Wednesday, May 11, 2005

On writers' groups

First, my own history with writers' groups. In 1985, I founded a group called Source: Women Writers. That group met every week for nearly ten years, met sporadically for a few years after that, and still gets together on occasion. For much of that first ten years we put together public readings once or twice a year; we put out two self-published chapbooks, led a bunch of workshops, and got a couple of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women to do some workshops. This group was (as you might have guessed from the name of the group) all women, and had a specifically feminist (not specifically lesbian, though we were about half-and-half) orientation, and it was a mixed poetry/fiction group -- with the occasional song, essay, or other bit of writing thrown in for fun.

In 2001, I joined a group that had already been in existence for quite a while, Five Women Poets. (That group just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year -- two of the founding members are still in the group.) This group is all women and all poets (I know that comes as a great shock, because of the name) -- we don't necessarily have five members at any given time, though. Hey, we're poets, not mathematicians. We do a reading once a year; before I joined, the group had put out two chapbooks, and last year we put out a CD.

The dynamic involved in joining an existing group vs. starting a new one is pretty different, and here I'm going to focus primarily on my experiences with Source, although my experiences with Five Women Poets will enter in as well, I'm sure.

Anyway, I got a lot of my initial "how to do it" ideas from an essay by Marge Piercy, in her book Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (U. of Michigan Poets on Poetry series). If I'm not mistaken, this essay also appeared in the Feminist Writers' Guild handbook, Words In Our Pockets (which looks to be out of print). This essay suggested such things as having food at each meeting and having the leadership/chairpersonship of the group rotate, so that everyone has a turn at being "in charge" -- both ideas I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I also got some of my ideas from the undergraduate creative writing workshops I'd been in.

When I decided to start a writers' group, I knew I wanted it to be an all-women's group; that's just where I was at the time and what worked for me. I couldn't decide whether I wanted it to be just poetry or both poetry & fiction, so I figured I'd just put up some flyers and see who called me. If too many women were interested, I'd limit it to poetry. As it turned out, I had about seven serious contacts, which was a nice size group, and a couple of them were more interested in fiction, so I went with the mixed group. For this particular group, that worked really well.

So how to find people to start a group? Five Women Poets was founded when Tonia & Helen (and several other poets) took a workshop from Sandra Gilbert and wanted to continue meeting after the semester was over. Drawing from an existing class or workshop, whether that's a university class, a summer workshop, or something at a local writers' center or arts center, is a very good way to find interested & compatible writers to meet with. You can also talk up the idea at local poetry readings or book groups -- libraries & bookstores often know about these.

When I went to start a writers' group, I just put up a crapload of flyers. I put them up in the English department on campus (nary a bit of interest from there), on bulletin boards in bookstores & grocery stores & the public library, and pretty much everywhere I could think of. Don't limit yourself to "literary" establishments only; I got two members from one flyer I'd offhandedly slapped up in a laundromat!

People will start to call you (hopefully), and when that happens you will want to know what to say to them. Although the group will take on its own character as it develops, and you probably don't want to be a benevolent (or otherwise) dictator, so you may be reluctant to set up rules in advance. However, if you reach this stage of the process with an "eh, whatever" attitude, you will wind up with an "eh, whatever" group. So think about what you want from a group. Are you a serious writer looking to produce polished, publishable work? Do you want a group because it will provide you with a certain amount of pressure to come up with a poem to workshop on a weekly basis? Do you want to spend most of your time on peer critique/workshopping, or would you rather do writing exercises together? (You can have a combination of these things, but you should think about what will be most useful to you.) Do you mainly just want to hang out with other writers, talking about writing and gossiping about who wrote nasty letters to Poetry this month and going to readings together sometimes? This is a perfectly valid sort of group to have, but if you want a serious workshoppy group and others in the group want to hang out and drink wine & chatter, someone's not going to get what they want.

And finally -- & maybe the most sticky, in a way -- what sort of people do you want in your group? I encourage you not to be overly picky about credentials: someone who's written very little poetry but who spends a lot of time reading the stuff can give terrific critique, and watching their own work evolve and improve can be ridiculously gratifying. Good questions to ask are: Have you been in a writing workshop before? (If they haven't, it can be fine, but you will want to talk about expectations and guidelines pretty carefully with them.) What poets/writers do you enjoy reading? Are you interested in publishing your work? Are you interested in giving readings?

The answers to questions like these will give you some idea of what sort of person and what sort of writer this is who's called you to inquire. I'm not going to tell you there is a right or wrong answer, but if you really want the group to give readings a couple times a year, you probably want the other group members to be at least persuadable in this direction. And while being published doesn't necessarily mean someone is a better writer than someone who's not published, to have made the effort to send stuff out tells you something about that writer's seriousness and intention.

So. Know what you want, but be flexible. You may want a group of seven very serious avant-garde poets who have all completed first book manuscripts and prefer to drink red Spanish wines while critiquing, but depending on where you live, you may not get to be that picky. But by asking the right questions, you should be able to weed out the Hallmark-card poets or the fifteen-year-old angsty goth poets, anyway. But do be flexible. If everyone keeps an open mind, there's no reason why you can't have a 60-year-old Mary Oliver fanatic and a 25-year-old avant-gardener in the same group. Really.

At the first meeting, I recommend that you do not plan on workshopping. I suggest having each person bring a finished piece of theirs which they feel introduces them, and spend the first meeting introducing yourselves and talking about where you want the group to go. Talk about workshop experiences: what's worked for people? what have been their bad experiences? Some of us who have been in a lot of workshops sort of take for granted that the person whose work is being discussed shuts up and listens, and then has time at the end to ask questions -- but someone who's never been in a workshop may not understand this. Talk about the ground rules. (I'm not saying, incidentally, that the "person being discussed shuts up" routine is the only way to run a workshop -- but I think most of the time it's a good practice.) Will you meet weekly, biweekly, monthly, quarterly? Will you meet in various people's houses, or do you have a meeting room on campus or at the public library or can you take over a cafe? Who brings food? Who brings the group to order? What if someone doesn't bring in work every meeting -- is someone kicked out of the group if they go several meetings without bringing in work? What if someone can't make a meeting? I strongly recommend requiring group members to let someone know if they're not going to be there, so you don't sit around waiting for them. What if someone can't make several meetings? Are the members OK with having sort of a "drop-in" membership, or is it important to know that most or all of the group members will be there ready to talk about the poem you worked so hard on? Will you meet at a specified time (every third Thursday at 8, the night of the full moon, the 10th of every month) or will you take time at each meeting to get out your calendars and schedule the next meeting? Source met every Thursday at 6:30; Five Women Poets plans month-by-month because we have a couple of members whose schedules are pretty wacky and unpredictable.

Will you send out your work ahead of time (much easier now that most everyone's got email), or will you pass out copies at the beginning of the meeting and spend the first half-hour or so reading & making notes, or do you prefer to critique "cold"? I prefer to have work ahead of time, but in a smaller group, taking time to read (and eat) at the beginning of the meeting can work well too. If you want work submitted ahead of time, agree on a deadline, so that someone doesn't email out a poem at 5:00 when you have a 7:00 meeting.

I do really recommend having food at meetings. It helps relax people, and if you meet in the evenings, a lot of times we working folks don't have time to get home from work and eat a proper dinner before zipping across town for a 6:30 or 7:00 meeting. Either have everyone bring something small every week, or take turns providing food. In Source, the member who was the designated "futon" (they would have been the "chair," see, except in the apartment I had at the time, I didn't have any chairs in the living room, only a futon...) was responsible for bringing food and convening the group/keeping us all in line. In Five Women Poets, everyone brings a little something and whoever is hosting that month's meeting in her home provides beverages.

I recommend against serving alcohol at the meetings, by the way. Some people don't drink, and some just plain shouldn't; it can be an ice-breaker, but it also turns the meeting into much more of a social event than a working session. You can break out the booze after the meeting, if you're so inclined.

How many to have in the group? If you have only three, you'd better all be there every single time, or else you're not going to get much feedback on your work. If you have twelve, it's hard to workshop everybody at every meeting. (Which isn't a requirement -- especially for fiction writers, you may want to plan on everyone getting workshopped once every two or three meetings -- but you want to make sure everyone does get a chance.) I recommend five to eight.

Also: Make sure everyone speaks up and feels comfortable doing so. In Source, at one point, we realized we were so much in the habit of interrupting each other that we finally got some little trinket or other and only the person holding that object was permitted to speak. That was a bit of a crutch, and we got past it, but it helped for a while.

Okay, so that's your first meeting. :) I'll talk more about workshopping and peer critique in another post, I think. Most people reading this blog probably have a fair amount of workshop experience, though there are some differences between a workshop led by a teacher and a peer-critique group, and I'd like to talk about that a bit. But later.

Here are a few things you can kick around for the future of your group, just to get you excited:
  • Public readings
  • Chapbook publication
  • Making a CD
  • Leading community workshops
  • Pooling your funds and bringing in a "name" poet to give you a private workshop now and then
  • Attending readings together
  • Sharing work by writers you enjoy, either reading to one another or bringing in books to pass around and borrow
  • Weekend (or longer) retreats -- you can go camping, rent a cabin, spend an afternoon at someone's house writing like crazy, have a sleepover, rent a van and drive to the coast!
  • Doing writing exercises together now & then if you normally spend your time workshopping, or vice-versa
  • Getting leather jackets & chains & starting a poetry motorcycle gang! OK, just kidding. Maybe.
That's it for now. More later. It's thunderstorming and I'd really better unplug the modem before lightning hits my laptop.


Ivy said...

Thanks, Anne! This is cool.

jenni said...

Great post! Ok here's a Bloomington everyone knows everyone type question for you--I was in the same circle as this kid named Thomas--african american, dreads, played the drums for a local band called "Go man go" --his mom is a poet locally and i think she belonged to a women's writers group--I can't remember her name though! Do you know her?

hey, i'll see ya in a few weeks!

jenni said...

oh yea, Thomas's last name is Matthews, i believe.

Anne said...

Jenni - yep, Thomas's mom Tonia Matthew is in Five Women Poets with me -- she is one of the founding members. I have known her for years and years. :) She will probably make it to at least some of the readings at the conference, so you may see her there!

Diane K. Martin said...

Very interesting post. The newest member of our group just sent me a link to your blog. My (our) group has been going on for oh, about 18 years -- not counting a short this-is-not-working hiatus about 10 years ago. (I started it, with a friend.) You've covered a lot of ground and for the most part, I totally agree with your points.

We're in San Francisco--and don't really publicize the group--people just apply, though initially, I do remember having some trouble finding members. The Internet makes everything a lot easier, including letting people know when you can't make it, changing dates, and so forth.

Our group has always been both men and women poets. We currently number 10, which seems to work fine when not everyone comes all the time. I like the energy that results from both sexes, some straight, some not, meet. Some have felt our group is not diverse enough. Valid as that point is, it's just the way it's happened at the moment.

I'm sure I had other things to say but can't remember them now...

Anne said...

Diane, wow, keeping a group going for 18 years is no small achievement! I'd be interested to hear more about your experiences. (I'm going to bookmark your blog now, & add it to my links list the next time I update it.)

The question of when -- or whether -- to add new members is always a tricky one, I think. When Source gave readings on a regular basis, we always had women approaching us afterwards asking if they could join the group. In fact this is one reason we started doing workshops -- one of our regular workshops was about how to start & nourish a writers' group -- we wanted to encourage these folks to go start their own groups, because we really felt we could not accommodate new members most of the time. I think we felt a little guilty about that, afraid we'd be seen as "elitist." But we were tight, we were a family in a lot of ways, and opening up the group wouldn't have felt right. We did open up a few times and take in one or two new members, usually when we'd lost a member, and that always involved lots of discussion and processing. (We were, after all, a consensus-based, feminist group -- NOTHING happened quickly, hehehe.)

We sometimes worried that we weren't diverse enough, too -- we were all more or less white, more or less able-bodied, more or less middle-class. Five Women Poets is a little more diverse in some ways, but our membership is somewhat more transient than Source's was; in the 4 years I've been with this group we've had four or five members leave and four or five new ones join. We've never had the intense "family" closeness that Source had; sometimes I miss that, and sometimes I don't.

Anyway, I'd be very interested in anything else you can think of to add!