July 25, 2010

How to Facilitate a Writers' Group

A writers group provides support, encouragement and critique.   It is a great way to give structure to your writing project and to get good feedback.  The group does not have to be large; 3 people is great.   Over 6 people will require more time for the meeting and to read manuscripts.   I've used the following guidelines to facilitate groups.  

Guidelines for Writing Groups
for a critique group: 3-6 people

Plan your group process with the members of the group.   

Are you a closed group or an open group? Multi-genre or single genre? How will you take in new members? When and where will you meet?   I've found that it works well to meet at a coffeehouse or restaurant, especially if you can reserve a quiet corner.   It's a neutral territory and eliminates worry about housekeeping or managing pets or displacing family members at home.   Decide the length of time that you will meet.  One hour is good for a small group. Over two hours is too long.  What is the primary goal of each person in the group? (This is important. Some people find having a deadline is what they need. Some just want to get started and don’t want a lot of critique that might be discouraging. Some have a large manuscript or past published work and want “deep critical examination.”

This is a good time to decide if you want to designate one person as a facilitator or time keeper.    This person can help manage the group process.   

Prepare for your writing group session.   

Make a clean, readable copy of your writing.   Format it in the same way that you would if you were sending it to an editor or publisher.  Bring enough Xerox copies of the work you want comments on—hand these out.

Be courteous.  If you will be late or must miss the group, notify the facilitator or other members.   Don't bring uninvited guests.  Writers are often reading works in progress and might prefer to have more private sharing.    Also, writing tends to be personal.  A new person might cause others to feel uncomfortable.
Learn to detach from your writing.   

Read the work aloud (or an excerpt of the work aloud) while members read along with you. Don’t apologize or dismiss your work. Reading out loud in itself will reveal some flaws or things that need to be added or omitted. If you have specific questions about the work, you can ask your reviewers to consider those.   It's a good practice for the writer to remain silent when members are giving feedback.   Resist explaining your decisions.   The readers must rely on what is written on the page and should respond only to that. 

Let your work stand on its own. Members of a group should practice ‘detachment’ from their own work when it is reviewed. Remember it is the work that is being scrutinized, not you the writer. Don’t take things personally. The feedback is an opinion and you don’t necessarily need to follow any advice or suggestions. Simply hear the feedback and then deliberate on your own. 

Don't monopolize the time.   Each member should have roughly equal time for reviews.

Give good feedback.  

Reviewers should make observations about the work. Notice what works well. Identify the strengths. In poetry, you should be attending to the sound, rhythm, pattern, imagery, metaphor, word choice. Be specific. Avoid general or vague comments like “this is good” or “I don’t like it.” Explain what exactly works for you and why. Note the shifts or confusing things. Reflect about what doesn’t seem to work. In prose, give feedback about dialogue, setting, action, point of view, and other aspects.    Note discrepancies or things that don't make sense.   Sometimes reviewers will disagree—all the better! The writer should sit back and listen to the feedback.

It is not necessary to tell the writer how to “fix” the work.  This might feel supportive, but it also might feel overbearing. Recommended solutions may not reflect the writer’s own style.   Ultimately, the writer will need to make the decisions to bring the work into line with his or her vision.  

Check in with each other regularly.

Take time to review group process. Your group will want to discuss how much time to spend on each work, and you will also benefit from talking about the individual writers process as well. Try to avoid distracting yourselves with personal information or experience. It’s easy to get sidetracked. Perhaps assign somebody to be a time keeper or to remind people to stay focused on the written work.

Set up an email list. Notify each other if you can’t attend. Respect each other’s time.

Getting Inside Poetry

Poetry may seem difficult at first.  Some readers feel frustrated or shut out by poems that seem obscure.   It takes awhile to learn its dimensions.    I think of poetry as a language within our language.   It is figurative instead of literal.   It uses metaphor and some devices in order to gain access to things that cannot be said.

I find it useful to describe poetry as "pattern language."  This phrase from architecture describes common forms: entrances, transitional spaces, roofs, particular uses for rooms, etc.    In fact, the word 'stanza' comes from the Italian and means 'room.'   Poetry is built; it does have structure.  This structure contains images, sounds, and creates meaning.    When you start to understand these elements, a gate opens and poetry becomes essential.   For me, poetry houses the spirit.    

Poetry's history is in the oral tradition.  It has been used in spiritual or religious ritual.  Prayers are memorized and spoken.   Blessings are given.   Spells are cast.   Traveling minstrels or storytellers instructed and entertained people.  Poetry's patterns allowed for easier memorization. 

"Voice" is key to understanding the poem.  Who is speaking and to whom?  Some poems are public and some very intimate.  Three basic types of poems are 1) narrative, 2) dramatic, and 3) lyric.   I consider the intention of the poet to determine the type of a poem.    The narrative is essentially a story.  A dramatic poem tends to sound like a speech delivered to many. It often engages with important figures and historical events; it might be epic.  The lyric type is similar to song.  

Some poems are 'formal,' meaning that they use a form with prescribed meter, syllables in a line, stanzas, and rhyme.  Sonnets are forms, some are Shakespearean and some Petrarchan. Other forms are the sestina, villanelle, and pantoum.   Individual poets adapt forms to suit their work.  Then there are 'free verse' poems that do not follow a formula.  These might have 'blank verse,' meaning iambic rhythm.  The author of a free verse poem usually establishes his or her own pattern.

The purpose of the poem is also an interesting consideration.   The poet Paul Valery said that prose language is meant to disappear once the meaning is conveyed, but poetry is different.  The particular arrangement of words and rhythm physically affects the reader.   It resists disappearing.  The form itself is compelling and acts as a device that continues to create meaning each time we read it.       

Helen Vendler, an astute literary critic, writes:  "Both John Stuart Mill and T.S. Eliot...thought that the reader 'overhears' the speaker of the lyric, as the audience overhears the soliloquies of Hamlet.  Others...have preferred, as I do myself, to see the reader as the true speaker of the lyric.  In this view, the lyric is a script written for performance by the reader--who, as soon as he enters the lyric, is no longer a reader but rather an utterer, saying the words of the poem in propria persona, internally and with proprietary feeling.  For poems that are overheard, I prefer to keep the name 'dramatic monologue'; in such a poem the reader is genuinely placed in the position of overhearing someone else, clearly not himself, speak aloud to yet another person. I reserve the name 'lyric' for poems that make their reader their solitary speaker."  (from the Introduction of her book, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition)

Poetry does have a strong connection to the body, and the breath of the writer affects that of the reader.    In this way, we breath in and out the images and language, the vision of the poets.

July 8, 2010


Going through a difficult time?  Keep a journal.  A journal is a private document. It is like developing the raw material, mining the ore.  Perhaps it is a remnant. A journal will help you in many ways.  It can contain everything that you bring to it, grief, fear, anger, joy.  It will provide an opportunity to slow down and meditate.  Writing is a tool of the mind; you can sort out your thoughts on paper.   It will be a source book, a place to collect images, sounds, thoughts.  From these remnants, you will develop longer work.  

There is no correct or incorrect way to journal.  Write a lot.  Use the five senses when you write.   Julia Cameron of the The Writer's Way had good advice: 3 pages a day.  If you don't know where to begin, then start with an image or a description.  A person, a place, an object. The best thing is to is not to think too much about what to write, but just to begin.   

Allow yourself to be a beginner; use beginner's mind. Once you are writing, your subject will come to you.  When it comes, accept it. If you are one that works best with deadlines, a 10 minute timed writing is a good idea; but if you are still writing when the bell rings, then keep going.  It may become a poem or a story.   

I found these quotes (unknown author) on the website Creativity in Motion.   https://cim.ou.edu/quotes.html  (If you are interested, check out the Creativity in Motion grant application and information about previously funded projects.)     
“You cannot be a creator AND a victim.”
“You will not find what you do not live.”
“It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you’re not.”

Writing Process
Writer's block occurs, in my experience, when you have become a perfectionist or if you trying to impose an idea or a structure too soon.   Do not try to make it perfect!  Get over the obstacle of the self.  Limit your distractions. (Internet, cell phone, family!) This is a work in progress. This is a first draft or sloppy copy. It is merely a ten minute exercise. It is like doodling or sketching.  If it has spelling errors or grammar problems, keep going.  If you find it boring, drop down a level.  Write about what is important to you.   

In this passage from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the artist Lily Briscoe is outside with an easel:  "She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.  It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself--struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: "But this is what I see; this what I see," and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her."  

Woolf is talking about the frustration of artists and writers: what you want is not always what appears.  This is common and not of concern when you are journalling.  We create documents made by hand. Flaws can be part of the beauty.  A remnant, if we are to use Woolf's image, may be all you need. Think of women who have created beautiful quilts and garments from remnants. Once you have your raw material, then consider it without early judgment. Discover the strengths of what is on the page. Maybe it wasn't the initial vision, but something else as valuable, a deeper vision.   Revision is designed to develop the strengths.

If you need a safe place to keep a journal, use an online program.  http://www.google.com/docs or
http://www.zoho.com/writer  If you have internet access, these allow you to access your writing (and they are password protected) from any computer at any time.   They are easy to use and free.

Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of keeping a journal. If you write down your goals, you are much more likely to achieve them.  If you keep a journal during recovery from illness, your outcome will improve.  Writing is a source of strength and it help you in many ways.