you could be reading to enrich your work.
This group has been meeting for a year (with breaks for holidays and summer time-outs, of course), and the way they’ve bonded with each other (and with me, I admit) is thrilling. But the best news is that their work is getting better and better.
HALLIE: Thanks, Lorraine. I have to say, that sounds like a wonderful approach, and I'm not surprised that the writing is getting better.
Jungle Red readers: Have you been in a writing group that nurtured your writing or was toxic? In your experience, what makes the difference?