Writing Groups: An Introvert’s Guide
I came to writing late in life, and my first forays into the writing world were like jumping off a pier. A splash of cold water, exhilarating and terrifying. Total strangers combined with total intimacy.
You might think this would be easy for a clinical psychologist, since it’s not a bad description of what happens in the therapy hour. But there is a critical difference. In my office, disclosure is one sided, and intimacy depends on my ability to get inside someone else’s world, to use empathy and skill to see through their eyes.
Becoming a writer posed a different challenge: turning the lens around and letting others into my world of facts and feelings. This violated not only a well-practiced boundary (an occupational hazard I still use as an excuse) but my deeply rooted introversion. If I was going to do this, I had to do it an introvert’s way.
My training is a ten-year collection of weeklong workshops, weekend writing retreats, individual mentorships and writing groups: cadres of talented folks willing to help me learn their craft. In the workshops, I knew what I was buying: A skilled teacher and published author, a faculty member at those serious MFA programs I looked at wistfully. I was comfortable listening to lectures, and responding to writing prompts. I was perfectly happy hiding out in the “cone of silence” while others reacted to the work I was willing to share.
But writing groups were problematic. I knew I needed people who could help me implement what I had learned, teach me craft and help to shape my writing going forward. But outside of work, I craved silence and solitude. I had never joined a book group, sang only in a choir in someone else’s church, and once even used a fake name at a gym.
Fortunately, total strangers reached out and offered help. The first time it happened it startled me. A man approached me in the grocery store and introduced himself. He looked vaguely familiar, but until he reminded me, I had no memory of our meeting briefly at a weekend conference a few weeks before. “I’m starting a writing group, and I wondered if you’d be interested” he said. I knew nothing about this man or his writing. “Sure” I said quickly before I could find an excuse.
For me, that came to be rule number one on writing groups: Take a risk. If I’d gathered more information, I knew I’d find a way out. Ten years later, I still think that’s not a bad first rule. Try it out, don’t overthink why it might or might not work. For introverts, it’s especially important, for we are mildly allergic to groups in general, and getting past that initial flare of resistance is critical.
There are a few more guidelines I discovered along the way.
Understand the goals of the group you’ve chosen. Only experience taught me that some groups are for solitary writers who do not want or need to share their work. They want to share resources, get encouragement or guidance about writing dilemmas. They want to talk writing, but not do writing together. This was a bad choice for me, especially early on. I needed craft, people willing to show me their talent so I could learn from it.
Remember that introverts chew on things and respond best after thoughtful analysis. I preferred groups where people committed to sending out work a week ahead and put time into a close red-pencil edit or a wonderfully discursive emotional response to the piece. I re-read those reactions alone, days later, and saw things I’d missed, re-heard the groups’ discussion, and found myself less defensive to critique. I also felt more useful to others when I had time with their work, and could digest it before having to react.
Research shows that extroverts use language differently. Their verbs are stronger, their adjectives more intense. Their baseline is different from mine. I know this in my office and intuitively make adjustments for who is telling the story. But in writing groups I could be confused. Was my description too pallid, or just not the way someone else would have said it? Having a mixed group helped enormously, as I watched debates bring out not only good writing, but the voice that each writer needed to claim as his or her own.
Remember that introverts are more likely to be non-linear learners. Direct discussion and analysis is less useful than creative surprise or intuitive reflex. One group I adored consisted of me and two poets: one young enough to be my daughter, who wrote rich, densely technical forms, the other a generation between us, whose lyrical free verse captured emotion-filled images in simple words. I left those meetings filled with the energy of creative language. The gems that applied to my own work took time to emerge but were priceless.
Beware homogeneity. Introverts may learn more from others who do not get their work, who push back at cultural or generational norms of expression. I found it painful to have someone’s eyes glaze over, or to hear challenges to my style, but in time it forced me to differentiate what was essential to my voice, and what was simply poor work. There are people who will never want to read what I am interested in writing. Facing that early is freeing. Giving those people a chance to make your writing better is worth it.
If you are looking to start a writing group, go to the participant’s readings at workshops. I was consistently humbled by my own reactions. People I liked or expected to, bored me to tears. The oddly dressed guy I was a little afraid of touched something deep in me with his words. In my workshop group someone always proposed creating an on- line writing group, but it rarely happened. Instead, it was those quirky, surprising reactions that led to finding people you might dare to approach at the grocery store two weeks later.
Finally, remember that others may join a writing group for different reasons. To find friends, to develop social connections, to share their life stories with a supportive group willing to listen. Not everyone is focused on the product of writing. It took me a long time to distinguish the difference between “I would like to know more about” and “the reader needs to know more about” in critique. Curiosity and interest in you, in your story and your feelings is a lovely gift. But it is not always what you need to improve your writing.
Writers are a tribe of solo artists. It is the solo part I like the best, I admit that. I am grateful for the skills I learned in writing groups. But even more than that, it is the tribal dance, the ritual of sharing powerful language in a community of fellow soloists that draws me to the group. It is that creative experience that will keep drawing me back.
Our columnist, Mary Plouffe, raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.