Running a Creative Writing Group

JJ Wilson, Writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University

For the last couple of years, I’ve run a creative writing group that meets twice a month at Western New Mexico University. I’ve discovered that our small community harbours genuine literary talent and writers who take their work – though, fortunately, not themselves – very seriously. Here are a few observations on running the group.

JJWilsonheadshot (2)Four things I’m glad that I did
1. Opened the group up to everybody
The group consists of community members and Western New Mexico University faculty and students. It is a rich cross-section of people that shows up – doctors, professors, retirees, administrators, journalists, artists – and the group is all the better for it. The participants have ranged in age from 10 to 86. There are no university credits, no money or any other obligations involved. You show up if you want to. If you don’t, you don’t.

2. Made everyone introduce themselves
Reading your work to complete strangers can be quite nerve-wracking. I wanted there to be a friendly, trusting atmosphere within the group, so I spent the first 20 minutes of the first session doing icebreaker activities. These included throwing balls in a circle and calling people’s names as well as introducing your partner in 30 seconds. Yes, I know these activities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I bet Don DeLillo and Isabel Allende never have to do them, but I’m glad I did them.

3. Set some ground rules
We made these rules democratically (OK, it was mainly me): five minutes’ reading per person; after the reading there is one minute of silence while we let the work sink in; constructive criticism only; no one comments on a piece if they don’t wish to.

4. Offered written feedback
For the first year I let participants email me their work for more in-depth criticism. I’m very glad I offered this service as it showed that I care and really want to help writers improve. Eventually it became overwhelming as I simply had too much other work, so I’ve stopped offering to do this. But I will note that three of the writers who have since published their pieces made use of the offer.

Four things I wished I’d done (or done sooner)
1. Asked participants to bring in copies
For about a year we only listened to other participants reading their stories, and we didn’t have copies to follow. This was a big blunder by me. You appreciate a piece of writing so much more when you can read it as well as listen to it. You can also annotate the manuscript, marking parts that you like and parts that you don’t. The quality of comments increased dramatically once participants started bringing in copies to share.

2. Asked for applause
Again, for the first year, after a participant had finished reading their story or poem, there was silence. This silence marked the beginning of the minute spent thinking about the feedback we wanted to give. Silence is quite intimidating. I learned this when one person new to the group read his piece and after twenty seconds said, in a mock desperate tone, “Please, someone say something!” Now we offer a round of applause after a reader has finished. It just seems more civilized. There’s no clap-o-meter involved.

3. Asked for general comments first
Sometimes the first comment we get after a participant has read her masterpiece is ‘I think the comma at the top of page 4 should be a semi-colon.’ I wish I’d asked participants to respond with general, impressionistic comments first. Surely the first observation is ‘Did I like it?’ Then ‘What did I like about it?’

4 Talked about how to receive criticism
Don’t defend your work. Don’t take criticism personally. Don’t launch into a long spiel about the genesis of the work or how everything will be resolved at the end and the confusing bit in the middle is just a literary strategy that you were employing deliberately. No. Just listen. Take everything in. Then decide for yourself what’s good advice and what isn’t.

Our Creative Writing Group meets on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, 6:00-8:00 p.m. in the Kennedy Puentes Room in Miller Library, Western New Mexico University, Silver City. Everyone is welcome.

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