Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guest in Progress: Marilyn Zembo Day, Part II

Here’s Part Two of Marilyn Zembo Day’s discussion of writing groups: today it’s the nitty-gritty of how to put together and run an effective group. If you missed Part One, it’s here. And if you’d like to read more about writing groups, you can find my take in this post, and another point of view from poet Anna Leahy here.

Creating a Writing Group: Magical Ingredients

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,/ Wool of bat, and tongue of dog…” You don’t need the spelling-binding words of Shakespeare’s witches to create a writing group that works for you, but there are ingredients that must be considered as you ponder the composition of one that can nurture you and others. Your metaphorical cauldron must fill with answers to the basic questions addressed in any good piece of journalism—who, what, when, where, how and why—although not necessarily in that order.

Your first step in forming a group should be the last of the ingredients listed above, because it defines almost everything else you’ll do. Think of it as the overriding “spell” you’re casting, planning to enhance your artistic life. Ask yourself why you want to become part of a writing group. Are you looking for feedback on your writing from other writers? Serious critique? Inspiration to get past writers’ block? A source for networking, keeping the company of other writers? Are you a new writer, just beginning to put words to paper, looking for support and a safe place to share first attempts?

In my case, I needed the support of other writers to keep me going beyond the International Women’s Writing Guild conference, and I found I wasn’t alone in my desire. Over the years of WomanWords, I sometimes heard busy women say to me, “You know, this is often the only time I get to write.” On occasion those same women drafted something so compelling during a group meeting that they pulled out an extra half-hour or hour during the following weeks to hone their work. A few have even had those pieces published. This is the alchemy of the group: something stirs the cauldron of creation when we get together; something transforms.

The Why has lots to do with the What. What you want to create. What you want to nurture. A safe space was paramount for WomanWords and I knew that the mix of creative people would enhance the possibilities for emerging ideas. Listening to each others’ stories, both the written words and the sharing of experiences, helps members to gain perspective about their commitment to their art. I decided these issues were more important to me than creating a critique group. As women met each other, serious line-by-line critiquing might become an alternative for them to consider, separate from WomanWords.

We are influenced by the narratives of others, which is another good reason to join a group. When people complain that they haven’t been writing, I tell them they’re always writing: everything they do and see is about gathering stories. Reading and listening to other writers share their work plants seeds for their own creations… or moves them to finally start the story that’s been fermenting inside them for years.

Stirring the ingredients in your writing group cauldron, you might find that the answer to What goes deeper and becomes more complicated. Will you write during get-togethers or simply bring previously written work to elicit feedback? Do you prefer a group of genre-specific writers (literary fiction, romance, poetry, nonfiction, etc.)? Are you more interested in a “social” group that networks, plans readings, and organizes other activities? Are you contemplating an internet/e-mail exchange? Remember: you’re forming this group because you’re looking for something that’s missing in your creative life so hone in on exactly what it is you require, knowing you will find others with the same needs. And it only takes two to start a group—two people with the same love of words and intention to write.

I realized that the company of women writers worked better for me. I’d found that groups in which men participated, while also excellent places to learn and enhance craft, didn’t develop the same aura of support that women’s gatherings seemed to engender naturally (at least for me). Maybe too much testosterone, I thought, competition reigns over nurturing. Much as I love men, I decided it was a circle of women that I craved.

Another side of What includes who facilitates the group (who’s the boss?). There are two options—you, the creator of the group, can facilitate every session and determine content, structure, etc.; or, alternatively, you could form a more “democratic” group in which members make all of the decisions. There are pluses and minuses with either option. Keep in mind that you’re organizing this group because you need it; the additional benefit is that it helps other writers as well. While you’ll do the bulk of the “work” (which I find to be creative play) for every session for the first option, the second one could eventually subvert your primary goal, as a friend of mine learned some years ago.

A few months after the birth of WomanWords, over lunch at the ’97 International Women’s Writing Guild conference, an IWWG sister from Canada cautioned me about “getting too democratic” with the group. Pat related the story of her own writing group, from which she’d resigned after many years even though she’d been one of its founders. “It wasn’t that they weren’t doing good things,” she said. “It’s just that everyone had their say and it eventually went in a totally different direction than how we started out. It became something else, and I wasn’t getting what I needed from it any more.” Groups don’t last forever, of course, but you might not want to set the wheels turning faster toward a goal you didn’t envision.

Based on Pat’s experience, I decided I would facilitate all sessions. This didn’t exclude the possibility of others presenting a portion of the program, either volunteering to do so or when I asked someone to lead (such as when my friend Judy set up a labyrinth and had us writing from a walking meditation). It ensured that WomanWords would always be my creation, a vehicle both to mentor other women writers and to jump-start my own Muse. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t listen to suggestions from participants. Dictators don’t make good facilitators. A good workshop leader strives to be egalitarian, generous and inspiring. S/he tries to be encouraging rather than autocratic. And it’s especially important in a creative group that s/he never impose her own vision on others.

The magical Who ingredient in forming your group ties in with how you answered What—and there’s a How part to this one too (i.e., how do you find them?). If you’ve already determined what kind of group you want to organize, look for built-in sources for potential members. In my case, it was women—I was already a member of IWWG, a great resource for names of women in my area interested in writing. I also belonged to a couple of other women’s groups. All of these provided PR possibilities.

Think about who will make up your group and expect to target places where they’ll see your call for participants. For example, you may want the company and feedback of a genre-specific group. If so, find out if there are professional groups in this genre; e.g., romance writers, sci-fi writers, etc. (check out for a good listing). Join, get their newsletters, see if there’s a local chapter where you might meet others interested in a smaller group, and/or attend one of their conferences to meet people. Or maybe you’re looking to meet with writers working at the same level as you are. Perhaps you have a targeted group in mind: seniors writing memoirs, students, survivors of abuse, children of alcoholics…? Keep in mind your intended group make-up and you’ll be planning your How-To-Make-It-Happen even before composing the first invitational flyer! And always, always, always bring your announcements to bookstores, libraries, and open poetry mics (where else would you find writers?).

Before drafting your announcement, you’ll also need to decide about the Where and When of the group. Again, it’s your group. It’s nice to be democratic—you could put out an announcement noting you’ll decide on a convenient time for everyone once you have a list of interested parties; however, if you get 10 takers you could get 10 different days and times, with few matching your availability. Better to decide when you can best facilitate; then put out the word. Those who really want to be there will respond and those who would’ve liked to, but couldn’t manage it, may contact you to ask that you keep them in mind if the dates/times change.

Even as you select dates and times convenient for yourself, however, keep in mind the population that you are targeting. If you’re retired and want a daytime writing group, be aware that you’re most likely going to fill the room with seniors and perhaps a stay-at-home mom or two (if they’re lucky enough to find a babysitter). Daylight hours on weekdays won’t work if you want a more diverse group, age-wise, and certainly not if you hoped for students (unless it’s summertime). You are never going to pick the perfect time for everyone—so make it good for you and hopefully convenient for a few other like-minded writers

your group will meet is another critical issue. Place is important: it must feel safe and be comfortable for attendees; it should provide sufficient privacy so as to support confidentiality; it must be as quiet and distraction-free as possible. Is it amenable to writing, e.g., does it have chairs, tables, sofas, cushions needed? Is it conveniently located, easy to get to for attendees? What about parking? If you’re not meeting in someone’s home (meeting in your home has its advantages, although you might waive this option until you get to know group members better), will you have to pay a fee to use the space? If so, will you charge a fee or ask for donations to cover costs?

After mulling over all of the above questions, you’ll want to have some idea of How to structure meetings. The answer to this question need not be etched in stone before distribution of notices about the group, but it is helpful for the person picking up your flyer to know what kind of group you’re anticipating. It could save you a few minutes on the phone, too, explaining to the caller that , No, you’re not sending around writing beforehand so everyone can do extensive critiquing, or Yes, you will write during the session but, No, you won’t be required to read it out loud if you don’t want to. Perhaps you expect to write from prompts. Maybe each session will be themed. Certainly you’ll want people to know if they should bring work written outside the group, for sharing and/or feedback.

WomanWords sessions are scheduled for two-and-one-half hours, with a 10-minute break (with light refreshments), and they center around a theme (some have been The Woman in the Mirror, Masks, ReWriting Fairy Tales and Bedtime Stories We Grew With, First Kisses/First Loves, Boxes, Where I Come From, What Remains…—more than 100 themes over the years). I light a candle when we commence, stating that it symbolizes our Creative Fire and that we acknowledge it is our time to write, our time to be creative. At the end of the session (before networking time), the candle is snuffed, noting that “We extinguish the candle but never our Creative Fire. It burns within us, always.” Everyone then stands and repeats the WomanWords affirmation, “We are Women Who Write!” The power of ritual to suggest and inspire works for us—we invite our Muse, telling him/her that we have eked out time from our busy lives to write.

Groups are organic, which is the true Magic. Put out the word and something happens. You find each other and meet, you talk, you write, you grow. There could be issues to overcome (but that’s a whole other essay), and it might not last forever. Perhaps it expands beyond your needs or desires; or you move in another direction, away from the core group. No matter. Participating in a writing group changes you, opens you up to new ideas, offers connections to others who—like yourself—feed on the sumptuous feast of words. Remember the Magic… it works. ~~Marilyn Zembo Day

About: MARILYN ZEMBO DAY writes and collages in a suburb of Albany, NY. Her work has appeared in Akros Review (U. of Akron), Knock! (Antioch U., Seattle), Oasis Journal 2005, Sage Woman, the Albany Times Union, Metroland, PEER GLASS—An Anthology: Writings from Hudson Valley Peer Groups and other print venues, as well as online at WriterAdvice! Several of her essays have aired on public radio, and she has been featured at many open poetry mics. She is a Regional Contact for the International Women’s Writing Guild ( and a member and former Board Member of the Hudson Valley Writing Guild ( Contact her at


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.