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Writing Groups, Workshops, and Other Sounding Boards


        One way to gain perspective on your work is to try it out on someone else, preferably before you release the work to an outside audience. This someone could be a friend or family member, a writing teacher or coach, or anyone who can act as a sounding board for your work. Choose someone whose opinion you value, someone you can trust not only to be honest but also to be helpful. What “helpful” means depends on your needs as a writer and your plans for the work. If you’re just beginning, or if you’re insecure about your writing, you might simply need encouragement and a few minor suggestions. If you’re an advanced writer, or if your goal is artistic excellence at all costs, you may welcome tough criticism.

        Your respondent doesn’t have to be a writer, though another writer may be more sensitive to your needs than someone who doesn’t write. As the Spanish proverb says, “It is not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.” It’s easy for someone who’s never been in the writing ring to give you advice he’ll never have to take himself. Beware of anyone, writer or otherwise, who tells you what he’d do with your draft if it were his. It’s not his. It’s yours. The role of a respondent is to respond, not to rewrite. In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow contends that "[t]o improve your writing you don't need advice about what changes to make; you don't need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people's minds while they read your words." What he’s talking about is an important distinction between describing the text and judging. There may come a time for judgments, but in the early stages of response, it’s often better for respondents to  abandon the lit-crit model many people learned in graduate school and to do some receiving instead. What drew them into the piece? Where did they get confused? Where did they want more information, or less? What images stay in their mind? These are excellent questions with which to begin.

        You can help your readers by explaining in advance what you need from them. If there’s a particular issue you want addressed, or if you have a specific audience or venue in mind, let your readers know. This information will not only focus their reading but will also keep them from spending valuable time and energy on issues that you don’t need, or want, feedback on. Of course, if you’re open to all kinds of response, let your readers know that too. But be sure you really mean it. If you don’t, you may get more than you bargained for.

        There are many ways to get feedback on your work. If you want a general impression on the work, you can simply read it aloud and ask for immediate response. But if you want more detailed criticism, it’s probably best to send the work in advance and then meet with the person later to discuss it, or ask him to send the work back to you with his comments on it. You can also share your work with a group of fellow writers—formally, as part of a workshop or class, or informally, at an open-mike reading.

        If you want ongoing feedback on your body of work, consider joining a writer response group or starting one of your own. I’ve been a member of writing groups for over twenty-five years, and the criticism and support I’ve received has been invaluable. This isn’t to say writing groups are perfect entities. Responding to someone else’s work is a difficult and sensitive undertaking, as is receiving response to your own, and despite the best efforts of group members, conflicts sometimes arise, feelings get hurt, and misunderstandings occur. Yet even so, I believe that the advantages of being a member of a writing group far outweigh the disadvantages.

        If you’re thinking of starting a writer response group or joining one, here are some suggestions:

1) Choose writers who are as committed as you are, not only to writing but also to the group. You need to be able to count on members to show up, to be prepared to discuss your work, and to take their writing at least as seriously as you take it.
2) Choose writers who are on a similar skill and experience level so that the exchange will be as equal as possible. Otherwise, the more experienced or skilled writers may take on the role of teachers or mentors, which defeats the purpose of a response group.
3) Agree in advance on how the group will function. Set up rules and procedures, if necessary, to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
4)  Don’t apologize for your work. If it has problems (most work does) the group will probably let you know. And if you know in advance that the work warrants an apology, maybe it isn’t yet ready to be shared. Use the group’s time for work you really care about and have spent time preparing.
5) Don’t explain your work before you share it. If you do, you won’t know if the group is responding to the work itself or to your explanation of the work. Remember, if the piece is submitted for publication, you won’t be there to explain it to the editor. The work must stand alone.
6) While your work is being discussed, listen, listen, and listen some more. Listen not only to what’s being said but also to how it’s being said. Pick up on nonverbal cues Listen with a whole heart. You might wish to take notes as others speak. Later, you can ask or answer questions, clarify points, or just thank the group members for their responses.
7) Often, what appear to be completely opposite reactions to a text turn out to be not so opposite after all. “I want more of the mother here,” one reader says, to which the second reader replies, “I don’t think the mother belongs here at all. Take her out.” Well, you can hear those responses as opposites, conclude that they cancel each other out; you might even take a vote around the workshop table and eventually arrive at a poem-by-committee. Or you could see the two responses as the same response, both pointing to the fact that the mother component in the text is calling attention to itself and needs to be examined more closely. Beyond that, it’s merely a matter of personal taste on the part of the readers.
8) Remember that most people try their best to be helpful. In doing so, they sometimes leap to the easiest solution to “fix” a piece of writing. Suggestions or fixes sound something like this: “I want more dialog, less about the horse, and how about making this about New York instead of Milwaukee? And by the way, you misspelled buses.” Try to remember that revision is not about “fixing.” It’s about re-seeing. Sometimes the trouble spot is actually a door into new possibilities for the work. That’s your door to go through, not your reader’s. A writer is the first reader of her own work, and yes it is hard to discern what is happening—or already happened—on a page that our own hand composed. But we can at least try to discover the places where the text is most alive and complex, and most needful of our future attention.


Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out