Review by Donna Gillespie
Here's the ultimate resource for writers who wish to seek support from a community of writers. Eileen Malone's "The Complete Guide to Writers' Groups, Conferences, and Workshops" combines in one volume a definitive guide to establishing your own writers' group, along with a comprehensive list of all the support groups available for writers: the major organizations and teaching institutions, as well as scholarships, national conventions, writers' unions, ongoing workshops and conferences.
"The Complete Guide's" introduction plunges the reader at once into a highly successful, long-running writers' workshop at work: Malone took careful notes while observing The Writers' Block, a Berkeley based group which has produced several published authors. We're given an insider's view as the group's members dissect the manuscripts; we meet the members and hear their individual stories. All wholeheartedly agree on one point: Their writing group has kept them writing, through the discouragements, disasters and general indifference that await those who dedicate themselves to a writer's life.
of fellow writers
remind us constantly
that the life of the
carries its own reward.
If the book's introduction doesn't convince you of the benefits of having a sounding board, Chapter One will. Writers need each other! Your family and your co-workers are not likely to understand the hellish frustration that can grip you when you're ensnared in a seemingly insolvable plot problem, nor are they likely to comprehend why an avowedly sane person would toil relentlessly for years at an exacting task that promises you nothing for all your efforts, and demands everything in return. The encouragement and enthusiasm of fellow writers remind us constantly that the life of the imagination carries its own reward. One group member flags, and another picks her up. As Malone phrases it, "The force that revives imagination is incredibly contagious!" Chapter subheadings such as "You Are Not a Private Peculiarity," "Interdependence is not Dependence," and "Joining Reinforces" evoke some of the substance of the compelling case she makes for these workshops. For those who have no idea how to located an ongoing group, or how to establish one and keep it healthy, here is an entertaining roadmap. This unique book benefits from Malone's extensive background in speech communications studies; she brings the wisdom of an expert in small group dynamics to the question of how to structure a functioning writers' group.
Chapter one proceeds to describe the vast variety of writers' groups you're likely to find today, giving special attention to that new frontier where modern technology intersects with ancient craft: the growing number of classes offered on the internet, and workshops conducted online. Here, Malone observes, is an opportunity to join with other writers in a world that knows no geographical boundaries.
An unusual and intriguing feature of Malone's guidebook is its examination of group psychology. Every human group, she advises, is based on spoken or unspoken agreements, all issuing ultimately from the dictates of common sense. She gives practical advice both for speaking and for listening. Always speak to the group as a whole, Malone counsels. And if you're burning with a question when someone else has the floor, "Wait until there is a pause, then ask your question. Remember, listeners listen faster than talkers can talk -- and the question you're asking may well be the one being addressed." She then takes on the difficult issue of giving and accepting criticism with grace. We're shown the creative methods some members employ to avoid or divert criticism. We're advised as to how to survive that soul-searing slash-and-burn critique that inevitably comes to us all.
Once you've found a group, how do you know if it's right for you? "The Complete Guide" will tell you how to navigate through the common difficulties that will arise: reaching a consensus on protocol, handling group saboteurs, encouraging the more reticent members to offer their opinions. The book provides a checklist of questions you can ask yourself about your group, to help determine if it's promoting creativity, or stifling it. Is it a dynamic association, or do you sense that it is stagnating? If you've chosen a class rather than a group of peers, how do you know you've found a good teacher? Malone tells you how to distinguish tormentors from mentors.
For writers who'd prefer to seek out an established group rather than find one of their own, Part Two is a treasure trove of listings of a wide variety of resources. Malone first offers a roster of the major writers' organizations. Each listing tells you how to contact the group, and gives a brief description of the group's objectives. Next she lists the many teaching institutions that have extensive creative writing programs. Then comes an exhaustive index of workshops, large and small, of clubs, guilds, alliances and retreats, of salons, foundations, fellowships, forums, festivals, and book fairs. Malone advises you to approach these organizations in a spirit of adventure, shedding all preconceptions. There's more than enough here to set any inquiring writer on the right path. But perhaps the greatest strength of this book is Malone's ability to inspire the reader to leap in and try. By the time you've set it down, you'll feel a world of connections has opened up before you.
Donna Gillespie is the author of the critically acclaimed international best seller, "The Light Bearer," a monumental saga of war and vengeance in ancient Rome. She is also the veteran of a long-standing writers' group without which, she maintains, she never would have begun her novel.
Causes Eileen Malone Supports
National Alliance on Mental Illness; Caminar; National League of American Pen Women; National Writers Union; Northern California Book Reviewers