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Get thee to a writers’ group. We’ve all heard the advice. Last week, Tami gave us some terrific reminders on craft; this week I’m going to talk about process--the dynamics of writers’ groups. Sometimes, they can be really helpful. Sometimes, not so much. If you belong to a group, or you’re thinking about staring a group, or participate online with a group, or just wish you had access to a group, we’re going to discuss the down and dirty of why writers’ groups can be good and bad –sometimes simultaneously.

Let me start with my own experiences. I’m lucky to have two writers’ groups, one in Nashville and one in Austin. With both groups, we meet at someone’s house once a month, but there are no set schedules. One or another of us takes on the role of social director, nudging the group to submit pages and offering up dates and times. We informally agree when and where and who’s on first without any particular direction or purpose as to whose turn it might be or to how many pages we should read. Sometimes we read whole novels. Sometimes 500 word picture books. But when we get together, food is a critical component.

There are always M&Ms,usually accompanied by something salty.

We also indulge in coffee or wine, or both, and the first part of the meeting is spent sharing gossip and news. We snipe about reviews. We share war stories. We laugh. We bring show and tell of new book galley proofs or illustrations. But then, after a bit, we get down to business. Social hour becomes truth or consequences. I’m making this sound a bit more dramatic than it actually is. The whole point of having a writers’ group is to one) to get honest feedback on your work; and two) to have some kind of social interaction with other human beings. Writers notoriously live in their heads only a little less than say Neo, so getting out is good.

Before I talk any more about my own writers’ groups, I want to say I generally like writers’ groups. Finding a writing community where I am validated and challenged makes me feel like I’m in the flow of my work—that I’m creating something better than I could do alone, yet it is only work that I alone can do. But the truth is, very one of us knows that a writers’ group or workshop can be downright fearful, particularly if we’re unsure how our work is going to be accepted or critiqued. We’ve all been in workshops where someone has gotten so rankled by the comments, that the whole event was worst than a Chicago Bears game. Defense! Defense! Defense!

So, what is the deal about writers’ groups? Why are we always told as writers that the first rule of common wisdom is to go out and find one?

Let me digress. Remember that happy guy, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi? Dr. Csíkszentmihályi, or Dr. C. as we’ll refer to him, coined the term flow, meaning that for most people, when they are doing something meaningful, something outside their normal routine, they go beyond their sense of self-consciousness and fear and become immersed in what they are doing to the point of feeling happy. Dr. C, it seems, as a little kid in post WWII Hungry, saw a lot of people pretty unhappy, but he wondered why others, no matter how grim things seemed to be, never threw in the towel. They never “disintegrated” into anguish.

So the question Dr. C. asked was, “how can we live life as works of art, rather than as chaotic responses to external events?" Dr. C. has spent his whole life learning about what makes people feel happy. He has a checklist of things, but when it comes right down to it, he’s talking flow.
Flow is based on a goal and a high degree of concentration doing an activity that is intrinsically rewarding. I think (I hope) I can say we have all felt that sense of flow when a scene is working and the words are flying out of our fingers and we’re not the least bit aware of time or place or if kids are picked up from school or if dinner is in the oven or if the house is falling down. We are “head deep” in the virtual world of our story, living it as if we were standing right next to our protagonist. So, why is it so hard to make the leap from the flow we feel when writing to feeling a sense of flow in a larger community of writers like a writers’ group? The answer is probably obvious:

A writers’ group is there to judge our work, and what’s so flow about having your turn in the barrel?

Well, my dears, let’s talk that…tomorrow. I’ll have a few of my buddies from my writers groups in Austin give you their perspectives.

Anon....Helen Hemphill

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