I joined my fiction writing group in summer 2003. I can date it to then because my yellow lab puppy got me in and he’s now 12. My puppy, Caleb, found Saul, another yellow lab puppy in Prospect Park one Sunday morning. Saul’s owner and I got to talking about MFA’s and our writing and he invited me to apply to his writing group, which had already been going for about 6 years. It boggles my mind and makes me very happy to contemplate that I have met with the same writers every month for 11 years. We’re usually eight members. Although there has been plenty of turn-over, there’s also a core of us that have been around for 7 or more years. I’m currently the longest standing member, but not by a long shot and there’s even a member who pre-dated me, but who was on hiatus when I joined and has since returned. That happens too. Since I’ve been involved, I think we’ve sold/published 5 books between us, my own first novel included. We’ve also seen marriages, babies, new jobs, apartment and house purchases, tenure achieved and so on. We’ve probably shared stories and photos about travels to every continent during these years. We seriously improve each other’s work and we support each other. There’s a social aspect to the group too of course. We share a take-out Thai dinner at the start of each group. We often go to each other’s parties, or attend events together. But I think like great friends who don’t want to ruin their friendship with sex, the social never overrides the work of writing. We stick to business, a lot. It’s rather hard to get into our group, unless you’re the type who finds writing personal statements, responding to 60 pages of strangers’ work with line-editing and lengthy comments, and auditioning at a group meeting by actively participating, to be just a regular, low-pressure way to join something. I have often said it’s as tough to get into as grad school. But why not? My MFA was two years; this is a lifetime membership, as I clearly aim to prove. Writing groups take on all sorts of incarnations. I’m always amused when newer members tell us about their previous groups: their pot years, their divorce years, etc. Many of these groups share their writing in group, short submissions read aloud and discussed. Ours is the most rigorous kind I know of. You must submit your work in advance, you must comment on approximately 30 pages from two writers a month, you must fully engage. Submissions come in 7 days before group. So for one week a month, I’m reading and commenting on 60 pages of fiction. Most often this means I’m not doing my own writing that week. I’m no mathematician, but I estimate I’ve reduced my own writing by 25% to be an Exile. (Our group has been known as the Exiles for 18 years, I guess.) We’ve lost some of our best members for this reason, the bite it takes out of your time. For me, it’s absolutely a net gain. Many, many times, I’ve overcome a slump, a block, general laziness, to have something new to submit to them. I’m always excited to hear their feedback, even the times when I know I won’t edit right away, or even for a long time, which has happened often. We have pretty much across the board seen multiple drafts of each other’s novels over the years as the writer revises. It’s very useful and validating to see how much we all need to revise, how the drafts get stronger and stronger. Whenever I ruminate on the good fortune in my life, the Exiles is way up there. We are sharing not only our manuscripts, but our dreams. We are so aware of how much we are each striving. With our other jobs, our families, our kids, living in NYC, and steadfastly continuing to write.
What is your writing group like? How does it run? And let me know if you’re in NYC and want to apply to be a lifelong Exile.