Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Writer's Community

As writers we are always seeking support. First we should notice that we are already supported every moment. There is the earth below our feet and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support. There is the sunlight coming through the window and the silence of the morning. Begin from these. Then turn to face a friend and feel how good it is when she says, "I love your work." Believe her as you believe the floor will hold you up, the chair will let you sit.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

But you must choose this friend wisely. Test her mettle. Can she give you the bad with the good? Does what she say match or exceed objective observers, like reviewers, editors, and your readers who will definitely e-mail you?

My friend Muriel guffaws at my misplaced modifiers. She notices everything, and she's brutal. She quotes the Oxford English Dictionary in the margins of my manuscripts when I misuse a word. I love that about her. Always the teacher. I'm her student. That's how I know she loves me too. So when she does say, "Patti, I love your work," my soul sighs.

When a workshop critiqued my first short story, speaking one by one around a large circle while I sat swallowing down my breakfast, forbidden to speak until the last person, the professor, gave his critique. All they said was true, at least the critique partners I trusted. Forget that guy who thought an epiphany required gun powder.

Nonetheless, when the time came to start my writing life in earnest, I went it alone, until the loneliness and self-doubt all but ate me alive. I went searching for a writing community.

I live in a smallish town. Writers can be hard to find. I attended a romance writers seminar just to peruse the crowd. I'd prayed to find a critique group (AKA writing community) that day. I sat at a table with three other ladies. After the lecture, I pleaded for a critique group. The room went silent, but the ladies at my table gave me their phone numbers, and we've been together for over ten years.

I'm also fortunate to attend a church that organizes small groups around special interests as well as deeply spiritual activities like Bible studies, which I host, and trusts that the Holy Spirit will show up. I meet with The Lord's Write Hands on the first Saturday of each month. A broader community offers the opportunity for more writers who will bolster my flagging spirit with their tales of contracts or the glossy pages of a published article. The bigger this circle is, the better the chance that someone has something wonderful happening in their writing life, even if it's a goal to type the title of their novel on a blank screen.

I belong to professional organizations, like American Christian Fiction Writers, to broaden that circle even wider. I learn so much from those who have gone before, and I'm finding I have something to offer those just starting. We're all on the same side as Christian writers. I'm not saying jealousy doesn't happen or feelings don't get hurt. This is the Body of Christ after all! We confess our sins, do our forgiving, and for the Lord's sake, we continue loving and supporting. Mostly.

And what an amazing gift the wonderful ladies of Novel Matters have been for the four years we've been meeting here every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I feel like God gave me the Barbie Doll House and pony for Christmas with these gals. They cheer. They pray. They exhort with gusto. My writing life has taken on a new spark with the girls behind me.

And that's one of two bottom lines. No, I'm not an accountant, but I know about the importance of a community of writers. The first bottom line is this: Don't expect your writing to improve until you submit your heart and work to a writing community. The second bottom line won't surprise you. A writing community is a faith community for the believing writer. Expect God to show up in big ways.

How has being a member of a writing community changed your perceptions about the writing life?


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for your insightful post, Patti. You are very fortunate to have been gifted with a cohesive, supportive critique group that has stood the test of time. The few critique groups I've been in over the years all seemed to follow the same pattern: they start out gung-ho, lose focus when it gets hard, and eventually dwindle to only a few who meet purely for social time. It's great if people connect, but it doesn't help serious writers.

Lone ranger writers don't write very well or very long. Several years ago, I was fortunate to find two other fabulous writers in my church - Jan Coleman and Susan Gregory - who wanted to meet for a weekly shot of literary espresso, not critique. We met almost every week for mutual support even if we felt dry as a bone and hadn't written a word since the last time. Susan and I learned much about the industry from Jan, who had already published several books. Each of us recommended books and discussed marketing ideas. We challenged each other to stick our toes into the internet pool and wade out with swimmies on. We usually left with renewed enthusiasm and focus. Unfortunately, after many years, unavoidable circumstances have derailed our group but the benefits that I received from it are ongoing.

PatriciaW said...

Writing no longer has to be, nor should it be, a solitary endeavor. I get inspiration, encouragement, feedback, support, information, tips and tricks, and so much from the writing community. I hope I can give back half of what I've received.

Anonymous said...

I take heart in this quote, “The irony about writing as a profession is that we need such strong egos and are probably among the least-secure members of the human population.” Deborah Levine Herman (in Jeff Herman's Guide)
Even though I am incredibly blessed to have two local crit groups (one inspy, one general market that does more pages prior to each meeting), almost every one is trying to fit their writing in around their already busy lives, so while the feedback is invaluable, emotional-type support is scarce. I prayed about this need last fall. I “happened across” a book club of like-minded women in January. They’re very interested in what I’m doing and one person is reading my completed MS (after careful soul–searching because it never caught public attention), and others would like to. I’m doing what I can to cultivate supportive people (sorry if that sounds self-serving, but I’m willing to contribute to their needs/lives, too).

And frankly, blogs like this are my day to day sense of community. So thanks so much!!

Patti Hill said...

Debbie: Don't give up! You need the support, and there are writers out there who need you. You do bring up an important point, change is inevitable when it comes to writing communities. Just when we get know the rest. Lord, provide a writing community for Debbie that will support her and appreciate the amazing gift you've given her. Amen!
Patricia: You're so right! And as for hoping to give back, we're all ears! I haven't met a writer yet who doesn't benefit from the company of other writers. Welcome, Patricia!
Melinda: Love that quote. It's so true. We face lousy reviews, and yet, all we really need is an atta girl or atta boy to dig into our craft and try harder. We know exactly where we are as writers. And I admire your creativity. Dedicated readers make great cheering sections and crit readers. I'm going to write that down.

Here's another question: You can't get around the loneliness factor of writing. How do you deal with that?

Janet said...

I will confess to being a bit envious. I am part of an on-again, off-again crit group, which has been helpful, but we take it in such small bites and miss so many meetings...

Beta readers tend to not follow through. The only one who read all the way through was too nice. ;o) The encouragement was wonderful, but I'm sure there's room for improvement.

I'd love to have a couple of writing partners who were dedicated enough to be timely, snarky enough to tell me the truth, generous enough to encourage, and good enough at writing to really nail me where I need it. And, of course, willing to take the same back from me. Accepting applications... ;o)

Anonymous said...

An alternative to local critique groups, who have a tendency to fizzle out it sounds like, is having a critique partner online. I've had the great fortune to have Katy Popa as a critique partner through both our published novels and subsequent manuscripts. It works wonderfully, especially using Word's Track Changes. The key is finding a partner who is at the same writing level as you, and who will provide helpful critique, pointing out what works and what doesn't. As a byproduct, it's amazing the kind of friendship that can be cultivated from a distance.

Patti Hill said...

Sharon, thanks to speaking to online critiquing partners. This actually appeals to me too. I imagine there's greater freedom as far as scheduling is concerned.

Can anyone add their online experiences with critique partners?

Janet said...

So far all my online critique partners have fizzled out on me. They cheerfully accept the MS, and then I never hear from them. With the exception of that one who was too nice. ;o) ("Everything's wonderful, wouldn't change a thing.")

I would love to find someone who would view critiquing as a commitment, but I guess I've been burned now and am a bit cynical. Which means, essentially, that I've stopped looking. I do not want to be put in a relationship where my choices are being let down or turning into a needy nag.

Steve G said...

Critique and community don't always go hand in hand, as their goals can conflict.

What if some of the critique people considered it a step closer to (broad)editing? What if we took some relational factor out (that can impose restrictions on truth because of the friendship) and put in a price (barter, if money is an issue)? The best critique is the honest, hard look that the writer can then agree or disagree with.

word verification - prephe: a male whose manner and dress are deemed typical of traditional preparatory schools (as opposed to prepshe - female; and preppy/preppie - both genders)

Patti Hill said...

You're hitting on some of the more complex issues of building that writing community. First, it takes a do-or-die attitude to accomplish. It means saying no thanks to folks who aren't willing to submit a sample critique, for instance. We have to be bold to protect our art. And then, there are the issues Steve brought up. I have paid for editorial review but only after the person had proven herself ruthless. When it comes to my writing, I want to hear the truth. (When it comes to my cooking, not so much.) I don't want Jesus or me to be embarrassed by what I put out there. Alas, this isn't a fool-proof approach. People with bonafide business cards and websites have done soddy work for folks I know.

And so, a writing community will look different from one group to another, depending on the needs of its members. For some it will be lit chat, or a few paragraphs read for review, or, like mine, you send a chapter out ahead of time and prepare to be love.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

"First, it takes a do-or-die attitude to accomplish."

I dare say it takes finding somebody first... I'm like Debbie and Janet, where I have yet to find a local group that wants to exchange the serious critiquing I used to get in school.

Golly I miss that.

But more I'm afraid I'd just be the flaky one-- too critical and not encouraging enough. In the name of efficiency, is how it would start.

Actually, as long as I'm not the first one to go, and a nice person goes first, I've managed to straighten out my remarks to be more civilized. But I'm still afraid of spending to much time reading and working on other people's work than mine.

Do you all limit your critiquing to that sit-down time (without taking long stuff home)? I can see that working...