WRITING WORKSHOPS & SPECIAL INTEREST WRITING GROUPS
A writing workshop can be very useful in providing deadlines, feedback, and a sense of not being alone. You can join a workshop simply for the pleasure of getting together with others to share ideas and writings. Or you can let the workshop function as a sort of way-station towards publication: a place where you present a piece to a small, knowledgeable (usually sympathetic) circle, then refine and rewrite it before going public. Or both.
If you want to start a workshop, put a notice in the newspaper or on the bulletin board of your favorite local restaurant, yoga studio, bookstore, or wherever you see people you want to get to know more. Suggest a time and place to meet, then let the group decide on the ongoing structure in the first meeting. Some pre-planning can be decided by e-mail or telephone.
The exercises from writing books such as Writing Yourself Home or various online sites provide a quick way for a group to get started, assuming that not everyone has a work in progress. During the first meeting, you may want to write as a group, then share your work. On subsequent meetings, bring in xeroxed copies of exercises or other work completed at home. Let these exercises evolve into stories, poems, essays, which you continue to rewrite and refine in light of the group's feedback. It helps to keep a workshop small (about three to five working members is plenty). In a larger group, especially if each member writes a great deal, there is the problem of covering everyone's work in any sort of depth. How often you meet depends on you. Some groups meet weekly for six weeks, then never again. Others have been meeting once a month for years. The group that I'm in used to meet once a month, but now meets only when someone finishes a project and wants feedback on it. In general, all workshops are defined by time available, work produced, and the quality of the group's interaction.
Before asking a new member to join a group, it is a good idea to have this writer to come as a guest for several meetings. Try to find writers who are at about the same level of expertise and ambition. Avoid people who are highly defensive, excessively negative, or narcissistic.
The writing workshops that I've been in work this way: each member brings in a portion of a work in progress, hands out xeroxed copies to the group, then reads aloud. The members of the group then "workshop" the piece: How does it function as a whole? Do all the parts fit together? How can it be improved? Is the voice right? Is it clear? What succeeds best in the piece? What are its strengths? An honest but non-judgmental approach is always best when giving critiques in a workshop setting.
SPECIAL FOCUS WRITING GROUPS
The stress in your workshop may not be on writing at all, but a specific topic agreed upon by the group such as cancer, addiction, grief. Shared religious beliefs lend themselves to writing groups as well. I was part of a Dharma Writing Group which we all found very beneficial. In these groups, writing is used as a springboard for discussion, a way to get at difficult or partly understood material. But writing together and/or sharing what you've written creates a unique atmosphere. Offering your own words to others and responding to theirs is a form of generosity which can create a common bond as well as an appreciation of another's methods and techniques.
ONLINE WRITING GROUPS
Since everyone these days stays so busy, sometimes an e-mail workshop is better than a face-to-face one. This is especially true if the e-mail group is combined with an occasional meeting. Simply make an e-mail list on your mail program, putting everyone's e-mail into a single list. When someone gets a message, they press RESPOND TO ALL, thus everyone on the list receives the same e-mail. Be sure to include yourself in your list. When people in the workshop finish a story or a non-fiction piece, they send it as an e-mail attachment to those on the list. It might be helpful to set up guidelines in the beginning. Set a date--say May 1st to June 1st--when people will submit their stories. Then decide another set of dates for feedback--say June 1st to June 15th. It may be helpful to arrange a face-to-face meeting sometime after that. Then repeat the cycle over again, maybe once a quarter or once every two months, depending on the group.
GUIDELINES FOR OFFERING FEEDBACK