By Guest Contributor Stephanie Austin Edwards
New York Times bestselling author Pat Conroy has said to me personally, as well as on the stage at many writers’ conferences, that he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to participate in a writing group.
Even as a writer’s group leader myself, I understand his objections. In writing groups, people can be insensitive and downright cruel, eliciting all sorts of unexpected emotions. Group members share intimate thoughts and feelings, reveal their traumas and pain. There is also a very fine line between critiquing and confessing — a line that’s often crossed. Thus inappropriate conversations develop.
Add this all up and conversations can easily veer off into realms we’re not equipped to handle and may not want to pursue. These are the realms of psychotherapy, not manuscript critiquing, and this is why many years ago I adopted the refrain that while writing can be incredibly therapeutic, writers’ groups are not group therapy.
Yet, it’s not at all easy to prevent the group therapy dynamic from taking hold. The best way to accomplish this is to remember at all times that the primary function of a writers’ group is to enhance each member’s craft and the story that is on the page. Trying to do more than that is risky. Here are the tips and techniques I use to keep my writers group on track and away from the psychobabble:
- When members veer off into personal stories of spiritual watershed, childhood ordeals or fighting addiction, listen but don’t comment. Only comment on the writing craft. By all means, refrain from sharing your own, similar stories in turn, whether out of sympathy or one-upmanship.
- Don’t give in to the temptation of telling secrets from your own life to make a point. Stick to arguments grounded in the principles of craft.
- Notice if you become upset by the choices of another group member’s characters, and if you find it difficult to stop thinking or talking about those choices. If so, pull back and remind yourself to stick to the facts: the senses, timeline issues, sentence flow, character development, and other elements of the story.
- When it’s your turn to read from your WIP, being nervous is understandable but refrain from making excuses or apologies for your writing before reading. Use your allotted time well. Stand or sit tall and know that each time you read, you are at a different stage in the development of your piece. As a result, your confidence will grow exponentially.
- If you don’t already have one, assign a moderator or facilitator to help keep the meeting on track. This person can vary from meeting to meeting, from season to season, from year to year — or not at all.
- Have the moderator or facilitator gently direct conversation back to craft when it starts to meander into other topics.
- Have the moderator keep track of time, too, setting allotted lengths for reading and comments. Respect these limits.
- Leave politics and religion and your relationship with your mother at the door!
Above all, beware of where the slippery slope that failing to maintain these boundaries can lead. While therapy may be a great place for triggering ideas and the inspiration to write while sorting out life’s mysteries, letting a writers’ group meeting devolve into group therapy will rob all those involved of the opportunity to learn and progress.
Stephanie Austin Edwards, author of What We Set In Motion (March 30, 2016), is a writing teacher, novelist, and grant consultant. Her recent publications include a short story in the University of Texas literary journal, riverSedge, and an essay in the book Beaufort Through the Ages. She lives in the South Carolina Lowcountry, teaching writing workshops at the college level.