Wednesday, May 20, 2009

So You Wanna Start a Writing Group?

I started a writing group in 2002 with absolutely no idea what I was doing.  I did some things right and I did some things wrong; but overall, it continues to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.  It's part creative outlet, part social gathering, and part group therapy.  Plus, there's always a snack!  

If you'd like to start a writing group of your own, I've prepared a list of things I've learned along the way that I hope will help: 

1. Invite writers and non-writers alike, 
and aim for diversity.  
When I first started the group, I took flyers around my neighborhood to people I thought might be interested.  Over time, I became amazed at the people who joined us--many of whom would never identify themselves as writers.  My advice is to start in your own circle of friends and acquaintances and then allow the group to grow as some people leave and others (sometimes friends of friends of friends) join.  

The most enriching experience is when you have a diverse group of ages, experiences and backgrounds.  

2. Decide on a place, date, and time.  
I have always hosted at my house--originally I insisted on it because it made it easier for me when I was working full-time outside my home, but I came to appreciate that as a group we had a comfortable, familiar, semi-private place to meet.  It doesn't necessarily have to be your house.  It's the comfortable, familiar, semi-private part that's most important.

Pick a date that's easy to remember for everyone, like the first Wednesday of every month, and get it on the calendar.  Expect that some months will be feast and some famine in numbers.  It's okay; everybody has lives.

We meet for two hours, from 7:00 until 9:00 p.m..  I think it's a perfect amount of time. 

3. Don't take anything personally.  
Going along with the first point, you will find that a writing group will suit some people like a favorite pair of jeans, and to others it will feel like a trip to the dentist without novocaine.  And you might not be able to predict how anybody will react.  Don't take it personally, even if your best friend was originally keen on the idea and then did a 180 after one meeting.  It's OK; it's not about you.  For a million different reasons, it just isn't going to work for some people.  Be welcoming as people come and gracious and understanding as people go.

4. Use a textbook.  Or don't.  (But do.)  
I had absolutely no credentials for leading a writing group when I started one, so I relied completely on my then-and-ever favorite writing book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  I ask everyone to locate a copy and bring it.  It is wonderfully accessible to anyone at any interest or skill level.  I've yet to find a book on writing that I like as much. 

Plus, I love the method she teaches in the book--timed writing practice.  It's simple and effective.  

I also like using the book as part of the structure of our meetings.  We read together from the book, then we write, then we read aloud what we wrote.  Then we do it again.  And again.

Of course, you may have your own ideas about how to structure your meetings.  By all means, go for it.  

5. Simple supplies.  
Aside from the book, a simple spiral notebook and a fast-writing pen are the only other supplies a writer needs to get started.  (What other hobby is so inexpensive?)  As the group leader, you'll also want a timer. 

6. Have a pledge.
One time, after about a year, I had the group write a pledge of allegiance to our group for a writing exercise.  When everyone read their version, I realized that my silly exercise tapped into something important for us.  I took everybody's pledge and wove them together and gave everyone a copy at our next meeting.  We decided to use it at the beginning of every meeting, repeating it together with our pens over our hearts.  

Feel free to use ours, or have your group write one of their own. 

The Would-Be Writers Pledge
I pledge allegiance to my first thoughts, no matter how bizarre, frightening, or unusual they seem.  I exercise my right to spell badly, use poor grammar, and ramble on if I feel so inclined.  I reserve the right to pass.  I will have fun and not think too much.  I will be true to myself.  I will listen well and deeply and compliment rather than criticize.  I pledge to hold sacred any information or insight into another writer’s mind, heart, and experience.  I will enjoy the treats with abandon as well as the writing.  When I go home, I pledge to keep writing.
7. Maintain control and lose control.  
Be in charge, but don't be a control freak.  Have a tentative outline for each meeting and be willing to go with the flow.  

Perhaps one of your group members, Sharon, tends to go off on a tangent and before too long, she's spent eight minutes talking about the annoying traffic lights she hits every Wednesday on Main Street.  Well, sometimes that's OK, because the group is engaged in the story and enjoying themselves.  After all, Sharon is a great storyteller and this story, though not part of your outline, is part of the flow of the meeting.  Go with it.

But other times it's not OK because it's not part of the flow and the rest of the group is getting frustrated and anxious to move on.  That's when you have to take charge and redirect.  But do it kindly.  Sharon has feelings too.

8. Read some, write some, share some.  
The chapters in the book we use are beautifully brief.  We read a chapter together, taking turns reading each paragraph.  Then we discuss it for a few minutes.  Then, we do a short timed writing exercise (usually based on the chapter somehow), and then we read to each other what we have just written.  With a group of about 10 people, there's usually enough time to do three rounds of this.

Be aware that in the beginning (or when a new person joins), reading aloud something you have just written as fast as you can sounds more difficult and revealing than standing on the coffee table in the middle of the group stark naked.  Acknowledge the vulnerability because it's real.  Gently encourage people to share, but don't push.  Everyone has the right to pass.

9. Exercise, exercise, exercise.  
It turns out that if you want to be good at anything you have to practice at it.  The same is true of writing, and I like to think of our meetings as concentrated writing practice.

As the host or leader, you'll need to plan some exercises for the group to do.  If an exercise is not specifically suggested in the chapter we read together, I come up with my own.  It's not hard at all, I promise.  Keep things simple and you'll do fine.  You can also look online for simple writing prompts, or snatch ideas from interesting articles, poems, or blogs.  Cover a variety of ideas, from silly to dead serious.  

Or, have one of your group exercises be, "Write a list of writing prompts."  Voila!  You have a bunch of writing prompts!

10. Compliment rather than criticize.  
If you use the book I recommend, the method it teaches and the format I've suggested, your group will produce handfuls of incredibly honest, raw, unfinished pieces of writing.  And they are amazingly beautiful and inspiring.  Except when they're not, because sometimes they're not.  They're not necessarily supposed to be--it's writing practice.   It would be wrong to criticize it.

Instead, find something kind and useful to say.  Practice makes better writers, but I think kindness does too.

11. Have a snack. 
Writers need food.  Have group members rotate bringing a simple snack to share with the group.  

12. End on time.  
Do your best to end on time.  It shows that you have respect for everyone else and their schedules.  If you're constantly going over time, it may begin to discourage some people from coming.  

Alright, that's my best advice.  If you're interested in starting a group and you still have some questions, please feel free to contact me by comment or email and I'll do my best to help you out.  You can do it!  

Update: If you're interested in joining an online writing group, Marta does a marvelous job as host.  Join now!  Click here for past writing prompts.


Angie said...

When I saw the title of this post I thought that you were going to start an online writing group, and was excited about it. That's not to say that this post wasn't good. I bought a copy of Writing Down the Bones, and every time you mention it, I think that I should get it out again.

Hey, what if we did start some kind of online writing group...? I'll put some thought into that.

Soul-Fusion said...

This made me miss writing group with you so much! It is how we met :)
And I remember being surprisingly nervous before my first meeting. I am pretty sure I would not feel as comfortable blogging had I not spent a year (??) or so in your writing group.

Emily said...

What great advice! I'll have to get a copy of the book you recommend. I've read "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott and loved her suggestions. I'm eager to read what Natalie Goldberg says!

I'm A. said...

I do want to start a writing group. But more importantly, I am here to tell you that you must watch So You Think You Can Dance. You will not regret it. It is the best. I am completely serious.

shannon p. said...

I sooo want to start a writing group - I feel WAY under qualified to be the group leader, and I am always good at finding excuses why can't really do something, but you have planted a seed with me...If I do start, can I pester you incessantly with questions?

Kristina P. said...

Can I come just for the snacks?

Becky said...

I couldn't have asked for a better 'how-to' on starting a writing group! Someday..... Thanks Tiff!

marta said...

this was great advice and something i needed to read; you are the person i am interviewing next for writer's block advice. thanks for the shout out.

happiness all over.

Dani said...

I'm reading this book called The Vein of Gold and it talks about having an accountability group. So, three of my friends and I are starting our creativity group in June. Two of us are writers, another is a preschool teacher and another is just brilliant. Anyhow, I'm "leading" the all this advice is great! Thanks for sharing!

Leslie said...

Thank you! I really think I'd like to do this. I just have to work up the nerve.

Dani said...

And if there was an online writing group, that would make me so h-a-p-p-y!

DeAnn said...

Perhaps you would consider posting your groups writing prompts for the month -- for those who may just want to play along at home? I miss WBWG -- dang I actually have to pay for therapy now.

Shannon said...

Thanks for the post. For me, the hardest part has been getting people to come. Maybe my personaility is just not at magnetic as yours . . . *sigh*

Kami said...

Did you say snack?

I wish you still lived here so that I could come just once.

MiaKatia said...

I am feeling inspired... to buy the book. Then after I have read it I might have the courage to start up a group. I think I am intimidated by the knowledge that half the women I would invite are ten times better writers than I am so I don't feel like I have anything to offer, other than a place to gather and snacks.

Christy said...

Mmmm, I read Becky's comment, do you think maybe she'll start one...

Such great advice!

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