There Should Always Be Snacks: Thoughts on Writing Groups
by Elizabeth Gaughan
After graduating college as an English major, I found myself missing my creative writing classes the most. I did my best to keep up with my writing, but without those weekly meetings and deadlines, I was writing less and less. I realized I missed the feedback from my classmates, and the chance to read my peers’ works in progress.
Fortunately, a few writer friends of mine, also recent graduates, felt the same way. Soon, I was riding the North Avenue bus every other Tuesday, cocktail ingredients stuffed into the bottom of my bag, to my friend's apartment across Chicago. She would make soup, two other friends would join us with wine, snacks, and marked-up copies of each other’s work, and we would sit around her small living room table and chat informally about our writing-in-progress. Even though we often got caught up gossiping about our personal lives instead of keeping the conversation strictly focused on writing, I found what I had been missing during those first couple months post-grad: deadlines, encouragement, and a writing community.
As I slowly built my writing routine back up, I was fortunate enough to join a second writing group, Writers Guild, which met at my undergraduate university and was open to students, faculty, and staff. Anyone in our university community could drop by with any genre of work at any stage of the process to share with the group, or even just come to listen, offer feedback, and snack on chips, cookies, and hummus. Though less rigorous than the writing group I had formed with my friends, I loved that Writers Guild gave me the chance to meet new writers and hear work in genres other than fiction, which I typically write. At first, I was nervous to provide feedback on different genres, afraid that I didn’t possess the proper terminology to discuss poetry, or that I wouldn’t know how to critique someone’s memoir. But the more I got to know these writers, the more I realized that they were seeking the same sense of support, community, and accountability as I was.
Eventually, I left Chicago to pursue my MFA at Sarah Lawrence. After completing my first year of grad school, I was invited to join another writing group formed by recent graduates of the SLC MFA program. For them, it was a way to continue their writing practice post-grad, and for me, it was a chance to keep up with my writing over the summer. Once the fall semester started back up, I worried that I would have trouble keeping up with my schoolwork as well as my writing group commitment. Instead, I valued the opportunity to work on different projects outside of class, and to connect with writers who were navigating post-MFA life. And by fall, we had a good routine: we sent drafts to each other about three days in advance, took turns hosting, and made sure to have plenty of wine and snacks.
Writing groups have become instrumental in my practice. They help me stay connected to writers in my city and remind me to take my craft seriously even when I’m not in school. It’s true that a writing group is not going to be as rigorous as a class workshop or as thorough as a professional editor, and I haven’t always left with the most helpful feedback. But that’s okay—not every reader is the right fit for every manuscript. Not to mention, I'm definitely guilty of becoming distracted by the food, drinks, and conversation, forgetting that the evening is meant to be focused on writing. In my current group, it's not uncommon for the better part of an hour to go by before someone reluctantly raises their hand and says, “Shouldn’t we talk about the writing?” But by joining writing groups, I have met writers who are just as excited to read my work as they are to share their own, who will make sure I've been writing between the last meeting and the next, who will take time out of their busy lives to connect over good food and conversation, and to devote a couple hours to something we love.
There is no wrong way to form a writing group. The important thing is simply to have writers who are dedicated to their craft and willing to commit to a meeting schedule (or, in the case of my current writing group, be willing to pull out our calendars and schedule our next meeting at the conclusion of the current one). The writing groups I’ve belonged to have varied. Some allowed writers to drop in with their work, and others required writers to send their drafts to the group a few days in advance. Some were made up entirely of fiction writers, and some included poets, journalists, memoirists, and screenwriters. Some only had three or four members, and others included a dozen. Some met weekly, some bi-weekly, and some once a month. But all have provided accountability, encouragement, and a chance to connect with the writers in my community. And snacks. There should always be snacks.
Elizabeth Gaughan grew up in Minnesota and studied creative writing at DePaul University. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.