Writing groups abound in the Princeton area. I’ve been writing on and off for most of my life, but I had never heard of them until I retired in 2010. They are part social club, part resource center, part free entertainment. The best of them are places where a willing scribbler has a chance to learn and grow.
As I became more familiar with these groups, I found tremendous variety among them. Some are genre driven — mystery and fantasy, science fiction, romance. Some concentrate on technique, on brainstorming and developing ideas, on writing to prompts, and more generally on the many “hows” of writing. Some address inspiration — how to get motivated and how to maintain it, how and where to get ideas, how to sit behind the desk and just write.
Some deal almost entirely with the business aspects of writing, particularly getting published. Most commonly though, the groups are venues to present your work, either by reading aloud or by E-mailing to group members ahead of meeting for comment, help, and encouragement at the meeting.
At the urging of my wife, I decided to write a memoir when I retired — a perfect boredom-preventer for a person easing into a new work-free world. The high points of my life, she claimed, were well worth recording: immigration to the U.S., poor boy moves up, but most especially my seven-year journey around the world in my younger years. I still had the four fat notebooks in the attic filled with the events, observations, and musings of my journey. Surely, here was a ready-made project. Well, yes but . . .
I soon discovered that a friend was also working a memoir, and she invited me to join her in a small group of women writers. They met weekly in a private house in Princeton with the purpose of helping one another with writing projects. They read their works aloud and commented on what they heard.
It sounded good. I had no aspirations beyond converting my notebooks to an entertaining memoir and no expectations beyond unequivocal and enthusiastic endorsement of my own prose — I still suffer from a tendency to over-estimate my own wonderfulness. I paid a small fee and, anticipating no particular effort on my part, signed up.
My first surprise was hearing that my work might need improvement. Reading my own work aloud came easily, but hearing critique was not so easy. Note that critique should not be confused with the much harsher word criticism. Not understanding the difference can lead budding authors to withdraw, hiding their work from the larger world. Critique essentially addresses the question, “how can we make this better?” Criticism focuses on “what’s wrong here.” At the beginning, I certainly failed to understand the difference.
I also failed to understand that critique is a two-way street. I did not consider that I would have to judge the work of others in a thoughtful way, or that it would require my effort. I am naturally disposed to be overly direct, but commenting on the work of others was a far more difficult task than I had imagined. These were my friends. I would have to learn to phrase my comments so that they would improve the story rather than admonish the writer. Having a good ear for a story is not enough. One needs to tease out precisely what will help a story that is not quite there.
Critique is at the heart of most groups and, at its best, helps writers understand what’s good and what’s not so good in their work. What works well, what doesn’t, and how, where, and why they might rethink their work. The unwritten rule of a critique is to be generous with praise and kind with negative comment. The challenge is being honest without being cruel.
This informal group helped me begin to understand that every story can be improved. That the most easily available and often the best help is from other writers. I learned the significance and some of the craft of critique, that heavy-handed comment is not helpful, and that I knew a whole lot less about writing than I thought. I also learned that meticulous 10-minute conversations about comma placement, the use of semi-colons, or the aptness of a particular metaphor was only helpful up to a point. It was time to move on. But to where?
Like most of us, I went to the web and after plodding about, I plugged in the vague phrase “writing help.” This brought up a list in the thousands. Happily, my eyes landed on Writingroom.com — a great source for “everything writing,” as its tagline proposes. There, on the home page, was a “groups” tab. In less than 10 minutes I had found one close by at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair
Ed Leefeldt, a professional insurance writer and published novelist, leads this group. Leefeldt is a masterful moderator, who does not make strict demands of attendees. Most writing groups have word limits on submissions, usually around 1,500 words — some more, some less, but rarely over 2,000. I was among those who took advantage of his tolerance by reading for up to 20 minutes (about 3,000 words.) But somehow Leefeldt manages to make room for every reader in the two-hour meeting.
What makes a good leader? There is no one answer, but I would say they must have presence, be diplomatic, patient, and have a good eye for the clock. They should actively steer the meeting, so that everyone who wants to gets to read, that no one person hogs too much reading time, and that not too much time is wasted with idle chit-chat in between. It certainly a great advantage to be knowledgeable about writing, to have been through the pain of rejection of one’s best work, to be able to spot the shortcomings in a story.
Leefeldt’s group was fluid and varied — men and women, teenagers and retirees, poets, fiction and non-fiction writers, novelists, essayists, published and unpublished. People came and went over the months that I participated, but a core of about eight attended regularly. For me at least a solid core of long-term participants give a group its character.
With Leefeldt, I learned more about writing as process and about the need for a process of revision. I began to understand that a story was not finished just because I had tacked “The End” on to my manuscript. I also made my first friends in this creative world, people who remain part of my writing and my life, Tony Athmejvar and Alex Adams, the great comic actor/writer and habitue of all the meetings about town.
Tony put me in touch with many other groups nearby, even as far afield as Pennsylvania. In particular, he introduced me to the now defunct Memoir Group at Lawrence library, which at that time ran every week. I became a regular for a couple of years and ironically soon began to introduce the techniques of fiction into my writing.
Here I got to know my writing buddies, Joanne Sutera and Rodney Richards. As my friendships grew so did the number of groups I went to. Within three months, unable to put a rope around this newly discovered world, I attended as many as four meetings in a week. It was attractive and partly addictive, but it was also a quest for the best.
I soon figured out that if I expected any kind of normal life, I would have to trim the number of meetings I participated in. By dropping a meeting or two when too many coincided in one week, I got it down to two (occasionally three) in any one week and managed to stay active with five groups for more than a year.
The Memoir Group was comprised mostly of senior ladies and a smattering of men. They were all very generous with their praise and gentle with their criticism. Yet, I would argue against any suggested changes and explain what I really meant, implying that my critics were too dumb to grasp my unexpressed meaning. I would orally fill in back story, anything rather than acknowledge my deficiencies. To discourage this, many groups prohibit a writer from speaking until all comment on their work is complete.
Leaving out information important to the understanding of a story, I later learned, is a commonplace indicator of the novice.
To quote one of my playwright friends:
“If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” Or adapted for readers rather than theater-goers, “If you don’t show it, they can’t know it.”
I stayed with the Memoir Group for over two years. Although it does not come naturally to me, I learned to shut up and listen when fellow writers are giving their opinion of my work. Through regular submission of new work, I learned that good stories do not often come in one rush of inspiration. I learned to take good notes, to synthesize all comments, and to make changes based solely on the merits. These changes in approach led directly to my first publication in the 2012 Summer Fiction issue of U.S. 1.
I was lucky enough to have met the much lauded Canadian novelist Lauren B. Davis some years earlier. Her name came up repeatedly as I cast around for more meetings. Davis runs a very polished workshop named Sharpening the Quill. It’s a fee for service operation and a great place to improve craft. In truth it’s more than a writing group. It’s a classroom with critique.
The morning is spent learning from an accomplished author about all things writing. How to create character, compose a scene, construct dialogue, the significance and constrictions of point of view, the ingredients of a personal essay, what makes a good memoir, and so on. The afternoon is devoted to the critique of eight submissions, limited to 1,200 words a piece.
Anyone attending may offer their views on any or all submissions. This is quite usual, but what sets STQ apart is that each submitter receives a professional critique from Davis herself. This is gold for aspiring writers. She is a disciplined writer and brings that discipline to her pupils. The word limit for submissions is strictly enforced and taught me a valuable lesson — how to edit a story to as few words as possible without losing meaning and coherence. As the adage goes, “make every word count.”
A more intimate group grew out of Davis’s and is still attended by a number of her alumni. In its early days it was informally called the STQ Spinoff. Now known as Room at the Table, its monthly meetings are hosted by Vicki Weisfeld, the ace author of crime novels with two to her credit. Having had short fiction published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and elsewhere, Weisfeld is productive and energetic beyond belief and an example to us all.
Membership is by invitation only and currently comprises about a dozen dedicated members. This restriction maintains the integrity and quality of our work. We know each other well because we have done so much together, affording confidence and continuity.
Each of the members gets to know the work, the peccadilloes, and, yes, even the shortcomings or bad habits of the other members. We have learned to comment succinctly, to treat each other with a respect earned from years of listening to how we each tell our tales, understanding and recognizing our techniques, our strengths, and weaknesses. And yes, each of us are committed to offering our best effort in critiquing as many as eight stories a month.
There is no better open resource than the Writers Room at the Princeton Public Library, ably led by Todd Greenwood, a local author and practitioner of a new form — flash fiction (exactly 600 words) each story inspired by a visual prompt. The membership list is over 100 long, and a typical session is attended by 20 or more.
It’s an interesting mix of beginners, published authors, the dedicated, the talented, the struggling. Some come merely to observe, to listen, perhaps to absorb the atmosphere. Here I was befriended by the accomplished writers Loretta and Fred Wish, who have an inexhaustible supply of keen insight. Through exposure and admiration for each other’s work, we have become willing mutual cheerleaders.
Be prepared to be surprised and delighted by the variety and quality of the writing here and at the level of insightful comment. On any evening you will witness more than competence in all genres, although works of fiction definitely dominate. Flashes of brilliance are here for the asking. On one occasion, a young man, unknown to any of us, walked in one evening and read a story of such power and quality I was ready to kill my artistic aspirations and take up cricket.
Happily, I did not embark on this unlikely path. I had had plenty of experience with non-fiction and had been fortunate enough to be published earlier in my life. But when I restarted as a retiree, I was a novice memoirist moving into a different world of fiction.
Writing groups are great resources for growth. But none serve every need. The five selected above do not represent all the meetings I’ve taken part in, only the ones that worked well for me. I went to some meetings only once. To make the most of what they have, try a few different ones and stay with those that are a good fit
In this quest for finding the ideal place, my friends and I formed a couple of groups of our own. A common area of dissatisfaction is accommodating longer pieces for reading and review. Many of us are more than willing to read our own work without limit, but less willing to spend time on the more demanding work of reviewing.
In practical terms, time taken by one writer is at the expense of another. We failed to spot this difficulty up front and soon found it too time consuming and exhausting to regularly critique works in excess of 3,000 words — reduced from our initial limit of 4,000. Neither group survived, which was disappointing. But we learned it’s easy to see the things that don’t work well, but much harder to put it right.
Writers change and hopefully improve. In my own case I outgrew some groups. For example, I never found it difficult to write to prompts and I’m rarely short of ideas or much in need of inspiration — two areas that prompt writing serves well. So even though friends lead such groups, I do not attend.
Sometimes the dynamics of a group change. Members move on to other things and new ones with different interests move in. This is not to say that they are bad, only that we no longer suited one another. Sadly, some of the groups I most enjoyed no longer worked well for me, and I reluctantly dropped them.
Groups change too. New ones appear. Old ones disappear or re-vamp their format or emphasis — Writers Room recently split in two, one to stay with short discrete works, the other to concentrate on the need for continuity with longer works I now attend only two regularly: Room at the Table and Writer’s Room. They sustain me and continue to provide stellar help. I would not think of sending anything for publication without first getting comment from the members of these two groups.
My experience with groups has shown me that one does not arrive at the destination of good creative writing and then settle in. I expect my writing life to always be a work in progress success and failure hand in hand. I am certainly more comfortable in this life than I once was, but know there is always room for improvement, always diversions into unfamiliar territory. So much so that my four fat notebooks still await conversion to a coherent memoir.