I strayed this week. After years of temptation, I drove 50 miles out of town to meet with writers in a workshop group of which I am not a member. My own writing group is small, sometimes redundant, and some of the members call me a meanie, the Simon Cowell of the group. [Ha ha.] Well, I don’t think that’s so funny. So, as much as I love the members of my writing group, as committed as I am to remaining one of its members, I decided to step out on them and visit the largest and best known writing group in the Metroplex, the DFW Writers’ Workshop.
I’ve told you how my little group meets in the café at a SuperTarget and has to enunciate over the angry sounds of the slushie machine. In contrast, the DFWWW has a paid membership sufficient enough to allow it to rent a community center one night a week and even pay an off-duty cop to patrol the parking lot. While we have a group leader, they have a President, two vice-presidents, a director, a treasurer and a couple other officers whose job titles I don’t recall. They run a yearly conference. Their ranks span the gamut from Harlequin writers to writers of literary fiction. Many are published, which is hardly the case for my little group, unless you count the anthology they self-published. After rejections and acceptances are celebrated, DFWWW breaks the crowd into smaller groups for critique. Of course, each critique group has its own room. Impressive? You bet.
To ensure their members get what they pay for, there are specific rules to control time usage. Members who sign up to read are allowed 15 minutes tops. Both reading and critique time is handled with a stopwatch. Writers may not “waste” critique time arguing, explaining, or otherwise justifying their work. And non-dues paying visitors, such as myself, have to keep their traps shut. I thought that would be difficult for me, but as it turned out, staying silent and listening to the others was reassuring. These people went for the bone. Spilled blood didn’t faze them one bit. Sure, they began each critique with a token positive comment, but they quickly got that out of the way and focused on the weak points in the craft, plainly stating what wasn’t working and offering constructive options. I’d heard other writers call the critiques at DFWWW “mean,” but I say they were stunningly accurate. This is not to say that the writing offered up was weak. Five of the six offerings I heard were quite good and, I’m sure, will be even better because of the critiques; the other? Well, a person shouldn’t use words he can’t pronounce and/or doesn’t know the meaning of. But he’ll get better, too, if he has the fortitude to continue.
As I sat silently listening, I thought about how I’ve had to defend myself in my little group against being called mean, an accusation that is always leveled with half a smile. While I will point out flashes of brilliance and always make sure I say at least one positive thing as I critique, I use my critique time to dig quickly into what I perceive could be improved. Yet there are a few in my small, Target-based group (not all) who only say positive things about every piece of writing they see, hoping to encourage, they argue. It’s that pop-psychology idea that encouragement will lead us to do more and that practice will make us better. Well, no. It won’t. It’ll lead us to produce more of the same. I have asked my little local group to be rough on me, to ferret out the problems I can’t see, but certain members simply can’t bring themselves to do that. Their nice-only critiques are impractical, it seems to me. In fact, I don’t consider them “nice” at all. In this case, being “mean” is the “nice” thing to do. Fortunately, I have friends in cyberspace who’ll provide me critiques that keep me humble—and improving.
I won’t give up my little, local group with their well-intentioned, Christian critiques. But that 50 miles between them and the larger group? Somehow it doesn’t seem as far as it used to. And guess who finally got me to try the new group? None other than the leader of my smaller group. Guess I’m not the only writer stepping out, looking for more and better feedback.