j’s Journey: On the value of writing groups

By Judy Clement Wall

The first writing group I ever joined was (fate-temptingly) named the Writer’s Block. Once upon a time, it had been more of a full-fledged organization with membership dues and guest speakers but by the time I joined, they were ten or so people who loved to write, meeting one Thursday night a month.

Though I was 32 years old, I was just getting started with my writing, had just taken my first college creative writing class and felt the wild rush of being both completely out of my element and unquestioningly home at last. I attended my first Writer’s Block meeting dizzy with excitement, insanely nervous. It took several meetings before I was brave enough to share a story, and when I finally did, I could barely hear the feedback for the sound of my own heart’s pounding in my ears.

They were a perfect group for me at that time. I was the youngest by far, the least experienced in life and writing. I was only almost brave, tender and clumsy; they were gentle with their critiques, always encouraging. They gave me tea and cookies and a safe place to share, which I grew to appreciate even more once I’d switched my major to creative writing and had to endure the often inexplicable brutality of writers workshops. More than once I came to my writing group bruised and shaken, holding my workshopped story like a casualty of war. At those times I needed a pep talk more than I needed the truth, and they were very good at nursing my fragile, thin-skinned ego.

I stayed with the group until it disbanded years after I joined, members having moved away (or in some cases, passed away). I had, by then, stopped using them to critique my work. I sought instead my professors and then later, other writers who, like me, were submitting their work to literary journals.

It’s been years since I belonged to (or wanted to belong to) a writing group. I’ve had a couple of really great partnerships with writers who’ve agreed to share their work with me, critique and give me feedback on mine, but nothing like that first group.

I miss it. I miss the group dynamic of like-minded creatives in a room, working through the possibilities of a story. Writing is such an inherently lonely activity; it’s good to get out of the cave now and then, be with people who speak your language, know your angst. It’s reassuring to know you have a tribe that will nurse your wounds, celebrate your achievements, challenge you (lovingly) to up your game.

Honestly, I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s more than reassuring. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe it’s why we seek online communities like this one… but it isn’t quite the same online is it? (No tea and cookies, for example… or wine and cheese as the case may be.)

What do you think? Do you belong to a writing group? Do you want to? Do online groups serve the same purpose for you? Is there value in being face to face?


In other news, I launched A Human Thing this month. A lot of talented people contributed and it’s beautiful. It’s about love. Come see! (I made a wicked cool video for you.)


JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a freelance writer and course presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. Her short stories and essays have been published in literary journals and on some very cool websites like The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review, Lifebyme and Beyond The Margins. She recently finished her first novel, BEAUTIFUL LIVES, and here at FoW she chronicles the ups and downs of writing for publication. Judy writes about living creatively at Zebra Sounds, love at A Human Thing, and is a staff writer at Milliver’s Travels.

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13 Responses to j’s Journey: On the value of writing groups
  1. Terri
    January 27, 2012 | 9:32 AM

    Thank you j for sharing your experience. I found it most valuable. I especially relate to the “wild rush of being both out of my element and unquestionably home at last.”
    I’ve enjoyed writing in a couple of day seminars, yet they weren’t ongoing and lacked bonding. I loved writing on 10K for the first time last week. I loved the writing I did in college too.

    • j
      January 29, 2012 | 2:14 PM

      Yes, I feel constantly that state of ambivalent energy around my writing. Even now, when I’ve been at it for a while, it amazes me how I can be simultaneously alive with creative excitement and near-crippled by my certainty that I can’t pull of my vision. I’ve called it a love-hate relationship many times… it’s also a “hurts so good” kind of thing.

      Thank you for the comment. And for doing the 10k day! More than once, I’ve met a deadline because of Milli’s sitting my ass down in my chair for a day.

  2. Travis B. Hartwell
    Twitter: travisbhartwell
    January 27, 2012 | 4:15 PM

    I’ve never had the experience of being somewhere with fellow writers. I have been an active member of user groups for software and programming languages, but those are merely meeting places for like-minded people. The idea of coming and sharing your work, getting critiques from peers and mentors alike sounds quite exciting and intimidating at the same time.

    It’s something I’ve wanted in the programming world too — someone to mentor and critique my work and help me improve.

    Basically, the idea of having such a group for any of my creative endeavors sounds exciting. I’m newly re-discovering my love and talent for writing prose, so especially at this stage it could be helpful.

    • j
      January 29, 2012 | 2:18 PM

      It is exciting and intimidating, and amazing and crushing. A lot depends on the group. I’ve been devastated and elated by my workshop experiences. There have been times when I couldn’t wait to get back to a story, filled with insights and suggestions that I’m sure will make my piece stronger. And then other times, where the experience made me tuck the work away and even stop writing for a period of time.

      I remain uncertain as to the value of writing groups, though I absolutely wholeheartedly believe in the value of having other writers comment on your work, especially work you’re struggling with.

  3. Tricia
    Twitter: Tricia_Sutton
    January 27, 2012 | 8:38 PM

    I would much rather meet in person than online, but there’s a downside to in-person groups as well. Sometimes one bad apple can spoil it for the rest, which happened to my group. The good part was the like-minded writers left that group and formed our own custom-made group.

    I don’t have a group now, and, like you, not looking. But I also love the online critiques I’ve gotten from individuals (which I believe can be more honest than in-person).

    Either is very valuable. Can’t imagine writing without some feedback.

    • j
      January 29, 2012 | 2:25 PM

      I agree. On the flip side, in person, you can begin to understand where the other writers are coming from better. For instance, one woman in that original group would catch any inaccurate detail, like “at that elevation there would be snow, even in August,” or “self-service gas stations were not around at that time.” She was great at that, less great at catching emotional nuance in a scene, or knowing whether I’d properly motivated a character.

      With an online critique, there might be less of that understanding. I wouldn’t know how much importance I want to assign to the criticism.

      Still, I agree. I value the feedback from other writers, however I get it.

  4. Stephanie Scott
    January 28, 2012 | 5:48 PM

    I attended a group half a dozen times last year that sounds similar to yours. I was one of the youngest, so the dynamic was interesting, but I definitely learned from it. The leader was a teacher and had a great handle on how to direct the group and keep the discussion going. Some of the critiques were harsh. the last time I went they were planning to do a lesson how to constructively critique; I think some people had either complained or left the group because of a few harsh statements. It was really intimidating to share work.

    I’ll probably look for a different group going forward since none of this group read or wrote young adult fiction. I need some feedback from people familiar with the age group I’m writing for.

    • j
      January 29, 2012 | 2:34 PM

      You bring up two great points. First, I do think you get the most value from working with writers who are familiar with your genre. I sometimes felt at a loss in college critiquing romances or fantasies because they aren’t genres I read. Especially if your goal is publication, I think it’s really important to get feedback from people who are familiar with your market.

      Second, there is an art to a great critique. I think at the heart of the best critiques there is a desire to motivate the author to keep writing. The best critiques I’ve ever received got me to think about my story critically, but didn’t destroy me. In fact they excited me. Made me see new opportunities, or got me unstuck on a plot point or character development.

      No writer has the corner on “truth” about what is good or bad or even what constitutes a great story. I think it’s really important to know that going in, and then find the group (or partner) that makes you excited to write. I think that’s when “upping your game” becomes possible.

      Great response. Thank you for joining in!

  5. Anthony V. Toscano
    January 29, 2012 | 12:10 PM

    For me, there exists a great distinction between a writers’ organization and a writers’ critique group (aka “workshop). I serve on the Board of Directors for a local, county-level writers’ organization. I enjoy the work, and I believe the organization’s purpose — to encourage the development of writers, and to promote the work of fellow writers — is a noble one.

    But I cannot abide critique groups. Throughout the course of many years, I’ve belonged to many critique groups and participated in many workshops. Again, I emphasize the fact that my experience with such groups is just that. As well, I acknowledge the fact that perhaps most writers I know find critique groups beneficial.

    I’ve written stories for about thirty years. For about twenty of those years I submitted. I remain unpublished. I’m now an old man, and I’ve given up on the goal of publication. It’s a matter of self-assessment, not of self-pity. I mention this only because I want to be honest.

    Still, unpublished though I will remain, I’m a much better writer today than I was thirty years ago. I’m now of the opinion that critique groups — gentle and enthusiastic though their members may well be — are bound by their human frailty to advise each other to copy what other writers already have done. Many critique group colleagues I’ve know were unaware that their advice amounted to telling each other, “You should change your story to make it sound more like my own.”

    Such well-intended advice stopped me dead. No matter the well-worn advice to write through one’s first draft, and let comments lie until a later date. Reality, as I felt and witnessed it, was that I and most other participants wrote in circles.

    So nowadays I think it best to leave critiques to professional editors, *after* the writer has polished the story as much as possible.

    Please pardon my wordiness. Perhaps my verbosity has much to do with my unpublished status.

    Hi ho.

  6. j
    January 29, 2012 | 2:55 PM

    I’ll draw a further distinction. There’s a difference between workshops (especially the ones that are part of a creative writing degree) and writing/critique groups. Both can be devastating for sure… or rewarding, for that matter, but I think you bring up a really good point that I want to comment on.

    I notice sometimes, both in my own work and in the work of others, a “workshopped” quality. I notice it usually in solid, even graceful stories that are quite polished and well executed. Sometimes they’re even beautiful. I am sometimes left dazzled… but ultimately, untouched.

    And then I read something that is different, something that makes me feel as though I’m waking up. Raw, arresting, jagged, even discordant, it will reach in and take hold, rearrange my insides a bit. When I read a piece like that, I realize just how many of our stories are beautiful and clean and competent… rather than moving, dizzying, alarming.

    You’re right, I think, to blame that on a certain “sameness,” a group think about what works and what doesn’t in the art of storytelling. I don’t think every workshop or critique group is guilty of this, and the best ones are quite the opposite, pushing writers to go beyond their margins.

    In college, I took a course called Writing Women’s Lives. In a class of women who were truly baring their souls – some artfully and some clumsily, but all of them brave and awe-inspiring – I chose to be funny. It’s not necessarily a bad choice. I did make people laugh, but at one point, someone in the workshop class pointed out that my humor seemed to get in the way of any sort of deeper revelation. Several people joined in… gently. They were not trying to destroy me; they were trying to push me to go where I hadn’t been, personally and creatively.

    I wasn’t able to do it then. But their feedback stayed with me. I could write surface level humor and probably do all right. There’s a market for that. Or I could take my humor and let it lead me closer to the stuff that matters most to me. I made the decision about what kind of writer I wanted to be over time, but absolutely because of them, because they pushed me where I wasn’t willing to go on my own. That is the value, I think, in letting other people influence your work.

    And, for the record, I quite loved your verbosity. Thank you for being verbose with me!

  7. Julia Munroe Martin
    Twitter: wordsxo
    January 30, 2012 | 6:29 AM

    I’m so glad I read this today! I’ve never been part of a writer’s group — never been able to find one! But I’ve actually been trying with increased effort lately, as I’m in revisions on my WIP… and I sometimes think a group would really help me. I do love the online writing community for that reason, but I love the idea of meeting other writers in person (I don’t know ANY writers in “real” life.). Great post!

  8. j
    January 30, 2012 | 11:05 AM

    Hi, Julia! Here’s what I like best about writers together in a room, which I experienced all the time in the Writer’s Block, but since then, too, in smaller groups of three or four.

    There will be a problem with a story – everyone agrees, even the author – and then everyone starts working on it at once. In the best times, ideas bounce off of each other, and there’s a creative energy that is (for me) kinda magical. It is at times like those that I would come away from the group just dying to get back to my story.

    Good luck finding a group. I would love, if anyone has suggestions for how to do that, that they’d post them here. (And if they don’t, maybe I’ll ask it in my next j’s Journey post. Milli probably has some ideas.)

  9. Stacey L.
    February 9, 2012 | 2:38 PM

    Thank you! It is so easy to imagine that I am all alone my inability to produce copious amounts of written material. I always manage to stop myself from really ever starting anything significant because I convince myself that it should be easy. I mean, all ‘good’ writers can produce novels in their sleep and live the most amazing and adventuresome lives from which to draw material from, right? Thank you for the suggestions and, most importantly, the support.

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