On Writing Groups


The results are in: The Smallest Trout did not place in either of the fiction contests. That’s okay – I’m just getting started on this destination-less journey of becoming the best writer I can be, and these contests are a great way to push myself to stay on track, meet deadlines, and hone the craft. Every time I read the piece, I find something new that I want to tweak.

I shared The Smallest Trout with my writing group a few weeks ago. We meet at a charming and comfortable coffee house in one of the neighborhoods here in Chicago. There are usually five of us at the table, give or take one. We each bring a piece and take turns reading and critiquing. The common thread among us is an interest in writing that stems from a love of reading. These people are only in their mid to late twenties but reference literature like English professors. I definitely have some catching up to do. And like many other writers, we share a love of a nice, strong drink.

I’ve heard both the pros and cons of joining a writing group. I reference him all the time – I know – but Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in sharing his stuff before it was ready to see the light of the outside world. He once described a time when he got drunk at a dinner with friends, grabbed his manuscript, and started reading it out loud. He regretted it. Stephen King locks himself away and prefers to write in rooms without windows. When he’s finished, he’ll let his wife, Tabitha, read his work. If she says as little as, “It’s good,” he knows he’s got something to go on. In short, it is possible that the premature input from others can derail the progress of a piece, and people also have different writing styles. It may be challenging to give and receive truly beneficial critiques.

Those are some of the negatives. After sharing The Smallest Trout at the last meeting, I experienced one of the advantages of putting work out there for discussion. When I wrote the story, I was focused on plot development, authentic dialogue, and grammatically sound sentence structure. I had The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White in my hand as I wrote the piece, obsessed with using commas in exactly the right way. I had horse blinders on. After the group read my piece, the significant critique I received had to do with the story’s lack of conflict. Even though I had been cognizant of plot development and making things interesting, because duh – I’m telling a story and stories aren’t meant to bore people – it fell flat. I had not thought of story development in terms of creating conflict – conflict between the characters, their surroundings, anything. The word “conflict” used by the members of the group helped something click in my mind about how to add more dimension to my stories.

I also had the pleasure to read the work of some other truly great writers who have a lot of potential. Their writing talent serves as both a treat to read and a motivator to push myself to become a better writer. There’s almost always something to learn from people who are doing the same thing we are.

My experience won’t necessarily be the same as someone else’s, but I’ve realized that I have much to gain from being a part of a writing group as a fledgling writer. The writing group provides the training wheels I need. I’m still exploring the basics of writing and what it means to write well – and I don’t think locking myself up with only my method of doing things will help me find my voice.

I want to include at least a tiny bit of fiction in each post, so below is an excerpt from a story I’ve been working on. I’ll be sharing it with the group when we meet today.

Fact: Life can begin with the jump-start of a lawnmower. Cells divide long before boy and girl fall in love, before sex and conception. For a family tree to grow, it needs more than two people coming together for a brief moment in time. It’s a well-known idea that the smallest actions can have life-altering consequences. Does the man with the lawnmower know what he did that afternoon when he pulled the string that got the motor going?

Lenny had just kicked off her house shoes and settled onto her bed. It was a scorching hot day in Cleveland. She laid on her sheets with her legs folded back at the knees. The light wind lifted and dropped the curtains in her bedroom. Her daughters were still at school, and her husband, Harris, was working at the shoe store downtown. Earlier that day she scrubbed her kitchen floors, changed a light bulb, and weeded her front garden. Having finished the morning’s housework and half a pack of cigarettes, she settled into the deep sleep of a contented housewife in the early 1960’s.

In the yard next door, a man rolled his lawnmower out of the garage. The sun that Friday afternoon was the hottest it had been all week, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. His wife had nagged him for two days to get the lawn mowed before it rained again. He bent down and gave the lawnmower string a hard pull. The motor sped up then slowed back down to a stop. He yanked the string again, and this time the motor roared to life with the fast chop, chop, chop sound of a helicopter.

Lenny’s eyes opened against her pillow.


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