Welcome to 2017, a year in which I am determined to note the big and little things for which I am grateful. I need to do something to combat the shadow of despair that has been with me since Election Day. In the year to come, I think it’s going to be the little things that we need to cling to in order to make sense of the world.
One of the things that I am grateful for and have been for a long time is my writing group, The Salt and Radish Writers (the Salties), founded in 2008 of which I have been a member since 2013. This group has become an anchor in my life. A place to return to the core of me, my writing self, despite what is going on around me. It has become what one of us jokingly called last Monday a life group. For me in this past year, the Salties have been a support beam in an otherwise crumbling house.
There are only four of us, and we meet every other Monday at the same restaurant in Harvard Square. We’ve been meeting there for so long that the kitchen often sends out a dish gratis. We eat, drink, catch up on each other’s lives, and get down to the business of critiquing. Often, we’ll have other things to discuss like publishing, networking, social media, or marketing. We go on an annual writing retreat together, which I bet I can speak for all the Salties when I say it is one of the best weekends of the year. Four seems to be a good number. It’s large enough to have a variety of opinions yet small enough that we can be flexible as needed.
The Salties provide all the things a good writing group is supposed to: valuable feedback, a go-to audience, discussions on how to navigate the crazy publishing world, and guilt (in a good way). They provide support for all things writing and many things not. We’ve gone through a lot together: marriage, divorce, deaths, births, job changes, illnesses. We’ve progressed with our writing, having had one book published and one coming out in April. We are each other’s go-to support network for readings and events. When I started my new novel, I was anxious about it until the Salties read my first chapter and liked it. If they hadn’t, I’m not sure I could have continued.
We do nothing that conventional wisdom tells us to do to have a successful writing group. We do not have set deadlines. We do not have page limits. We do not have a rotating submission schedule. We’ve never laid down ground rules about critiquing. We do all have a similar goal – to write novels – and this piece I think is important. It’s hard for a novel writer to give good comments on a short story and vice versa.
We came to the group for the usual reasons: accountability, deadlines, to be with other creative people, to shed our work selves, mother selves, spouse selves to be our writerly selves for those two or three hours every other week, which I think is the crux of why a writing group is important. Yes, it’s good to have feedback. Yes, it’s good to have accountability. But isn’t it really about being able to put on our writer hats for just a little while in our otherwise busy, non-writing lives? Isn’t it about discussing what you feel passionate about? Isn’t it about the validation we all get when we writers get together all of us understanding the need to do what we do despite the pennies per hour we earn (if that) doing it?
The Salties started in a novel-in-progress class at Grub Street. Fortunately, the two original members gelled, the third member joined a year later, and after a few rotating fourths, I joined after running into one of the original members at a Muse and the Marketplace conference. We are fortunate in that the group works. I’ve tried several other groups, which failed. I wish I could pinpoint why the Salties work and other groups didn’t. I wish I could provide a checklist on how to get a good group. My only recommendation is to look around your writing community but look beyond the writing. Look for people with whom you could spend a lot of time and for people with whom you would entrust your baby to, because that’s what our writing is at the beginning: new, vulnerable, and not yet formed with lots of growing to do.
The best advice I can give you is what one of the Salties said when I asked about starting a writing group, “Go out to dinner a few times first.” Go and find those who you can be your writerly selves with.