by Linda Lowen
It can be hard to think of yourself as a writer if you haven’t had anything published, earned a paycheck for your writing, or shared your work publicly. Even if you write daily, if you write in isolation it’s like the tree falling in the forest — nobody’s there to read your work except you. Does it count? Yes it does, but getting feedback is part of the process of growing as a writer.
Without regular feedback from a peer group, a writing partner, or a mentor, you’re forced to self-assess your work, and you’re either too in love with your words or you’re filled with self-loathing. This is no exaggeration. We truly are our own worst critics, and we can’t get better all by ourselves. Every writer benefits from input and outside guidance. When you learn what works and what doesn’t, you gain insight into how you can improve your craft.
No (wo)man is an island, and no writer should be either.
Creativity may take root independently, but it comes into full flower only within the context of community and connection. We are made better by our readers because they operate at a very basic level: if they like what they’re reading, they’ll keep reading, and if they don’t, they won’t.
Thus your goal as a writer is to engage — to move readers by making your words ripple through their conscious and subconscious selves. Validation comes when your thoughts invade theirs, crowd out everyday worries and concerns…and compel them to continue reading. How you shape your storytelling can either welcome a reader or repel them–and first impressions form quickly. Inside your head the story may be vivid and bold, but if you lack the skills of translation from vision to communication, the story won’t spring to life.
Words that fall flat never escape the page; they stay caged, black shapes against white. Words that rise and soar lift the reader out of her own life; they carry her into the world you’ve crafted. The reader forgets where she is and what she’s doing as she enters the story you’re telling. Good writing is like a magician performing a levitation. The audience doesn’t want to see the effort, the strings, or the mechanisms — they’re simply there to revel in the magic
This shift from disbelief to belief is what you should strive for. If your writing doesn’t shift at least something in your reader, you need to go back in for a tuneup. If you can’t figure out what’s going wrong, you have to take it out for a spin. In other words, test drive your writing the same way you’d test drive a car to see if it runs smoothly.
This is where a cohort comes in.
A tribe, a posse. A writing group.
There’s a reason why many prominent writers arise from — and credit — their writing groups. A couple of the more famous ones:
The Inklings, an informal literary circle in Oxford, best known for two members who were the nucleus of the group: J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). They met for nearly 20 years, and Tolkien himself described the group as “a feast of reason and flow of soul.”
The Bloomsbury Group, led by Virginia Woolf, which began meeting before its members gained literary and artistic prominence. Later, celebrated novelist E.M. Forster joined. According to the Literary Network, “his influence on the Group, and their influence on him, is readily apparent.”
Good writing, it seems, is catching. Makes sense. When you’re caught up in the ‘flow of soul’ of someone else’s words, you’re moved. You’re influenced. Your thinking is altered.
At readings and book signings, eager fans invariably pose the same questions to successful writers: Who are your influences? What writers did you follow? What books did you read? They want to catch what the writer has caught.
We are the company we keep.
Especially true for writers, though you might not think so since writing isn’t exactly a team sport. Yet writers do benefit from those qualities that form a tight, cohesive team. Working toward a common goal, sharing resources, having someone’s back, wanting to see them achieve their best — a writer who finds herself among like-minded cohorts is propelled forward, partly on her own steam, partly buoyed by the force of her circle of influencers.
Over the past five years helping early-stage writers learn the basics of craft, I have logged hundreds of hours of observation to back up all of the above.
During the fall, winter and spring, I teach at a local writers center in my hometown of Syracuse, NY. The classes meet once a week for eight weeks, and at the beginning of each semester every student buzzes with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Halfway through, some seats are empty, but for those still with me, commitment has replaced excitement as their energy levels off to a steady state. The people who keep coming back understand that the writer’s life isn’t glamorous, fun, or easy. Sometimes there’s inspiration. Most times there isn’t. But you keep writing because that’s the task in front of you.
The fun part is seeing everyone else’s process
…and progress as words lead to world-building and then full immersion for the reader/listener. This can only come, however, through developing work that’s shared over time.
In the last class I taught this past semester, I encouraged participants to write something each week, and made sure there was enough class time for five-minute readings from those who wanted to share their work.
Ping wrote about her childhood. How she couldn’t pass the necessary tests for school but tried again and again. How she watched over and protected her younger sister. How she tried to stay brave in the face of bullying and humiliation. As her stories evolved, we realized she was writing about the early years of the Communist Revolution in China when the threat of ‘re-education’ hung over everyone’s heads.
Alexandra wrote about the fantasy of living alone. How she’d imagined decorating her own space and having the freedom to express her artistic side. When a difficult divorce led to a move into her own apartment, the reality of life alone set in.
Rosemary wrote about her Venezuelan grandmother whose family was split by a move to the U.S. Whenever she came to visit, she recalled the elderly woman sitting by the window, smiling as she watched her grandchildren play in the yard. Only later did Rosemary learn that her grandmother’s joy came in imagining those children she’d left behind, seeing them in her mind’s eye outside her window.
Most of the students in these classes want to write about their lives, so in the very first session I make it clear: “Creative nonfiction and memoir is like Las Vegas.”
What happens here, stays here.
Together we create a space that is sacred and safe, where the intimate details of each person’s life are kept private. We have male students whose stories often focus on youthful indiscretions, hair-raising escapades, and tough-guy encounters, and they’re fun; but when the group is exclusively female, the mood is more introspective, the sharing more confessional.
In this last group, three men were on the class roster, but only one stuck it out to the end. The eight women formed a tight sisterhood that deepened over time, especially when the guys were absent. They seemed reluctant to part and admitted as much in the final session.
“I wish you were teaching a class this summer,” one woman said. “Then we could all sign up and continue together.”
“Hey, even the teacher needs a break. But you don’t need me. Form a writing group and do this on your own. You know how to critique and share constructive criticism. You could meet once a month.”
Ping spoke up. “I can host the first meeting at my house. I’ll email everyone to figure out a good time to meet.”
This is how it begins. You get comfortable with a group. You see the mutual benefit of staying connected. You become reluctant at the idea of having to reintroduce yourself and your story again and again to total strangers.
You create family.
This is why a writer’s retreat has value beyond the quiet time to write, the instruction you gain in workshops, and the opportunity to read your work aloud for feedback.
You find your people. You form your cohort. You keep in touch. Maybe you find a writing partner to be accountable to, or a mentor or coach to keep you moving forward in the months that follow, or a group that will reconnect on an ongoing basis to reignite the spark that a writing retreat/workshop/conference first calls forth.
The purpose is not to just come in, write, feel good, and then go home to the life you left. The purpose is to envision — and then act on — establishing a new life. Your writer’s life. A life in which you commit to a regular practice of putting ideas on the page, sentences spiraling out from under your fingers, paragraphs settling into story, a world of words taking shape in a formerly blank space. And all your own doing. Something you do for yourself that connects you to strangers who become friends. Fans. Readers.
This is how it began for my last class this spring. And it’s continuing.
Ping did as she promised — she sent out that email. After a little back and forth, everyone agreed to continue meeting at the same time the class had met: Tuesdays from 6-8 pm. The email confirming the date and time ended with “Linda, you’re more than welcome to come!”
As it turns out, I’ll be at my own writing conference that week, spending time with a group I met last year whom I’d like to see again. I made friends and connections, got and gave feedback, and stayed in touch via Facebook.
This is the writer’s life.
Not a creative struggle in isolation, but a vibrant network of friends, setting each other on fire through the all-consuming flame of a well-told story. Once you find your cohort, you’ll wonder how you thought to go it alone. You’ll bask in the warmth of community, and though you’ll still have doubts, you’ll have those you can trust for honesty, integrity, and support.
May you find that at the Women at Woodstock Writers Retreat. Among your people–all of them writers. Just like you.
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Linda Lowen is a resident author & writing coach at the upcoming Women At Woodstock 2017 Writers’ Retreat