Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anatomy of a Critique Group

When I realized that I didn't fit in corporate America, I set out to discover life after, or parallel to an acting career. My interest in writing began in Dr. Joeris' eleventh grade English class. We had to keep a daily journal, with assigned topics she wrote in her perfect script on the chalkboard. She called us little ones even though she wasn't bigger than a sparrow, with her chignon bun affixed to the back of her head.

Prior to Dr. Joeris' class, I didn't disdain writing, I just knew I'd move to Los Angeles, establish a name for myself and then move on to New York City where I'd perform on stage. With each succeeding high school and college audition, I became increasingly frustrated with the roles I were offered, and thought I could write something more suitable.

I tried my hand at semi-autobiographical plays meant to dissect and understand my immediate world. My first attempts were rebellious and angry, rather than focused or poignant. Those early drafts have either been shredded or buried in a foot locker in my aunt's house down south.

My early years on the East Coast, I did everything but seriously write - I knew I'd be a force on stage, commanding nightly standing ovations. Why should I write when there were others who could create memorable roles for me?

I've a kept a journal for several years and have read and/or worked through the Artist's Way, The Forest for the Trees, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Faith of a Writer. These books were my foundation for searching for other writers in New York to form a writer's group.

My earliest attempts at forming a writing group were temporarily successful. It was a mixed genre (plays, screenplays, angst-ridden fiction) group that rotated meetings among member homes. I personally didn't like trekking out to Queens, but did so because of the group that I formed. He tried to be a gracious host, but personality differences eventually caused him to drop out. Or was it laziness to travel to other boroughs?

My original intention was to create a Modern Day Harlem Renaissance. What resulted from my efforts was a group of lazy, recalcitrant, and moody people who periodically thought about writing, and actually wrote less. Dramatis personae aside, I felt as if I were in a whirlpool, ever sinking as laughing sharks circled above, perhaps waiting for the whirlpool to reject me as its latest victim.

The traveling band of writers disbanded after barbs, volatile e-mails, and vicious gossip were exchanged. I was dealing with people who didn't know how to play in a sandbox. The narcissists outweighed the meek lambs. I went into hiding after that debacle, thinking that I'd had enough with creative circles.

My sabbatical was short-lived, and I was off and running again, but the second time, I'd improve upon the first group. I'd primarily host the meetings at my apartment, with occasional meetings in office conference rooms and other public places. The problem with hosting groups or parties is the cleanup afterward. Bringing together writers took on toll emotionally. Everyone didn't share my vision of a writing community, as opposed to skeet shooting at traveling carnival.

After several years of anguish, frustration, and phone gripe sessions with my mother, I read a few more books on craft and researched the inner workings of successful writing groups. Two books there were instrumental were bird by bird and Immediate Fiction. Clich├ęs aside, the third time would be a charm.

I created guidelines, critique forms for fiction and screenplays to hopefully reduce personal attacks. I required membership fees to weed out the transients, slackers, and to pay for workshop materials, website, and other incidentals.

The disclosure on the critique form reads: Stories can be improved only by identifying problems. The purpose of writing a critique is two-fold: (1) identify the weaknesses in the piece and, (2) offer some constructive advice to the author that might lead to some improvement in the story.

Armed with this statement, one would think a person would offer quality feedback, not aim torpedoes at a writer whose work they envy. On the surface fiction writers are different from screenwriters and playwrights. It comes down to discipline, commitment, and focus.

I was all set to dish on the immature and nasty people who masqueraded as adult writers that swept into the groups only to disrupt the flow, but it does no good to badmouth them. I don't want or need the karma. I've been blessed with a few core members over the past two years, and recently created a new graphic novel and comic book writing division. God has been good to us.

What have I learned so far? Always trust my gut instinct and not feel desperate for writers just to ensure a desired head count. If I didn't like a person in the initial interview, I should've ended the conversation by saying, "Thanks, but I don't think it's going to work."

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