Sorry for the lack of post last week. I somehow managed to come down with strep throat, which is in a completely different galaxy from fun. I’m on the mend courtesy the miracle that is penicillin.
But I digress.
I’ve been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil, but I didn’t start taking my writing seriously as a vocation until about seven years ago. At the time I was living in Evanston, IL while my husband Pete worked on his PhD in astrophysics at Northwestern University. Northwestern is a nifty place in a number of ways, but my favorite bit of awesome is their mini-courses offered through the Norris center. These six week quarterly classes offer everything from beginning guitar to pool to tai chi, and they’re cheap and open to the public. They had a writing class that looked interesting, so I signed up. This is how I met Paul McComas, who was teaching the class, and who became my mentor and friend. I loved the class, and took it every quarter for a year, at which point Paul invited me into his advanced fiction writing group that he taught out of his home. This was my first writing group, and I’ve probably been spoiled, because it was (and I hope still is) a great one.
I have found a writing group to be an invaluable part of my writing life. First, of course, it’s an excuse for writers to get away from their computers, drink wine, and commiserate with other writers. Writing is a solitary venture, and many (maybe most) writers are introverts who need an excuse to coax them out of their head space. Writing talk is optional; the hangout opportunity alone makes it worthwhile.
Beyond that, of course, is the work itself. Having a regular group (weekly, biweekly, monthly, whatever) gives a writer an external deadline, which I know helps me to push through difficult spots and finish what I start for the sake of having something to bring to group.
Then there’s the criticism. In Paul’s group, he has some simple rules. When commenting on a piece, focus on two things: what works and why, what doesn’t work and why not. And the author needs to stay out of the discussion until the end, because otherwise she starts explaining the piece, and that defeats the purpose. The importance is in how the story comes across to the reader. If what the writer meant isn’t coming across, then they need to change how they’re presenting it. After all, the writer won’t be standing there with an editor saying “what I meant was…” The editor will just reject the piece.
Learning how to deal with criticism is vital to being a writer. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at it. I’m way better than I was. Mrs. Glancy, my high school English teacher, picked apart one of my college essays my senior year, and called me out for reacting defensively. Identifying with your work is very common, but it’s important to learn that you are not your work, and flaws in your piece are not reflective of you as a person. Like any other experience of failure, you will get nowhere if you don’t accept that the flaws exist and resolve to fix them and learn from them. That doesn’t mean you should blindly accept all suggestions as gospel truth, of course. But you should at least consider them. And smile and thank whoever gave them to you. Even if you need to grit your teeth to do so.
We moved to Alabama last summer, and the one thing I immediately missed was my writing group, and it showed in my writing. I tried for months to find one here in Tuscaloosa without much success. Then just this past month I discovered a local group of NaNoWriMo writers who meet once a month. They’re meeting this Sunday, and I’m excited 🙂