The What, Where, When, Why, and How of Joining a Local Writers' Group
You’re a writer in Columbia. You’re still waiting on that six-figure advance, but you’ve been writing, so that makes you a writer, right? Yet no matter your experience level, chances are you’re doing the bulk of this writing at a desk in the corner, alone.
You probably like it this way. You want room to breathe. Room to think. But as any seasoned storyteller will admit, eventually cabin fever sets in. The outside world calls. You need feedback. You need critique. You need friends. And… well, you need to make some money.
One of the best ways to tackle these challenges is by discovering a local writers’ group. These communities offer camaraderie and advice without the professional pressure of an editor or agent. Best of all, they’re often free.
You’re intrigued, but you’ve got questions. So we enlisted the experts around town, and they’ve got answers.
What, pray tell, is a writers’ group?
A writers’ group is — put simply — a community for people who write. Sometimes they’re used for trading manuscripts and offering critique. But other times they’re support groups, coalitions of authors commiserating about the publishing world or trading antidotes for writer’s block.
Almost every writing group will evolve over time. When local author Jill Orr first joined her group, it met for critique every two weeks. Today, as book tours, sabbaticals and family obligations make scheduling a challenge, her group has shed biweekly critique in favor of catching up and celebrating accomplishments — including sharing a bottle of champagne whenever a member has something published. She says you, too, can tailor your group to your needs and lifestyle.
Intriguing. But I like working alone.
We all need somebody to lean on.
Trudy Lewis, a professor in the English department at the University of Missouri for 27 years, still remembers when professor and author Phong Nguyen reached out to her about getting a writing group together in mid-Missouri. He had just taken a job at the University of Central Missouri, and he wanted to meet along Interstate 70 (which is why the group would become known as “The I-70 Writers”).
Lewis was reluctant at first. She hadn’t been part of a writing group in some time, and stepping away from the privacy of a desk — not to mention driving on the highway — made her hesitant. “But it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life,” she says.
Okay. But I’m a beginner. When am I ready?
There’s little to no barrier to entry! In most cases, you can join whenever you feel experienced enough, so long as you’re willing to make the same level of commitment as your team members. Select organizations might require some level of professional experience, but in that case, you can always create your own amateur group.
Orr posits herself as a perfect example: She hadn’t yet published any of her Riley Ellison mystery novels when fellow author Laura McHugh invited her on board an established writing group. But if the idea of sharing a seat at the table with professionals makes your hands sweat, consider starting with a more casual commitment, such as NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, takes place every November, when writers around the world attempt to draft a 50,000-word draft in those 30 short days. Art Smith has been the municipal liaison of NaNoWriMo’s Columbia chapter for seven years, and he believes it’s a perfect starter group.
“It’s an ever-shifting cast of characters every year,” he says of the 150 to 200 virtual participants and four to eight people who show up for weekly “write-ins” at Coffee Zone, Panera and the library. The commitment is low — you don’t need to attend write-ins if you don’t want to — but the motivation is high: That looming deadline provides some serious adrenaline.
Once I’ve tried it, where do I find my own group?
Ask your friends if they’d like to create a group. Attend readings at local bookshops, where you’ll often stumble upon other authors. Or join the Columbia chapter of the Missouri Writers’ Guild, which, according to president Deb Sutton, hosts monthly meetings where writers swap critiques of their work or hear from a guest speaker. Sutton says attending these meetings, which average around 25 people, can be the first step to meeting lifelong cohorts of all ages and experience levels. The gatherings also provide a welcome space entirely dedicated to the writing process. Most meetings take place on the first Sunday of each month at the Unity Center of Columbia, but you can always check ccmwg.org for more details.
How big of a commitment is it?
You need to commit time. You need to commit effort. Most importantly, you need to commit compassion and trust.
Gordy Sauer juggles a number of literary roles in Columbia: He himself is a novelist; he directs the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop, which is on a temporary hiatus; and he works as a speechwriter for MU. But even established writers need to know they can trust their peers in a writing group, he says.
You need to know that your group members know their own motivations, “so you can trust what they’re saying is meant to be helpful and not critical,” he says. “If you don’t have that, then you don’t have a successful group.”
Make sure you are ready to give real feedback — don’t cut corners for the sake of being likable — but are also ready to receive that criticism yourself. None of our first drafts is perfect. But to unearth the diamond in the rough, we can get by with a little help from our friends.