Writers: Get it Together

By Suzanne Alyssa Andrew

Lisa Moore, whose short story collection Open and first novel Alligator were both shortlisted for Canada’s big annual literary prize, the Giller, says the members of her writing collective are the catalysts to her success. “None of my writing would be any good without them,” she says. “Good writing requires lots of hands on it, and these guys are the first audience members I think of when I write.”

It’s time to dispatch with the masochistic stereotype that has writers working in solitary confinement under asylum-like conditions for long, tedious hours and emerging with a masterpiece. Good writers are as collaborative as a band of musicians or a team of hockey players. If writing is your vocation-that is, what you really want to do in life-and you want to improve your craft, making it happen may be as easy as creating your own group.

Boasting members who’ve all been published and celebrated for their work, including Michael Winter, Ramona Dearing and Beth Ryan, Moore’s St. John’s-based writing collective, the Burning Rock, is the most famous writing group in the country. The group met 17 years ago at a writing class taught by Larry Matthews at Memorial University and got along so well they’ve been meeting over snacks and drinks at members’ houses and exchanging work ever since.

From the very beginning, each member agreed to bring at least 500 words of writing to each meeting. That’s a page-the beginnings of story, scene and character development. And while the group meets less frequently now, it met at least every two weeks for many years. Members read their work aloud to each other, comment on it, talk about books they’re reading and socialize. They’ve also shared information about getting published, and collected the best of their work in an anthology, Hearts Larry Broke.

Moore says the opportunity to read work aloud makes a significant difference: “The response you get is immediate and visceral,” she says. “You can feel the audience listening or losing interest or occasionally laughing.”

Yet the members have not only been committed to writing from the very beginning, they also believe in each others’ work and encourage each other through rough patches. “Everyone’s going to have bad writing days,” she says. “You need something to get you through that, and that would be friends.”

Before she was Lisa Moore: Giller Prize Finalist, she was Lisa Moore: writing student and group member. Success hasn’t turned her solitary-she still plays that latter role as part of the collective. “We will always keep working together,” she says. “Until we die.” So even if you’re a no name in CanLit today, taking a little DIY initiative and starting your own writing group could make you a recognizable Canadian Literary Idol tomorrow. If Stitch ‘n’ Bitching can transform tedious knitting into fun, writing groups and collectives can turn monastic wordsmithing into a wild word jungle (for writers who’d rather work that way).

Kira Vermond, a frequently published freelance writer and seasoned writing-group ringleader first started a writing group with three members nine years ago. After adding new members over the years and watching them grow, she highly recommends groups for writing newbies: “It’s a great way for beginning writers to find out about the editing process and develop a thicker skin,” she says.

While you can join an existing group, finding one that fits can be difficult, as author and poet Chandra Mayor has discovered: “I’m in sort of a weird place here in Winnipeg,” she says. “There’s kind of a generation gap (both chronologically and in terms of experience)-beginners and very established writers, but not many of us in between.” She also notes that ageism can be a factor. You may not click with writers in your group if they’re all older or younger than you. Although Mayor participated in a group as a teenager, she only went a couple of times: “The other (much older) group members seemed to feel that I needed group therapy from them (for my troubled life) more than literary criticism,” she says.

So where do you find people in your age-range who want to write as much as you do? Start culling your network-ask your friends and send emails. Or meet new writer friends by taking a workshop (see Writing Workshops in Canada, next page). Once you’ve got quorum, here’s some advice from Moore and Vermond on how to establish your group and keep it going:

1. Form a good group: Work with like-minded people who are as committed to writing as you are.

2. Make writing a ritual: The more you make writing part of your daily life, the more you’ll feel like a real writer. Meet with your group regularly, whether it’s weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.

3. Create pressure to produce: Agree to bring in writing each time. Some writing groups also do a timed group writing exercise each session.

4. Have a good time: Get to know your writer mates by enjoying food and drink together. Establishing trust and friendship makes critiques easier.

5. Learn to give and take good criticism: Be gentle yet constructive, especially on fragile first-drafts. Listen carefully to criticism of your work and learn to not take it personally.

6. Keep focused: Talk about the text and veer discussion back from tangents. Remember you’re all there to help each other become better writers.

Writing Workshops in Canada, from Coast to Coast
If you want to meet writers to start a group with, or if you’re ready for some high-brow criticism on your manuscript, don’t worry-an MFA in creative writing isn’t the only scholarly avenue available to emerging writers. Writing workshops and seminars across the country provide mentorship, professional criticism, encouragement and support. While some workshops appear pricey, they’re comparable to an average university course and are staffed by well-known authors and poets.

Booming Ground at the University of British Columbia
Location: Your home computer.
Dates and length: 16-week programs starting in Jan., May and Sept.
Price: $775. Partial scholarships.
Past faculty: Annabel Lyon, Evelyn Lau, Patrick Lane and Lawrence Hill.
What you get: Mentorships, online forums and groups, critical feedback and tips. Ideal for long works-in-progress.
Website: http://bg.arts.ubc.ca/online

Sage Hill Writing Experience
Location: Lumsden, SK.
Dates and length: July 24-August 3
Price: $895 (instruction, accommodation and meals). Full and partial scholarships.
Past faculty: Jane Urquhart, Erin Mouré, Lee Gowan and Di Brandt.
What you get: Intensive workshops, panel discussions, writing life sessions for writers of all ages, genres and experience.
Website: www.sagehillwriting.ca

The Banff Centre Writing Studio
Location: Banff, AB.
Dates and length: Five weeks, May-June
Price: $1,870 plus $1,855 for accommodation, and $726 for meals. Partial scholarships.
Past faculty: Colin McAdam, Michael Winter, Helen Humphreys, Don McKay.
What you get: Serious literary types work with two or three instructors plus a voice/relaxation coach. Separate wired program also offered.
Website: www.banffcentre.ca

Humber School For Writers
Location: Toronto, ON.
Dates and length: One week in July
Price: $989 (instruction and lunches). Partial scholarships.
Past faculty: David Bezmogis, Kim Moritsugu, Wayson Choy, Isabel Huggan.
What you get: Ambitious writers attend intensive workshops, panel discussions and writing life sessions. Separate correspondence program also offered.
Website: http://creativeandperformingarts.humber.ca/writers

Quebec Writers’ Federation Mentorship Program
Location: Montreal, QC.
Dates and length: Four months: Dec-March
Price: The program is fully funded for all students accepted.
Past faculty: Julie Keith, Ian McGillis, Terry Rigelhof and Joel Yanofsky.
What you get: English writers living in Quebec receive career support, manuscript assistance, information on publishing and tips for securing an agent.
Website: www.qwf.org

Maritime Writers’ Workshop
Location: University of New Brunswick, Fredericton.
Dates and length: one week in July
Price: $395 (instruction). Scholarships available.
Past faculty: Jane Urquart, Jan Zwicky, Bill Gaston, Roo Borson.
What you get: Hands-on training for writers of all levels and genres.
Website: www.extend.unb.ca