I've just added The Company of Writers by Hilma Wolitzer to my favorite writing books list on the writers tips page of my website, in part because of the great advice it offers for successful writing groups. The reasons I love this book are too many to mention in one little blog post on a lazy Saturday, but I'm going to start with her first line:
Before you do anything else, you must acknowledge that you're a writer.
I love the anecdotes she shares, and her responses. To Katherine Anne Porter saying she really started writing when she was six or seven, Wolitzer responds, "I suppose that before then she was a mere dilettante."
But the thing I love most about this terrific book is the advice she has for successful writing groups. Just a few of her suggestions (mostly in my paraphrase):
- You don't need a professional facilitator. Even in the best of workshops, writers are likely to learn more from each other than from a teacher. (She sites Amy Tan, Michael Cunningham, and Alice Hoffman, among others, as folks who've participated in peer writing groups.)
- The main object of writing groups is revision, not suicide.
- Reserve socializing for the end of the meeting, after the work is done.
- Meet weekly.
- Read manuscripts in advance, make written comments, and sign them. Pencil is best, to emphasize that your suggestions are just that.
- Quoting George Eliot (yay!), "It is surely better to pardon too much than to condemn too much." (The rule for my writing groups: Praise something you like in the manuscript first.)
- If your manuscript is being discussed, listen rather than defend.
- TRUST is vital. No personal attacks. No extra-workshop criticism of anyone's work.
The Company of Writers has great chapters on the how-to of writing, too, and Wolitzer's sense of humor carries you right along. Her chapter on writing for younger folks: "Are You There, God? It's Me, Emma Bovary." On publishing: "No matter how pure of heart we claim to be ... commerce--in the seductive form of publishing--eventually enters the mind of most writers." And later, "Never mind that you'll probably wonder (as I do) if every cushion you ever sit on is filled with one of your shredded books."
She includes a list of writing exercises, as well as a list of what you should keep at hand. To my delight, I happened to read that list--which includes a thesaurus--the day this photo was taken of my desktop as I reviewed The Wednesday Daughters galleys. Note that tome in the foreground.
Really, you want to add The Company of Writers to your shelf. It's just out in an e-book version, so you can, like I do, take it with you wherever you travel.
Happy writing! - Meg
This post originally ran on 1st Books: Reading and Writing with Friends, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, and other novels (all available from Random House/Ballantine). 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.