by Susan Dobrof
In my work life as a labor lawyer, I had mastered a kind of technical writing: using words to persuade by marshaling facts and arguments. “Workers’ warrior” was my secret name. Winning a well-argued case brought benefits or money to my client. Using words as swords and shields thrilled me. Now retired, I want the words to work as flashlights on my experience, to illuminate a small corner of life as I live it. This desire led me to a local author who taught a Portland Community College memoir-writing class in the summer of 2009.
We were a group of aspiring writers, graced with an enthusiastic teacher who wove William Stafford poems in with excerpts of how-to books from Vivian Gornick, Anne Lamott and Judith Barrington. He taught us how to construct energetic sentences and brought a short piece of his own. The dialogue crackled, giving shape and depth to his characters. We read our work to each other in groups of three and reacted to stories, funny or startling or sad. As I read a piece and people laughed, I felt the words do their job and my insides glow warm.
A few months later, I got an e-mail from a woman in the class who was trying to pull together a writing critique group. The first meeting began with 15 women pooled from a VoiceCatcher workshop and the PCC class. We filled one writer’s living room. As we got to know each other and progressed as a group, we negotiated our particular format. Four years later we are five, meeting weekly at a coffeehouse that lets us reserve a table in the back and where the barista turns down the music.We bring fiction, poetry, and nonfiction to the table and turn our flashlights on each other’s work.
If you are interested in starting or joining a group,a way to begin is to decide on what you want. Do you want to just write together, or bring outside work for feedback, or do both?There are groups that only critique and groups that meet to write from prompts as well as critique. You might also consider whether you want to work with others in a specific genre, such as mystery, memoir, or screenwriting. Search “writing groups” online and you will find writers’ organizations with newsletters that can direct you to your chosen genre.
Existing or start-up groups can spawn from the Oregon Writers Colony, The Attic, VoiceCatcher and PDX Writers, among others. Willamette Writers has support and critique groups listed by Portland neighborhoods, and they let you know whether a group is starting up or adding members. Attend a reading of your favorite writer on a book tour or a local writer to find inspiration as well as an opportunity to meet other writers. The reading might spark discussion or provide a newsletter mailing list to learn of upcoming readings, workshops and helpful resources.
My group, Broads on the Side, meets weekly for two hours. Sometimes we write together; mostly we share and critique current work. These last four years we’ve brought our poetry and prose, following guidelines that allow us to be efficient and constructive.
Each writer brings copies for everyone, reads her work out loud, and the rest respond with feedback and comments. Sometimes, I hesitate to bring new work: It’s often raw and shaggy, now no longer safely inside the computer. I get authentic reactions, even enthusiastic responses. Readers note what moves them and what confuses or distracts. A verbal or written suggestion may draw me deeper into the heart of the piece or to a side trip worth exploring. The responses have always dissolved initial nervousness.
Each of us, armed with annotated pages from fresh eyes, returns to her words and crafts it toward completion. It may come back to the group once or multiple times, be submitted for publication or back-burnered. No matter – the support, insight and emotional response to my work from my comrades have helped me grow as a writer. My group sticks with me when my words don’t come and I have no work to share. Even if I am not writing, I can offer feedback to someone who can use it, which encourages me to pull up to the desk and begin again. Finding the right group can help you become the best writer you can be.
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.
Susan Dobrof retired from regular work in 2005. Now she practices meditation and yoga, and teaches yoga whenever she gets the opportunity. She has strong desires to yell at bicyclists who don’t wear helmets but doesn’t want the one finger response, so refrains. Her work has appeared in VoiceCatcher 6, Halfway Down the Stairs, and InFocus, the magazine of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.