Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch

pen and notebook
photo by Oliver Hammond on Flickr

Writing can be lonely work. I’ve often wished to be part of an ongoing writers’ community that could offer support, critique, the occasional kick in the pants. I’ve tried a few times to get a group going, but haven’t succeeded in making one stick long term. (Recently, I’ve begun exchanging critique with a new group of writerly women, so that may change.) Rae Theodore is a writer I’ve gotten to know online through her blog, The Flannel Files, on which she discusses butchness, writing, cats, teenagers, spirit animals and more. She’s mentioned her writing group several times as being a major impetus leaving normalbehind her memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which was published last year by Weasel Press. So I decided to pick her brain a little bit about her writing group and how it’s impacted her work.

Can you tell us about how you got started with your writing group and what the group’s process is like?

I was seeing a therapist who gave me an assignment: Find an activity that has nothing to do with your wife or kids. Something just for you. I had planned on signing up for a mosaic class but missed the deadline.

“I’m failing therapy,” I told my wife.

“I don’t think you can fail therapy,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I’m failing therapy,” I said.

I had remembered reading that our local independent bookstore hosted a writers group on Tuesdays. My plan was to show up that Tuesday, report back to my therapist that I had participated in an activity and get an A in therapy, at least for that week. I wrote something that first day and shared it in a shaky voice. And then a funny thing happened. I kept coming back week after week.

We are a prompt-based group. Typically, we start with a five-minute free write to get warmed up. Then we write to two or three timed prompts. A prompt can be a word like “wind” or something more specific like “write about a favorite piece of clothing.” People volunteer to read what they just wrote. Reading is optional. We usually save time to work on works-in-progress. We come back together at the end of our two-hour session for announcements. This is a time to share information about conferences, submission calls, contests, workshops, etc.

You’ve written about how positive feedback fueled you to continue. How do you handle less enthusiastic critique? How do you know what critique to take to heart and what to throw away? What do you look for in a critique?

Our writers group is not a critique group. I run a separate critique group once a month. With that being said, just having someone react in a positive way to a piece of writing is motivating. I think most writers are insecure, so praise really helps.

I remember the first piece I ever submitted for critique. After submitting, I hid under the covers for a week waiting for people to tell me that I was weird or a freak. Instead, they told me how much they loved my writing. That was a pivotal moment for me. It gave me the fuel to write another chapter. And that second chapter? People didn’t like it as much. It was a good lesson in humility.

For “less enthusiastic critique,” as you put it, I try to remember that critique is aimed at making the final product better. I take whatever feedback I’m given and move on. I try not to dwell on negativity. I try not to take things personally, although that can be difficult because I primarily write memoir. I rely on my writerly instinct—think of it as a writer’s super power—when it comes to deciding which feedback to accept and which to dismiss. I think it’s critical to have at least one critique partner who “gets” your writing. I had one writer read all of my chapters outside of the critique group. She understood me, my writing style, the vision for my book. I trusted her and when she said to re-write something, I did.

I think the most important thing to remember about critique is that it needs to be honest. Everyone telling you that your work is great doesn’t help you improve. There are ways to be kind and honest.

How did you use your writers’ group while working on a long form piece? Any specific examples of how the group dynamic or critique helped you develop a chapter, solve a problem, etc.?

Making a commitment to go to group every week helped me keep at it, if that makes sense. It became part of my writing routine. I think of writing like a muscle. The more we write, the stronger that muscle gets. Some days, I feel like the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno version). Plus, there’s a benefit to surrounding yourself with people who love the same things you do.

Sometimes I was able to use a prompt and write about something that ended up in the book. For example, I wrote the skeleton for the title chapter to a prompt. Writing to prompts has changed me as a writer. For one thing, it’s amazing how much writing you can accomplish in 10 minutes. And when you write without censor, amazing things can happen. Some of my best writing comes from that raw, uninhibited place.

When I’m struggling with a story and can’t get something right, I’ll often write out the problem like a prompt and try to write my way through it. This has worked for me.

What have been the biggest challenges in sustaining a supportive group?

One of our biggest challenges has been cross-talk. By that, I mean people commenting on the content of what someone else has written and then shared. For one thing, it takes up group time. Plus, we’ve had instances in which people have shared very personal stories. Stories about sexual abuse, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, gender. We limit comments and ask that they focus on the writing itself and not the subject matter.

And dealing with so many different personalities is always a challenge.

Top three rules for a happy, healthy writing group?

One. Have rules. Stick to them. Run your group in a professional manner.

Two. Keep it positive. Banish negative talk, quiet those inner critics. We try to stop people from saying things like “this isn’t very good, but I’ll read anyway.” Ask people to write down “read-back” lines, which are lines they liked from other people’s work. That’s one way to focus on the positive.

Three. Respect each other. We have so many different kinds of writers in our group. Published and unpublished. Beginners and journeymen. Teens and seniors. At the end of the day, writing is writing. We’re all there because we love books and words and story. Memoir writers aren’t more important than romance writers. Science fiction writers aren’t better than poets. Celebrate the one thing everyone has—a unique voice.

Anything else?

It’s an exciting time for our group. We’ve been meeting for more than three years now and have outgrown our space in the corner of our little bookstore. We had 22 writers at our last meeting, which was a record for us. The writer who heads up the group has a dream of a Writers Room—a space that would be available to writers 24/7 to gather, interact, workshop, brainstorm and, of course, write. She is actively looking at properties. Fingers crossed. Our group is also participating in various writing-related projects this year such as a Story Jam and contributing to an anthology.

Thank you, Rae!

How about you? Anyone have writers’/critique group advice?

NPG Ax141463; Lytton Strachey; Virginia Woolf (nÈe Stephen) by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf of the Bloomsbury Group, June 1923                         Photo — Wikipedia



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