The Critique Group: A Cure for Writerly Isolation
The other day I met a writer who’s at a standstill with their novel, which they’ve been working on for years. They have used up their savings on editors, courses, and craft books, and don’t know where to turn for help next. Already published in other genres, they know they can write. They have more than enough ideas and love their characters and plotlines. But they need some new eyes on the pages, and help with structure.
I asked them if they knew other writers, and/or felt they were part of a community of writers.
They looked very sad as they replied that, no, they’d been feeling all alone, as though the rest of the world knew something they didn’t.
The Timeless Clan
One antidote to isolation is a sense of belonging. In my handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I introduce what I call the Timeless Clan:
Are you a writer who pushes ahead relentlessly while feeling seriously disconnected from the rest of the world?
Perils can lurk in the shadows at the back of the cave where you’ve been hiding out. Even the most introverted and shy writer is still a primate born with the hardwired needs for companionship and shared purpose.
Too much isolation is unhealthy. And yet, we don’t always have the extra juice required to step outside and go to unfamiliar places, strike up conversations with strangers, and “grow our network of literary influencers” the way all those how-to articles for writers exhort us to do.
I recommend developing your sense of connection to the global clan of writers. It’s huge. Writers in many traditions are all welcome, reaching back in time to storytelling ancestors around a fire. Can you see them surrounded by their stories, painted onto the cave walls?
Accepting yourself as a member of the timeless clan can also increase the mercy you show yourself. The knowledge that you do belong somewhere can provide a mellowing influence.
The next time you feel stuckness encroaching, see how much more resilient you are, simply because you are sharing this experience with writers and storytellers all around the world – in the present and in centuries past. Even when you’re working in solitude, you’re connected enough.
[excerpted with permission from FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers]
In my chat with the stymied novelist, I shared this idea, and it did cheer them up. While that sense of belonging to the Timeless Clan is key, it may not be sufficient. Beyond appreciating an invisible knowing, even a shy introvert (ask me how I know) can see the net benefits of actual peopling – you know, spending time, regularly, with a dedicated group of other writers whose work you get to know. They get to know your work, too. And they point out things you could never see on your own. Because people. Their individuality and unpredictability are good things.
What about a Writer Group?
What about a writer group, I asked the novelist.
Their mournful expression deepened, and they reported that they’d tried a very expensive one in their city last year.
I paused, and said that a writer group doesn’t have to cost any money.
Really? They perked up.
I explained to them that I’m the lucky member of BACCA, a writer group that’s been around for eleven years – and we haven’t paid for the privilege, besides the costs of [pre-pandemic] transportation and hanging out in a coffee shop. We first met, as many in-person writer groups do, in a classroom. Ours was at WriterHouse, the local nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, VA. When the eight-week class ended, one person took the lead and invited three of us for one more critique together. All it took was that meeting.
We recognized kindred spirits whom we knew to be focused, kind, and active class members. Our critiquing and writing skills seemed compatible. After that first time, we agreed to set another meeting, one month later. And on we went. We’ve been meeting ever since. The membership has shifted over the years, to accommodate relocation, career change, illness, and even death.
There are other kinds of writer groups – not all of them in person or confined to one locality. Groups that meet online are constrained only by time zones and internet access, and provide a much wider scope of participants. The pandemic has only expanded the possibilities: as one example, Poets & Writers developed a free service where writers around the world can register to seek writer group involvement or to form a new group.
I think we’d all agree that the time we spent receiving monthly critiques has strengthened our writing. Equally important, I am certain that my writing has improved as a result of preparing written critiques for my fellow writers in the group.
Critiquing Other Writers’ Work
Until you’ve benefited from the process, it’s easy to overlook the value of critiquing the pages of your fellow writers. A wealth of skill and confidence emerges after you’ve been reading and analyzing your fellow writers’ pages, month after month, and year after year. Nightmare stories abound of cruel, destructive critiques that shrivel the spirit and tear down creative confidence. A good critique doesn’t go there. BACCA’s critique guidelines expand on Luke Whisnant’s and work well for us. Naturally, other kinds of groups, with other purposes, need other guidelines.
Just as it’s easy to underestimate the value of providing critiques, it’s also easy to overestimate the difficulty of receiving them. Many writers approach their first workshop or other critique experience with trepidation. What will they say? Is my work utter crap? Can I pay attention to what they say, or will I be too nervous?
One of the best things about critique groups is that everyone who reads your work comes to it from their perspective. And that means that, with conscientious writing group members, you’ll get ideas that are impossible for you to imagine on your own. You’ll also likely get the benefit of other writers’ strengths that complement yours. From our group, I have learned about story development and subtleties of point of view, in ways I had not been able to glean from the classes I’d attended, or the books and articles I’d read, or from my own reading and writing over the decades.
While writer groups occur in all kinds of forms, one of the strengths of groups like ours is that we prepare written critiques ahead of time – we send out our pages a week before the next meeting, to allow time for each group member to read and write up their comments. (For details about how we operate, see the website.)
Change Is Inevitable
As with any group, things don’t always go smoothly. Individual members change their priorities. In BACCA, for example, two of our original four members are still actively involved after eleven years. And you can just outgrow your group, even a good one. Lisa Ellison explains, “If your group’s purpose doesn’t align with your needs take a break. If you depart with grace, they’ll still love you.” Also, she points out, not all the groups are good, “like the one with Douchebag Ken who mansplained all the things you didn’t get in his latest draft and Humblebrag Kate, who lorded her latest ‘Oh it was nothing’ publication right before tearing your manuscript to shreds.”
Like the unhappy novelist I met, many writers can feel utterly alone, unsupported, and discouraged. A proven antidote to that creative isolation is a well-functioning writer group. Its sustaining, regular rhythms – drafting and sharing your pages, then reading and critiquing your group members’ pages, then gathering together for critique sharing, and then scheduling the next month’s due date and meeting – become essential and welcome elements of everyday life.
Have you worked with writer groups in the past? Are you in one now?
I’m delighted to announce the publication of a compendium of essays on journaling – including my chapter, “The Becoming Unstuck Journal.”
Pick up your copy of The Great Book of Journaling: How Journal Writing Can Support a Life of Wellness, Creativity, Meaning and Purpose, edited by Lynda Monk and Eric Maisel, soon. If you use this link at Bookshop, I will get a small commission, at no cost to you – so thanks in advance for considering that!