by Ashley-Renée Cribbins
When I started my writing group in 2011, I had just finished The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book on creative recovery*. Inspired by her final appendix on forming a “Sacred Circle,” I called up a few of my friends whom I knew to be writers and made the pitch: We set aside an hour or two every Sunday to gather together and share writing time, stories and encouragement.
It was a simple idea based on Cameron’s Circle – a creative cluster of what she calls “believing mirrors” or “friends to your creativity” – but the benefits were apparent from the first meetings. We’d all been treating our writing as a solitary pursuit and getting a little stuck in our own heads. Most of us wanted to be published, yet none of us had taken the step of sending out our work. But in the group, we learned to open up. We grew a little braver. And within a year, the three of us seeking publication had achieved it.
“I have had ample opportunity to experience firsthand what it means to lack creative support and what it means to find it,” Cameron writes. “Often, it is the difference between success and failure, the difference between hope and despair. What we are talking about here is the power of breaking isolation” (p. 219).
It’s intimidating at first, breaking isolation. For some of us, it seems almost easier to go it alone, to protect our creative processes and only consider sharing our work when it meets our standards of perceived perfection — standards that may be unattainable. We’ve all heard that we are our own harshest critics, but it’s still exhausting to do combat with the voice in our heads suggesting (on bad days) that our work is miserable, that we may be better off giving up. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend in this battle? At least someone to help us put things in perspective? Perhaps the reality is that we do have room for improvement, but a supportive circle can point us in the right direction down that path of creative growth. It doesn’t sting as much as we might think and it certainly beats fumbling around in the dark.
By breaking isolation, we gain more than a new perspective on our own work. Gathering together as writers can imbue us with new creative energy: inspiration and motivation that extends beyond the meeting time. In my own group, we run 10-minute writing exercises based on prompts to get ideas flowing and often share the results. If one of us is inspired to expand her prompted story, she already has a captive audience for the next draft. We also try to help each other stay accountable: At the start of each meeting, we go around stating our personal writing goals for the week, then report back at the next meeting on how we’ve been doing.
Sometimes we take advantage of the social, creative environment and bring our projects to work on during group – just sitting across the table from another writer who is typing away on her laptop can be good motivation to stay focused. Most importantly, a writing group gives us a creative support system that can prop us up and cheer us on. Whether we’re struggling with a project or celebrating a victory, it’s nice to be surrounded by people who really understand.
Creating your circle
So how do you go about finding your circle? If, like me, you have friends who share your writing interests, that’s an obvious place to start. You might also have acquaintances such as co-workers or classmates who you suspect could be a good fit. Be open to different types of writers – consider including your friend who writes poetry or blog posts, even if you’re a novelist. Differing specialties can make for more interesting workshops anyway, if participants are willing to step outside their comfort zones. It’s fine if you can only think of a couple people you’d like to include; there’s nothing wrong with having a small, “cozy” group, especially if you’re not used to sharing your work. You might find yourself wanting to expand your circle once you get more comfortable.
Once you’ve recruited your starting members, try coming together for weekly or bi-weekly meetings at a quiet-enough neutral place, like a coffee shop or a well-lit bar. See how it feels to write together, discuss your projects and share your work. Meetings can be as casual or as structured as you like. Start or end by discussing your current projects, great books you’ve read recently or other writerly news or advice you’ve heard. If you’re interested in doing writing exercises together, find prompts online or in writing books like The Pocket Muse. Or create prompts for each other by pulling starter sentences from your own writing notebooks. Bring your own projects to write on and try setting a timer: twenty minutes of nose to the grindstone, then a five minute break to chat, relax and share ideas.
The most important thing is to enter your meetings with a respectful and giving spirit. As with most things, you’ll get out the group what you put into it and a supportive environment which avoids blanket value judgments and competition will benefit everyone. As Cameron tells us, “Success occurs in clusters and is born in generosity” (p. 222). My own experience has convinced me she’s onto something.
*Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York: G.P. Putnan’s Sons, 2002).
Are you searching for a critique group? Are you a member of one? Read what VoiceCatcher authors have to say about finding, forming and sustaining a circle of creative colleagues who have helped them become better writers. Then, let us know what you’re looking for in a group and/or what practices have made your established circle work successfully. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll facilitate a conversation that may lead you to form your own group, jump-start a former group, or tout the successes of your current circle.
Ashley-Renée Cribbins is an artist and writer who is always juggling creative projects. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and kitty, but likes to spend her free time seeking out other interesting places. She also likes board games and tacos. Currently, Ashley-Renée serves as the graphic artist supporting VoiceCatcher’s events.