On the Importance of Writing Groups

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality will not destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

In 2013, I was a lot of things—newly married, addicted to yoga, a hackneyed technical editor, and suffering from undiagnosed Celiac disease—not to mention drowning in student debt while making only $28,000 a year, in Calgary, at the top of my field. Naturally, I was exhausted. But mostly I was a failed a writer.

Bet you didn’t think I was going to say that, did you?

Thank God for The Salty Quills. 

My ex-husband was good at encouraging me. Daily, he reminded me I was fat, useless, a failure at everyday life and that my manuscript remained unpublished. How dare I call myself a woman, much less a writer?

He had a habit of hanging his soiled work shirts back in the closet. One evening he asked me why he didn’t have anything clean for work. Gripping the back of my neck and yanking his pink shirt from the hanger, he rubbed my face in its rank yellow armpit. Then he shoved my head in the laundry hamper. He threw my cat into the wall because I loved it more than I loved him. When I rehomed it, he warned me, “Don’t cry.” One night I cowered in the bathtub while he smashed his fist into the locked door because how dare I keep myself from him? Yet, what brought me to despair was that I could no longer write poetry.

“There’s a natural kinship that comes with a devotion to writing. A spiritual practice and partnership.”

But I enjoyed writing short stories, especially speculative fiction, so I joined the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association. There I learned a lot about genre writing, prose craft, and establishing a career as an author. Or my boobs did. A Nebula Award-winner once told them that, “Great writing will always find a publisher, but good looks are marketable.”

My first night, I met Tommy and Justin. We whispered to each other throughout the meeting and realized we shared a lot of the same nerdy interests—Kaiju, Lovecraft, the macabre. Afterwards, Tommy mentioned IFWA was so large that feedback once a year, on one story, wouldn’t get us very far. “Let’s make our own writing group!” I said.

The Salty Quills were born.

No matter how rung out we were, we finished our stories and dragged our butts down to Porkies. O Porkies! Pub of punk waitresses in tartan mini-skirts serving craft beer, designer bacon apps, and whole hog burgers. Those evenings, nothing existed for us but our writing. We bitched about rejections, created monthly writing challenges, and gave each other honest but helpful feedback. We joked that we were a bunch of hacks, but we vociferously encouraged each other and our crazy storylines. We celebrated our love of writing and the desire to grow our craft. We quickly developed a genuine camaraderie. In writing groups that can be rare.

            Why is camaraderie rare? Probably because we live in a culture that revers the author, and competition. Competition, however, creates friction as well as insecurity. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Everybody pities the weak; jealousy you have to earn.” But why even worry about that? There is no com-petty-tiveness in a supportive writing group because every writer ultimately learns that “you better werk!” (RuPaul said that. He also said, “May I make a suggestion? EDIT.”)

There’s a natural kinship that comes with a devotion to writing. A spiritual practice and partnership. And as all devotion inevitably falls into the confessional, don’t you want to belong to a safe and supportive writing group?

Here are a few helpful guidelines for forming your own writerly Borg Collective:

  • Know what you want. Details like where and when will always work themselves out. But what is your collective goal? Is it just sharing or are you all aiming for publication? Decide and stick to your guns. If each writer is committed to the collective, then you’ll all go home fulfilled yet hungry for your next meeting.
  • Strong core members are your writing besties. These are the people who are committed for the long haul. They would run an Iditarod, or steal a runabout and hightail it through a wormhole just to discuss writing with your group.
  • NO DRAMA. Seriously, leave closed minds and catty comments at home. You’re not going to succeed if egos are more important than growing your craft. A writing group is not a place for jealousy or competition.
  • Ask for in-person guidance from a trustworthy, more experienced writer, if you feel you need it. They can help you to lead, or to coach group members on how to phrase constructive criticism, speaking time, etc.
  • Vet each new member with a trial period (two meetings is fair). Vote on whether the prospective member is going to assimilate well. Things like their receptivity to feedback, courage, integrity, vulnerability, honesty, and writing goals need to be considered. If they bring friction to the collective, make anyone uncomfortable, or perhaps their work is out of tone or not at the same level, they aren’t a good fit. It’s better to say no than to let someone ruin your sacred space.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.” Ask yourself, are these people genuine? Will we gel? Will they tell me the truth, will they commiserate with me—even if I may not feel like I deserve their empathy? Over time, will my admiration for them evolve into love?
  • One last thing. Can you laugh with your group—I mean, really laugh?

Writers often admit that their writing has saved them from dark places. I have often wondered why writing groups don’t receive the same credit. Writing has certainly saved me from reality, but my writing groups have pulled me out of darkness and insecurity.

After two years in Calgary, my ex-husband accepted a transfer to Denver. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. At work, my team would be more concerned about losing another technical editor and The Salty Quills would carry on without me (we were growing anyway). My team threw me a going away party. When Tommy, exhausted from field work and Justin, weary from his own demanding job, met me at Porkies for what became our last meeting, they were crushed. I had believed I was just a pain in the ass and only tolerated for my skillset.

I discovered I was loved and valued just for myself.

So, when you decide to form your own writing group, be brave! Reach out to a few people who love to write, who have integrity (integrity builds trust) and who, over a space of years, you will suddenly discover are some of your closest, most cherished friends. I hope you will find that you’re becoming Borg-like, and that you can all voice your collective outrage at rejections and simultaneous surprise and congratulations at your successes, however you define them. I hope you discover that you are loved for writing you, but mostly just because you are you.

KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.