Reenvisioning the Writers Group

Yona Harvey
From the March/April 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

If you’re like me, the only thing more difficult than struggling to revise a draft that’s stalled is struggling to revise someone else’s draft that’s stalled. Let’s face it: Reading other people’s writing for the sole purpose of giving them feedback or, worse, “fixing it” is taxing. Hence I don’t often recommend writers groups. This admission may sound contradictory to anyone who has heard me gush over my current writers group, with whom I’ve been meeting since roughly 2010, three years before my first poetry collection was published. But this writers group succeeds where others have failed because it’s generative rather than critical and is respectful of everyone’s time. We do zero “workshopping” together and focus instead on what’s working in everyone’s writing and on showing up for one another each week.

We’re sometimes told that a workshopping writers group will give us multiple perspectives on our writing that will help move it forward. But honestly I’d suggest avoiding a multitude of takes on one’s writing. As the adage goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. That said, I’d offer three writers group options that can enhance and support your work over many years:

(1) a long-term, generative writers group that focuses on accountability and what’s working in your writing, (2) a short-term writers group of three readers who can rely on one another for targeted, critical feedback, or (3) one or two trusted readers to whom you can quickly turn in a pinch—most likely you’ve built a relationship with them already, possibly from writers groups past.

If a writer is lucky enough to integrate these three groups into their writing life, they’ve hit the jackpot. Still need convincing? Allow me to elaborate on each and how creating your own version might help.

On Option 1: In 2000 the poet Deborah Bogen founded a foolproof writers group, which she hosted in her home until 2015 when another writer took it over. The meetings began in Deb’s Pittsburgh kitchen, where a heavy kettle sat on the gas-burning stove, warming the water for tea. Serving tea was ritual. As I stood near the stove on my first visit, deciding which teabag to plunk into my cup, the stressors of the day, the roadblocks, the last-minute back-and-forth about whether to even show up all faded away. In the moment the most pressing questions were: chamomile or blood orange? Black or green? By the time I’d decided, everything that seemed to keep me from the writing I loved to practice had dissipated.

That brief kitchen gathering also permitted us writers to quickly greet and check in with one another. Banter was minimal and didn’t feel burdensome. Time passed not by the clock’s hands but by the fading temperature of one’s teacup. After everyone’s tea was steeped, we transitioned to the tune of Deb’s quick “Okay” and settled in circlelike formation on the living-room sofa, on lounge chairs, or along the floor, where unbeknownst to me, I would sit for many more gatherings, comfortable with my back against the wall and notebook ready. No one used a laptop; we all wrote by hand. After a few short weeks I understood why Deb’s format worked, and I continued coming back.

First, Deb kept the group on task. She opened by reading two or three poems, which created a ritual that attuned us to the present. By the time the first poem was recited, the tone for the evening had been fully set. Next, Deb gave us two short prompts. The first was about two or three minutes long and prompted a catalogue or list. The second lasted about five minutes and resulted in a run-on sentence. These prompts relaxed my mind and allowed me to let go of any attachment to perfection or performance. There was no pressure to write the next great poem but simply to get something down on the page, maybe something I’d been carrying all day or all week but hadn’t fully accessed. The third step was writing a longer response—and in this case Deb invited us to continue or expand whatever ideas had surfaced in the first short prompts or to pivot and move to another idea or topic. The catalogue and run-on sentence requirements were dropped.

At the end of those thirty minutes of writing, we’d take turns reading. After each recitation the group would respond by calling out a few lines that resonated with them. Recently I asked Deb via e-mail why she chose this approach rather than a typical workshop format or some other method of critique. “What we ignore (the less good bits),” she replied, “will fall away over time. We need to notice and hear what is strong.” Deb calls this method “exploiting atrophy.” Part of my love for this writers group style comes from Deb’s approach. Learning to recognize and develop my strengths has helped me grow as a writer. The poet Doug Anderson of Claremont, California, introduced Deb to this kind of writing practice around 1997. Back then Anderson would lead the group and invite Deb to substitute whenever he needed a break from leading.

“Sometimes it takes another writer to say, ‘No—you have some good stuff here to work with,’ before we are willing to give our own writing a chance,” Deb says. That makes sense. How often have you heard a writer shout out a beloved high school teacher or mentor who told them their writing had promise? Fewer are the writers who were inspired because someone said their work was awful. Sometimes writers groups can get caught in the rut of “keeping it real,” becoming an echo chamber of everything that’s wrong with a piece. That feels like workshop territory.

“Since we are so prone to negativity about our own work,” she says, “I tried to combat that with no negativity in the group. For example I am always too wordy in my first drafts. That’s okay, and I can fix it easily in rewrites. It would be counterproductive to call that out on a weekly basis—at best it would waste time; at worst it would undermine my confidence.”

Thinking of writers groups past, I can’t say my confidence was always undermined as a participant. But I recall feeling consistently frustrated about mismanaged time. Often there was simply too much socializing—fussing over snacks and drinks, catching up about work and personal lives, and possibly even delaying discussions about a piece that wasn’t very strong. Simply put we didn’t give enough attention to our writing, which was the reason we had gathered in the first place. If the demands of a full-time job and other responsibilities have you pressed for time, if you want to host people writing at different stages of development, or if you and your fellow writers are working in different genres, Deb’s approach might be perfect for you. You’ll be introduced to new writers during the opening recitation and generate several pages of new work. And even with as many as nine participants, the writing session typically lasts about two hours. Most of all you’ll train yourself to show up—for your group and for your writing—consistently. “I used to think that I was training my mind to work in the [weekly group] in the very same way you train a puppy to pee on the paper,” Deb says. “It’s not glamorous—just effective.”

On Option 2: If you’re confident about generating new work on your own and you’re not fond of writing prompts, a short-term writers group with targeted focus might prove the better choice for you. Later in my career I participated in this kind of group with poets Toi Derricotte and Sheryl St. Germain. Each of us had published books of poems and felt comfortable with our work and with the work of one another. Back then we were all teaching while drafting nonfiction projects and struggling to carve space to write for longer periods of time. We decided to take advantage of our winter, spring, and summer breaks. We typically met at one another’s homes for three consecutive days, 9 AM to 5 PM. We cut off wireless access, wrote in separate rooms, and minimized hosting. The “host” had coffee, tea, and a few scant snacks available, but otherwise, we each packed our own meals. We wrote from 9 AM to 3 PM and then read what we’d generated (or in some cases revised or edited) from 3 PM to 5 PM, offering suggestions and ideas about where the pieces seemed to be going. We headed home at 5 PM, sharp. As with Deb’s group, knowing that we’d be reading to one another at the end kept us accountable and focused even though we wrote at our own pace without any prompts. This method is also great for writers who trust one another, work in the same genre, and have a targeted piece they’re aiming to draft, revise, or complete. I wouldn’t recommend it for writers at radically different stages in their writing.

On Option 3: Every writer can benefit from a targeted exchange with someone who knows their work well and who can provide them clear feedback. Often we come to know these trusted readers from various encounters—high school or college friendships, writers retreats, community writers groups, MFA programs, and so on. My go-to person is the poet Douglas Kearney, with whom I’ve been exchanging work since he and I were undergraduate students. Different readers have shuffled in and out of orbit, but Doug remains constant. We can turn to each other in a pinch because we’ve literally read each other’s writing at every stage of our writing lives. Often these are reportage (projects we’re planning or working on) and read-alouds. We don’t do “line by line” or close readings unless we’re in completely new territory (experimenting with different media, genre hopping). There’s no competition, and if there’s tension at all it usually has to do with creating the time and space to chat. If you have a reliable reader, do everything you can to nurture and reciprocate your relationship. If you’re not there yet, try experimenting with some version of a writers group until you find that person.

Even pinpointing someone with whom you can exchange writing prompts or word-count goals from a distance can be helpful. Dozens of “accountability groups” have been cited online in recent years. Deb’s writing prompts always included a brief list of words or phrases Deb printed and handed to us before the twenty-minute prompt began. She invited us to incorporate three or four of these phrases into our writing. Sometimes the words were taken from the opening poems she’d read. Other times they came from science or food articles that offered us an alternate language—something to help us transcend our typical habits or word choices. A poet might begin the framework for a poem, and a fiction writer or essayist could begin the framework for a scene or story. The genre of writing honestly didn’t matter.

“This way of writing,” Deb recalls, “free-handwriting with prompts [and] a few distractions thrown in, worked well for me and helped me write my first two books.” The same was true for me. But I hope it goes without saying that no writers group on the planet can write our books for us. At the end of the day we’re responsible for sifting through the notebooks, the comments, and the feedback and learning to trust and articulate our own visions for our writing. It’s a solitary practice that writers groups can help us disrupt and navigate less fretfully.


Yona Harvey’s most recent poetry collection is You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love (Four Way Books, 2020). She also cowrote the Marvel series World of Wakanda and Black Panther & the Crew.