By Katie Venit
In middle school I joined my first writing group when Liz T. found a blank composition book.
We passed it around, each adding to the rambling story filled with grudges and crushes. What a joy! To create a reality using nothing but a piece of paper and the fancy pen I “borrowed” from my mother. We left each other notes for improvement in the margins, and it felt so gratifying to know that someone else felt invested in my writing.
The wonderment lingered when I worked on my high school and college newspapers and interned one summer at a magazine where I wrote my first piece for pay. After graduating with an English major, journalism minor, I worked for a business magazine in Madison and later freelanced. As my clip pile grew, however, the feedback diminished, until finally it was limited to a check in the mail, a call back to write another piece.
I craved improvement, I wanted the camaraderie of Liz’s writing group, but to seek feedback opened myself up to all kinds of vulnerability with which I was intensely uncomfortable. I did not fear writing or having people read my words; I feared their opinions.
Then there is that other hurdle: the debilitation of exhaustion. Honestly, I haven’t written much at all lately, thanks to the original endurance sport: early motherhood. Writing after lights out has been exactly as enticing as writing after running a marathon. Passing out at 8:30 with a cup of tea and uneaten Halloween candy on my chest? Definitely doable. Forming coherent sentences? I’d just as soon climb Mt. Vesuvius. However, motherhood also affords long periods of drudgery, which my mind has always filled with scattered outlines or description. With tentative opening sentences. With words, always with words.
Just recently, my children have grown older, as they do, and my neglected urge to write has begun poking its nose under my hand, much like my dog (also neglected). I can no longer ignore it in favor of the couch. I can no longer hold those words only in my head; they have to spill onto the page for my own sanity. If I have to write, I reasoned, I want it to be good. But I had no one to tell me when it sucks. I decided I need critique and feedback. But how?
Here’s a peek at my thought process: Liz started my first writing group. I needed Liz. Liz lives in Virginia. I would have to start my own group. I would have to be Liz. Gulp.
As luck would have it, I had a few female friends who might be interested. Still, fear made me pause. Could I keep the experience convivial, as Liz had? Could I make myself vulnerable to their opinions, and did I have the time and energy to organize a group? Not likely. Still, I thought about it. And matched socks. And thought about it. And rescued lost toys.
And one day I took a breath and messaged those friends, some of which wrote for publication often, others have not been published yet Some were into memoir; others nonfiction; others novels. They were all game, and we met within a week.
We set the group’s structure. Bucking all advice to the contrary, we decided would meet occasionally--nay, irregularly--and hold each other to zero accountability. For all of us, writing had to wait until other priorities were met. Sharing a piece at a meeting would be entirely optional. Alcohol would also be an optional, but welcome, augmentation. The only mandatory element was supporting each other to meet our goals. One of us wanted to just finish her novel already. Another wanted to apply to a Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild residency this summer (and talked two others into applying as well). These goals, for all their ambition, seemed possible now that we weren’t on our own.
As I wrote this very article to workshop at our next meeting, I chose my wording more carefully than I would have otherwise, knowing the ladies would give me feedback. I looked suspiciously at every long sentence and passive verb. I tinkered with my opening and delved into the thesaurus to unearth more interesting verbs. And when I finally, nervously, asked for critique, the experience was nothing like I feared. My friends had insightful opinions, but even critical comments were delivered with such amity that nothing stung. I think my article is better for having been workshopped, but what do you think? Read the original here.
We found the following set of questions to be helpful: 1) what were some words and phrases that stuck with you (for whatever reason)? 2) how did this piece make you feel? 3) what interfered with your enjoyment of the piece (Where did you need more information, where is the pace off, what's confusing, etc)? and 4) where are you curious to know more?
We decided to post our group, Women Who Write, on the Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guide directory. Even though our group is closed, listing it helps the guild help us by illustrating the diversity of writers in the area. Perhaps, by example, we could help other writers open themselves up to be vulnerable and share their writing with a critique group. That listing may be the one piece of accountability we allow ourselves, the one external force of pressure that keeps us at our drafts at the edges of the day when we would otherwise be sacked out on the couch, spilling cold chamomile on our slumbering chests. We are official; now we have to live up to it.
Free time and spare energy with which to write remain elusive, but I no longer fear opinions on my work. I cleared that particular hurdle, and I’m a better writer for it.