Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Writing Group Dynamics

Five years ago I formed Morningside Writers Group, after an unsuccessful search for an existing writers group that worked. I didn't know at first what worked meant initially. I went on gut instinct.

What didn't work for me back then:
  • traveling more than an hour from home or work to attend meetings.
  • mixing writing genres in one group.
  • combining inexperienced writers better suited for a beginning writer's class with seasoned and/or published writers.
  • defending creative work. If it's not on the page, please don't expect me to read minds.
  • habitual tardiness or absences.
  • lack of commitment; not seeking publication, production, or sales.
  • inability to see beyond the top of one's nose or fingertips.
  • inability to play in the sandbox with others.
I can see now how and why the original MWG blueprint might have been flawed. I didn't have a measuring stick to gauge writing abilities versus writing potential. I didn't have a Clinical Psychology degree to navigate the different personality types.

One of the biggest mistakes was that I didn't screen and restrict the number of members. I tried to recreate a surrogate (artist) family in NYC that I had in Houston. These were strangers, no more likely to greet me on the street save for their interest in writing, and the new fangled thing I'd coined as Morningside Writers Group.

The process felt and can feel like Times Square during rush hour, sorting through writers and their application samples. Some people are just passing through, testing the waters, poking around, and perhaps spying. All aren't destined to join and maintain writing group memberships.

Building and maintaining a thriving writers group is hard work, and five years later, there are a few regrets. If I could offer advice to anyone wanting to start a writing group, I'd say proceed with caution, expect disappointment when some applicants don't meet membership criteria, and welcome surprises when eventual group members meet and surpass expectations.

An unfortunate aspect of all groups is a revolving door of personalities, face, and writing abilities.

Above all else, those foolish enough to organize and moderate a writing workshop or workshops, as I do, know that it will require business acumen, superb organizational skills, and the patience of Job. The inside joke is that I created an affordable one-year MFA program.

I'm often asked why I formed MWG. My background is in performance (acting, choir, and dancing). I moved to NYC to perform on Broadway, but I (a) lost interest, (b) was tired of unscrupulous and oversexed playwrights, directors, and producers, (c) was fed up playing children, teens, and or perpetual best friend.

I was inspired by other actors who took control of their personal lives and careers, and made the leap to writing. I read and give feedback as an actor/director would. I believe in staging fiction, and the actor as writer.

If the writing doesn't come alive on the stage in my mind, it needs work in my opinion. I appreciate and welcome opinions other than my own, and to that end, I created a twelve-item critique form that most complain about completing at first, but eventually come around. I know the critique templates have been floating in cyberspace for years, hopefully guiding writers to improve subsequent drafts.

I set out to create a writing community, and I've been successful more so than not, despite a myriad of setbacks, online attacks for people not granted interviews, or accepted into the workshops after an interview or audit session. There are good and great writers, just as there are good personalities. At the end of the day, chemistry is important when forming and sustaining creative or artistic groups.

I've built a solid foundation on which writers can produce quality work and receive detailed feedback before submitting to contests, editors, agents, and publishers. I have to remind myself regularly why I keep Morningside operational, rather than writing in a dimly lit corner in a local coffee shop or bar as some opt to do because they've been burned by other writing groups, or just don't play well with others.

Why do I do it? I'm a natural big brother and mentor, and I want to see others do their best, as they bring out the best in me. I'm hardwired for groups since my earliest beginnings.


msladydeborah said...

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I will be back to continue following your work.

Lovebabz said...

You are DIVINE! I am so haooy to have found you. I consider a prayer answered! *SMILE*

Leah Mullen said...

While I've never run a writers group/workshop, I do feel that they are invaluable. I was able to FINALLY complete my first novel Again and Again via a workshop taught by Donna Hill at the Fredrick Douglas Creative Art Center in 2002.

Now I belong to several online writing groups, which are better for me since I have two young children. I'm even doing some editing now and I don't think I would have had the skill if I'd not had the experience providing critiques to other writers in structured workshops.

Filthy Rich said...

Being part of the aforementioned Morningside Writers Group in two different stints, I may be biased. But KW is right. I have seen the revolving door and the personalities first hand and cannot imagine the level of frustration involved in moderating such a circus. Nevertheless, he plows on and it is honorable.

I do want to see more written about the Clinical Psych angle. I think thats great! The personalities we have dealt with over the years have been downright comical. And I don't blame the HarlemWriter for becoming disdained with performing arts / drama. He had plenty in his group.

Sun Singer said...

The revolving door issue was a problem with me in several groups I attended. It takes a while to trust others emotionally enough to show or read them your most sensitive stuff. This can't happen if people come and go or if the group gets rid of somebody every meeting like the Survivor TV show.


Harlem Writer said...

"It takes a while to trust others emotionally enough to show or read them your most sensitive stuff. This can't happen if people come and go or if the group gets rid of somebody every meeting like the Survivor TV show."

Yes, it does take a while to learn trust others emotionally, but its par for the course. Successful groups can't wait around for people to build up courage, or we'd never have people ready to submit and receive feedback.

We're a professional workshop geared toward publication.

Inasmuch as I'd like to glue bottoms to the seats, I can't. People leave for many reasons, most of which are personal.

Perhaps you want to re-read my original post?

Evelyn said...

Love your blog & I received your DM on twitter, but I can't respond unless you follow me back. :-)

BTW, I use Wordpress now because blogger definitely can be dicey at times.




M.Dot. said...

This is really inspiring.
Thank you for writing it.


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