Q: How does a writers’ group work?
A: With or without wine?
When the folks in one of my writing programs asked for a writers’ group, I happily obliged. But with participants scattered from Paris to Vancouver, the drinks and snacks are strictly BYO.
Still, it worked so well that after the first meeting—which I’d imagined happening monthly—they determined to meet every week, alternating weekdays and Saturdays to accommodate people’s schedules.
So what makes a writers’ group tick?
The first three things you need to create and sustain a successful writers’ group:
You need people to show up regularly so you can establish a community.
You need those people to show up prepared to share their own work.
You need those people to show up prepared to respect their fellow writers’ processes.
Some people think you can’t have a successful writers’ group online. I think that depends on how you create it.
Take a dozen random people from a Facebook group and ask, “Hey! Do you want to start a writers’ group?” and you’re likely to have a lot of attrition.
But my writers aren’t a random collection of people. They’ve worked together, through five-day writing challenges; through my 12-week writing program; through the first third of my 90-day writing challenge, which started April 1st; and—for a select few—into a second 12-week writing program, a master seminar that kicks off tomorrow.
The daily writing challenges have their own accountability system built in: Finish the challenge and your registration fee goes to a worthy nonprofit. Don’t finish the challenge and I keep your registration fee.
And when people apply for my writing programs, I ask them to commit to writing for 15 minutes a day, every day.
So I’m confident in my tribe: they’re not just “writers”—they write. So I knew I could count on them to contribute to the writers’ group. Besides, they asked me to create it. I don’t think you can find a better indicator of commitment.
During the first 5-day challenge, at the end of 2016, I was amazed at how quickly this group of writers on four continents coalesced into a supportive community. Part of it may have been my decision to have them make only positive comments when people posted their work in our Facebook group. I didn’t want any drive-by criticism—trash somebody’s work and disappear in a cloud of smoke. But I think the bulk of it is that they’re just good people. Open-hearted, creative people who recognize that it’s a privilege to write within a community of other open-hearted, creative people.
With the 90-day Challenge and the 12-week programs, I opened the door to constructive criticism. Three months is long enough to get to know someone—to know whether to accept their comments, think about them for a bit, or disregard them.
So, yes, I think it is possible to run a successful writers’ group virtually. We use Zoom, so we can see each others’ faces, and I think the writers feel connected to each other. I know they value the feedback they’ve been getting.
One rule to, um, rule them all
(Sorry about the attempted Lord of the Rings pun. Okay—obviously not sorry enough to delete it.)
Whatever kind of writers’ group you create—whether you’re slouching on a sofa in someone’s living room or sitting at your desk with the webcam on—the most important thing to remember is to respect each others’ process. I learned this back in college, when I took the inimitable Len Berkman‘s Playwrighting class.
Pretty much the only instruction Len gave us was this:
Talk about the play the writer wrote, not the play that you think they should have written. Not the play you would have written. Just talk about on the work they’ve done.
I think if you get a roomful of people who can do that for each other, you’re golden. And it doesn’t matter where they are or how they come together. It only matters that they’re working, helping each other grow.
And that’s a beautiful thing.