On Writers Groups

This essay was written in 2004, on the occasion of the Slow Sand Writers Society 10th anniversary.

Starting a writers group is like your first kiss or your first skydive. It’s exciting and a bit reckless. It’s also scary, putting yourself out there to fail, or succeed.

Courtesy PROskydiving.

When my writers group got together, I was 28—not long out of graduate school, mother of one toddler, part-time freelancer. I wrote what people hired me to write, but I also wanted to write what / wanted to write. This group would help me, I hoped.

I had been in a writers group before, but it had died a lingering death. Very little writing was done. The problem was the work of it. Most of us were commercial writers or English teachers or reporters by profession. It was hard to cozy up to words after long days battling them.

It was hard to “really write.” It is hard to really write. Sports journalist Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

But if you’re in a writers group, at least you’re not bleeding alone. You gather for your meetings, and you bandage one another, and you whip each other up for the next bloodlettings.

My new writers group began meeting every other Tuesday night. I didn’t know these writers then. We were friends of friends or casual writing community acquaintances who had come together at a writers potluck. We called ourselves the Slow Sand Filtration Writers Group. One of us was in the throes of writing a technical paper on the process of sand filtration to remove impurities from water. The name, eventually shortened to Slow Sand, captured something essential about the sifting of words, ideas, and feelings to render potable prose. Plus it was slightly stodgy and self-deprecating—perfect for writers.

The Sanders soon settled into a routine. We start each meeting with a round-robin discussion, each member in turn sharing happenings since we last met—writing written, contests entered, submissions rejected. Then we break for an intermission of food and drink, fortifying ourselves for the working half of the meeting: the critique.

A good writers group critique is like a strong household cleanser. Its purpose is to cut through the shit and reveal the sparkle.

Cherry blossoms. GNU licensed.

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At each meeting we critique two writers. In the past decade I’ve written hundreds of Sander critiques. They’ve ranged from brief, “Lovely work. Keep it up” inscriptions to detailed, many-paged exegeses on the myriad ways a submission could be improved. If love is in the little lies, then critiques are in the little truths.

We give verbal feedback before turning in our written critiques. This often makes for a raucous volley of opinions. One Sander might think the plot falters while another insists the plot is perfect, but the structure fails. One wants the story to grow longer while another champions a vast, unsentimental cut, from waist-length to just above the shoulders.

Of course we don’t always agree. This can be frustrating for the writer, who has to lug home the all-over-the-map commentary and decide how to revise. A writers group critique can be like an archeological dig, with one digger working this quadrant and another that. The findings need to be assembled, contradictions and all, for some sense of the whole to emerge. But when we agree, and remarkably, we often do, the writer is gifted with a sweet clarity, a shower of cherry blossoms in April.

Come to think of it, I’m amazed, after all this time, at the earnestness with which the critiques are still given—impassioned speeches and lavish analysis—as well as received—nods and “ohhhhhhhhhs” and now and then, tears.

We understand that without real critiquing, our writers group would dry up and crumble like a church social cookie.

Of course, we all luxuriate in the camaraderie and the commiseration. But the work is the thing. We have to produce it on our own and then we have to bring it to the group, as a cat brings a mouse to its master. I know not all writers believe in critique. Raymond Chandler said among his writing absolutes were never take advice and never show or discuss work in progress. But time and again, a piece has come before the Sanders only to be torn apart and lovingly reassembled before going out in the world to lose its rejection virginity. These stories would not have been as well-crafted without running the Sanders gauntlet. And publication would have been an even more improbable goal than it already is.

Now, lest you think that riding herd is unnecessary in this group I have painted as the picture of productivity, let me expose the truth. The Sanders don’t always respond to the deadline. Now and then there are those of us who, for various excuses, I mean reasons, don’t have the mouse to carry to our master. For such circumstances we have created the 3-pages-no-matter-what edict. I quote from our rules:

You are obligated to submit at least three pages when you are due. No exceptions. If you are not working on a story or essay, turn in a character sketch, dialogue, scene, outline, research, list of character names, journal entry, letter, writing exercise, part of a revision, anything.

The Sanders also rely on Shitty First Drafts. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott insists that everybody writes them, even the most successful. “For me and most of the other writers I know,” she says, “writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” So if you’re reading another writer’s work and it has the SFD disclaimer stamped on the cover page, now you know.

Colorado river rafting. GNU licensed.

Once you’re underway, holding a writers group together is like riding a raft down a Western river—sometimes placid and easy and sometimes rocky and roiling. But as the years slip by, the sense of community and loyalty build. Today, at 38, I’m the mother of three and yet a writer for hire. I’m still not where I’d like to be with my own writing. But I’ve celebrated countless Sander successes. And I’ve absorbed a lot about what it means to be a writer—and a writerly friend.

The Sanders are with me whenever I sit down to “really write”… little worry dolls perched along the top of my computer screen.

They’re there right now. “I suck,” I tell them. But Teresa and Kathy assure me my voice is strong. Luana loves the characters and Tracy is applauding my syntax. Woo-hoo! cheers Laura. Zach likes it except the touchy-feely bit about being friends, and there’s Jean, smiling. Just keep writing, says Paul. Just keep writing.

Guatemalan worry dolls. GNU licensed. By Leena.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said: “When I’m writing I’m always aware that this friend is going to like this, or that another friend is going to like that paragraph or chapter, always thinking of specific people. In the end all books are written for your friends.”

What better a bunch of friends to write for than those who know well how to tie a tourniquet.

Learn more about Slow Sand member Karla Oceanak.

Learn more about forming your own writers group with these tips.

If you live in Northern Colorado, find out how to apply to be a Slow Sander.

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