Writing is often a solitary activity, well suited to introverts. We thrive in a sort of solitude where we rarely feel alone, thanks to the people or creatures, historical or imagined, who fill our stories and books. But several essential writerly activities require us to interact with contemporary, fellow humans in challenging ways. Three of these happen over and over again at the twice-monthly meetings of a local critique group, Good AF Writers. (AF is for American Fork, Utah. What were you thinking?)
Different critique groups operate in different ways, but most have three nerve-wracking activities in common:
Here are a few more gems — I know it’s been a while — from Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life.” You’ll find it in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60), which you should buy — or borrow from the library — and read.
If you write.
Writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. (pp. 31-32)
Last time, I told you about Good AF Writers, the critique group held twice a month by the American Fork chapter of the League of Utah Writers. (I’m assuming the AF is for American Fork.) It’s every second and fourth TuesdayThursday at 6:00 p.m. at the American Fork Library, and you can read more of the basics in that previous post. There’s also a Facebook group to watch for new, updates, and more.
Here I’ll give you a better taste of how it works, in case you’re on the fence about whether it will work for you.
Our meetings consist mostly of three activities: reading (aloud), giving critiques, and receiving critiques. Each of these could make someone squirm, I know, but it’s the price of improving as writers. We try to be kind, helpful, and candid.
How It Works: Reading
Some or all of the writers in the meeting will read excerpts from something they’re writing, or the whole thing, if it’s very short. They may or may not preface their reading with a brief explanation of the work, of what has happened previously, or what sorts of help they especially want. It’s all on a clock; unless the meeting is especially crowded or we’re running late, each reader gets up to seven minutes for the reading itself and any introductory explanations.
In the meetings I’ve attended, I’ve read from three short stories (one written that day on the train, because an idea struck), the first and second chapters of a novel I’m polishing, and an essay I drafted a couple of years ago and have revisited a couple of times, but which really isn’t working yet.
After each reading, the author circulates a signup sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide a critique at the next meeting will sign up. Sometimes two people sign up; sometimes it’s six or seven.
After the meeting the author sends out the piece – up to 2,500 words – by e-mail, at least a week in advance of the next meeting, so everyone who signed up has time to read, reread, and critique it.
American Fork’s chapter of the League of Utah Writers (LUW) meets twice monthly, on the second and fourth Tuesdays Thursday of the month, at 6:00 p.m. We usually meet in the American Fork Library, in the smaller of the two conference rooms near the east entrance, but check the Good AF Writers Facebook group for current information. The chapter itself is just a few months old, and new members are always welcome.
There’s a Facebook group, Good AF Writers. Take the name as a fact or an aspiration, as you choose.
I’m told that different LUW chapters run their meetings differently. In our meetings, those who bring writing for critique read from it aloud for several minutes, then circulate a sign-up sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide an oral and written critique at the next meeting supplies a name and an e-mail address. The author sends out the piece, usually in a Word doc, at least a week before the next meeting. We limit the length of that to about 2,500 words – lately down from 5,000 words – to reduce the workload for critics. (You can always bring in the next chunk next time.)
We who signed up as critics then read and reread your piece, offer a brief oral critique (generally not more than several minutes) at the next meeting – assuming you’re there – then send the Word doc back to you with any markup and comments we may have added. Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes you get a little.
Today is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays – and perhaps you’ll forgive me if I parse that word as holy day. If we raise our aim above the purely horizontal, thanksgiving – or gratitude, if you please – is one of the highest acts of worship.
Usually on this holy day, I think of the big stuff, from infinite grace born of God to the spilled blood of patriots and the wrenching sacrifices of their loved ones. All of that is still there, still here, still the object of daily gratitude. But as this holy day has approached, I have reflected on smaller, more personal things. I hope this doesn’t sound too self-serving. In any case it has been an interesting year – and I know it’s not quite over yet.
Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? . . .
Art stands on the shoulders of craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.
. . . I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
. . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself. (pp. 28-30)
Yesterday, somewhat randomly, I ran into an author’s biography at Amazon.com, to which I point you for its style as much as its insight. Her name is Huntley Fitzpatrick. Apparently, she writes young adult fiction — how well or how prominently, I cannot say. I know of her only what I read there.
Here are some excerpts from her Amazon author page, where you should read the whole brief bio, if her charm speaks to you too.
I was lucky enough to be born to parents who read every kind of written material with interest and enthusiasm, and let me do the same. From the start I searched for books that let me fall in love…with the story and with the boy. For most of my childhood I divided my devotion between Almanzo Wilder from The Little House books, C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian and Tom in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl.
I figured out early that stories were what made sense of the world when it was confusing and made the best moments permanent. I was shy and nearsighted but good at anything that involved reading and imagining, so quickly decided the only logical career to pursue was writing. To this end my father gave me a typewriter (it was a long time ago), a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a bottle of Scotch and a note advising me to “Be Bold, Be Bold, Be Bold.” For my tenth birthday.
(Robyn is a graduate teaching assistant in a college poetry class.)
I admired Robyn and was terrified of her, and soon I had so assimilated her critical voice that I was able to bring the full weight of her intelligence to bear on my work without her actually needing to be in the room. I could hear her explaining how what I was writing would fail, and so I scratched it out and started over. But I knew she wouldn’t deem my second effort to be any better. Before long I was able to think the sentence, anticipate her critique of it, and decide against it, all without ever uncapping my pen. (p. 26)