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I can’t remember how our writer’s group came up with our name. It had to do with our experience in Dorothy Allison’s workshop group at Tin House, but beyond that I’m not sure. Merry would know. She’s the one who keeps us going when the group languishes. Every group has to have an organizer, someone to keep the focus. We no longer have a set schedule for critiques, but if we’re silent for a few weeks, we’ll receive an email from Merry asking how everyone is doing and the group will move forward again. Because we’re smaller in number now, and we’ve developed friendships through the years that allow us the freedom to ask for help, we typically just send an email with an attachment requesting a critique from those who have time to respond. Other than a limit of about 5,000 words per submission, we don’t have group rules. We just haven’t found the need.

How We Connected

I won’t rehash my experience with Tin House (see my post on Writer’s Conferences) other than to say it was an excellent conference, and the twelve writers in Dorothy Allison’s group connected in a magical way. Sounds sappy, but we were all surprised how close we had become by the end of the week. For example – one of our group was house sitting for an old friend who lived in Portland – a gorgeous old home perched on the side of a hill downtown. We all car pooled one evening and made it to the house where we pitched in and had a party: wine, grilled peaches, spoon bread, a variety of exotic foods shared by newly formed friends; all pulling for each other against pretty stiff odds that we would achieve our dreams. 2,000 miles from home and I’d found people who understood what was driving me. Many of us were in situations where writing was something we did as a quiet hobby. I had been writing for many years, and very few people outside of my husband and parents knew it. I couldn’t stand to hear the question – so when will your book be published? Actually it was my response I couldn’t stand…. Ummm, maybe never? It was so nice that week to talk to people with the same passion, and not feel a bit self-conscious.

Online Writer’s Group

The twelve of us exchanged email addresses and decided to figure out an online format for critiquing work. As I remember it, nine of us followed through. We all offered suggestions until we finally came up with a format. In the beginning we took turns coming up with a schedule of those who would submit and those who would critique. We generally critiqued for 4 people each month in two groups. Eventually the numbers fell off, people got busy, changed jobs, put their writing goals aside for family commitments. But four of us still remain, and I am confident that all of our writing has benefited from our relationship. We’ve known each other long enough to know when to push and when to offer kind words and encouragement.

A writer I met recently asked if I had advice on how to gather the right mix of people for a successful writers group. She wanted to know if a writer’s group should specialize in fiction or even specific genres. I can only speak from my own very limited experience, but I don’t think the genre is near as important as the desire to improve and to connect with other writers in meaningful ways. Tin House was my first writer’s conference, and I hadn’t given any thought to the idea that I would be working with writers whose stories were vastly different than my own. I remember reading the stack of 12 submissions my first night at the conference and wrapping my head around the idea that I wasn’t critiquing a story because I liked it, I was critiquing the merits of the piece.

Words on the Page

What helped me the most was Dorothy’s direction to focus on the words on the page. No speculation. No filling in the blanks. Our job was to critique the 20 pages of writing in front of us. That was the most difficult part of sitting through the critique. I had written a complete novel – not a short story. People had questions about my excerpt that were answered later in the novel, but I wasn’t allowed to respond. Once I moved past the ego trip – “Hey, I addressed that elsewhere” – then I learned what was important to the readers. Maybe I needed to move up information, expand, or address questions I hadn’t even considered. And, sometimes, the best critics, the people who provided the most astute observations, were people who wrote completely different stories than I did. They tended to come at your writing in new and interesting ways.

Who We Are

Merry: She’s our organizer. She teaches college level writing which makes it hard for her to focus on her own writing at times. She’s been writing mostly literary quality short stories and writes about intense characters with big internal struggles. I always want to learn more about her characters when I’m done reading something of hers. She’s had some success with publishing in magazines the past couple of years, and we’re all pulling for her.

Mella: While her main focus has been short stories, she is currently torturing herself over a novel. Family commitments and responsibilities have made it difficult for her to write for the past few months, and I’m so anxious for her to return. She’s started a book that, like her short stories, has a lyrical quality to it. Imagine fine classical music. That’s how I hear her stories.

Linnet: An attorney by trade, Linnet has moved into essay writing recently after using her writing skills in a very public way to help save her town’s library. She is a well-traveled person, and has submitted travel writing to us through the years that I think is fantastic. I was thrilled that she started her own blog recently at: linnetharlan.com. Her blog is eclectic – much like her. Interesting on a wide range of topics. We’re all anxious to read her new foray into mystery – a short story she is submitting to the Tin House workshop this year.

Next time – finessing the story