There are five of us and we meet behind the muffins.
It is early evening when we hurry into an ordinary grocery store, fresh from our jobs and our families, from the weather and from our obligations.
We are adult women with mortgages and pets and degrees and assorted people like students and children and bosses and husbands who count on us, so our obligations are not insignificant.
But we are also writers.
And in the previous month we've either started a young adult novel, finished a personal essay, drafted a new chapter of a memoir, or revised the tricky part of a literary novel. And so we show up, smiling, excited, often confused by our own work but every once in awhile, dare I say it, almost proud.
Mostly, we're ready for what's next. The carnage. Loving, tender carnage, but carnage nonetheless.
Because we are, though surely you've guessed this by now, a writing group. We are the Powerfingers, a name we didn't choose but that chose us after someone's keyboard mangled the title of Neil Young's dark ballad. But that's another story.
Back then I was just happy to be in a writing group that was truly working -- that met regularly, where the members brought new work and offered useful critiques and revision ideas.
When we started in the summer of 2010, it felt like all five of us had been riding separate waves of writing and language, of publication and rejection. Then somehow, after years of swimming alone, those waves randomly aimed us at the same beach.
Now, after two years of getting together in the grocery store's cafe every month, after two years of (lovingly) tearing into each other's work and offering up our own, I know it wasn't random at all. Yes, we were lucky to find each other, but each of us had already been swimming for quite a long time.
Here are five tips for organizing a writing group of your own:
1. Choose Members Carefully
You probably don't want your best friends in your group, even if your best friends are also writers. Drinking wine together and making catty remarks about arrogant writers or the latest NYTB's cover boy can be a worthwhile way to pass the time, but won't do your writing a whole lot of good. Instead, find writers who are actively working on a long term project, who are willing to devote time to the group, and who have both manners and opinions. That may seem easy at first but I've found this to be a rare combination of personality traits. When you have your group just right, don't feel guilty about turning new members away.
2. Meet in a Neutral Place
When the Powerfingers first got together, we met at my house. Which meant I spent the whole week before our get-together worrying about how messy my house was, and then the whole day before, cleaning it up. I spent more time cleaning and thinking about cleaning than I did on considering the other members' writing. Which did give me an occasionally clean house but wasn't fair to the other writers in the group. Now we meet in the grocery store cafe, which is cleaned and mopped regularly by teenaged bag boys. Who, by the way, seem to have no interest at all in five grown women discussing their writing. Imagine.
3. Share Work in Advance
You'll receive the most valuable feedback, and be able to offer it yourself, if you have at least a week to read members' work before you meet and comment. The Powerfingers email each other that month's submission a week in advance, then we come to the meeting with printed copies on which we've written notes, jotted ideas and suggestions, and asked relevant questions. Take this deadline seriously.
4. Be Quiet
French scientest Pierre Paul Broca rocked some serious mutton chops in the mid-1800's, formed a society of free thinkers, and was described by detrators as a subversive corrupter of youth. My kind of guy. He was also a surgeon fascinated with the human brain and one of the first medical scientists to understand why it is virtually impossible to talk and listen at the same time: The same area of the brain, "Broca's area" as a matter of fact, is responsible for both activities. So while your work is being discussed, pipe down.
5. Be Tender and Helpful
No writer wants to hear that their newly finished essay is shallow. Even if it is. Especially if it is. No writer wants to hear that their protagonist is as dull as a mud fence, or that their memoir has no arc. The goal of a writers' group is to encourage each other to keep writing, and to get better at it. Destructive words like "shallow," "dull," and "no" will have the opposite effect. Discuss what the piece is about, what it is trying to do, what it does well, and finally, what it could do better. Don't patronize with false praise, but don't show your teeth, either. Save your fangs for tossing a snarl into situations like this.
The Powerfingers' successes have been both internal and external. We write with more confidence and knowledge of our own abilities and we know we have people we trust to help us work out literary challenges both large and small. Between us, we also have an NEA grant, book deals with two major publishers, a produced play, a semi-finalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest, and several literary awards.
Not bad for a group of women writing away in the corner of a grocery store.