Sunday, December 20, 2009

Life After Workshop

I want to talk today about writer’s groups. No, not writer’s workshops. I’m talking about non-academic, not-for-university-credit, voluntary writer’s groups. I’ve recently gotten involved with one of these writer’s groups. Being a recent MFA graduate, it’s hard for me not to compare this other sort of writer’s group to the traditional grad school workshop, and I have to say, I find this sort of group immensely more useful.

Here’s the thing: the group of writers that I’m involved with is a group of people whose opinions and work I respect in a different way than the general respect I would give to everybody in a workshop setting. Sure, you should value any feedback that anybody gives you – feedback is precious and no matter who offers it, and no matter why, you should listen to it with an open mind – but feedback coming from people who write and read in similar styles to your own is, let’s face it, much more useful than feedback from people who would never read the sort of thing that you write unless they had to . . . for workshop.

Also important is how much you personally like the sort of writing that the other writers in your group do. If you’re not a particular writer’s audience, if he or she is doing things in his or her own work that would never interest you as a reader, that person’s feedback might not be as useful to you as another writer who is actually writing the sort of thing you would read in the real world.

There’s a lot to be said for starting your own group peopled with writers whose work and tastes match your own, and there are other advantages besides the audience issue, too. My writer’s group spent our first meeting discussing how we want to run each session. Rather than having a professor decide for the entire group how each session will be run, how much work each person can submit, and what sort of feedback the writers can give each other, we worked these things our for ourselves. The result is that our discussions are much more efficient because they are tailored to our own specific needs.

We are also able to guide the feedback, if we need to. If I know that you’ve already revised this piece twelve thousand times, I might offer you different feedback than if I know it’s a first draft and hasn’t yet found its footing. Likewise, if I know that you’re planning to submit this piece to, say, The Paris Review, I might give you different feedback than if I know that you’re not planning on submitting it at all, that you’re just writing it for therapeutic reasons or for an experiment.

In addition, writing group discussions are much more organic outside of an academic setting. The same is true, I’ve found, when you compare a conversation between a group of friends who all happened to read the same book to a formal classroom discussion, guided by a teacher or a fellow student who is leading the discussion, and always with the intention of making the discussion last for a specific amount of time. Those time constraints are the biggest issue for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt frustrated with a workshop discussion that degenerates to nitpicky sentence level complaints because there are still fifteen more minutes allotted to that piece, or on the other side a really useful discussion gets cut short because class is over.

I did, I should say, have one workshop in grad school that pretty much felt like the writer’s group I’m part of now, but for the most part, academic workshops are useful, but the boundaries of the classroom setting prevent them from being as useful as a home grown sort of writer’s group would be.


Justus said...

I'd be interested to learn more about the founding of your writers group. How did you come across the right people and so forth? I was a member of a writers group in Maine that was great, but the group itself already existed, and I was simply invited to join it for a bit while I was their in grad school. I once tried to start a writers group, but most others weren't as interested as I was and we never got past one or two meetings. Plus, I was just pulling members from among my fellow students, so it wasn't much different from a workshop as far as the type of people and their reading interests. I'd be curious to learn more about how your group came about, but maybe that's a whole other blog post.

PancakePhilosopher said...

I think I know what you mean about discussions being more organic outside the classroom. This semester in a James Joyce senior-level class (there were only 3 of us students in the class, and we were all friends already) our in-class discussion always felt a little forced and timid, but on our way to and from that class we had animated discussions about the reading for that day that we didn't do in class, whether because we felt awkward saying certain things in front of the professor or whether we were self-conscious of the time-frame.

One thing I pray for for whatever MFA I end up in is a group of open-minded writers who actually want to help each other out. In my school now there are some horribly self-centered writers who think they're the best and don't feel the need to mingle with or help out their peers. Frustratiing!

Good for you in forming your writers group. I predict that a lot of quality stuff will be produced from that.

Ashley Cowger said...

That's one thing that being involved with academia in one way or another does help with: meeting creative people. My group consists of me, Damien (my husband), a poet from Damien's program, and that poet's boyfriend, who is a screenwriter. We invited a few other people to join and they were all enthusiastic when it was just an idea, but when it came time to actually start meeting, only four of us showed up. But I actually think it's MUCH better with a small group like this, and so far it's been very fruitful. The question is, will we keep it up once the break is over? I hope so, but I don't know. . .