The Many Different Kinds of Writers Groups

by
Jessica Kashiwabara
2.16.22

Writing is a solitary act. As a writer, you’ve likely heard, or possibly even said, some version of this statement to explain the process of sitting alone at a desk, figuring out how to translate what’s in your mind onto a screen or paper. If you flip to the last pages of any book, however, there is almost always an acknowledgements page filled with a list of fellow writers to whom the author is grateful for reading early drafts and offering support and advice along the way. Evidence there is a community behind those printed words. Consider the famous literary circles in history such as the writers of Stratford-on-Odéon, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, who frequently met at Adrienne Monnier’s la Maison des Amis des Livres and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to discuss their work and share ideas. Or the South Side Writers Group in Chicago, with members such as Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, Fenton Johnson, Marian Minus, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright, who convened at the Abraham Lincoln Centre to discuss their ambitions as Black writers. If writing is a solitary act, being a writer certainly isn’t.

Writers need writers. And there are many ways to help one another’s practice. Some writers might need a critical eye for their work, some could be looking to bounce ideas off one another, while others might just want support to keep their writing going. For some, finding a writers group might happen naturally by meeting writers through workshops, conferences, or MFA programs. For others, the opportunity to meet like-minded writers can be more challenging. 

To assist and support those writers, in March 2021, Poets & Writers launched a free online platform that enables the kind of connection crucial to a successful writers group. Using Poets & Writers Groups, writers can seek out existing groups indexed on the site or create their own group and invite others to join. The only requirement is to create a free writer profile, which includes details about one’s writing experience and preferences for a writers group, such as meeting in person or online, frequency, genre, and group size. With a profile, writers can then message one another on the platform, whether it’s just to connect or to send an invitation or request to join a group. During the development of Poets & Writers Groups, I was part of a small team that brainstormed potential ways writers might want to use the platform; we came up with a list of terms to represent different types of groups, including accountability partners, critique, discussion, encouragement, inspiration, reading, submissions, tips, workshop, and writing exercises. As of this writing there are over a thousand individual profiles and nearly a hundred groups on the platform.

Michelle Tamara Cutler leads a group on Poets & Writers Groups called From Pitch to Publication, which meets monthly to workshop nonfiction pieces, discuss projects, and help find outlets to submit work for publication. The intimate group, consisting of only three writers, meets online from three different time zones—Pacific (California), Eastern (New York), and Central European (Spain). Because they write nonfiction, there is a special emphasis on privacy and trust, and feedback on each piece is an open dialogue and discussion. Another important factor for the group is that the members share an ambition to publish their work and have a certain level of experience with submissions so they can be strategic in their collaboration. “We set goals, follow up with each other about them, and share resources and opportunities that might be better for another member than ourselves,” says Cutler. 

Although there is an element of workshopping, Cutler emphasizes that sometimes only a “vote of confidence” is needed for a writer to work toward a final draft to submit for publication. If members don’t have a written piece to discuss, they bring in ideas, similar to a pitching session in a writers room—a familiar space for Cutler, who has developed and adapted nonfiction stories as a screenwriter. This could lead to suggestions for experimentation with new essay forms or supportive conversations on writing about difficult subject matter. “When you can bounce ideas off of each other in the earliest stages, talk through topics that have personal trauma attached, demystify taboo subjects, you have a better chance at finding your voice when writing about them,” says Cutler. 

Before the pandemic, Lynne Connor, a former assistant in the Readings & Workshops program of Poets & Writers, was running in-person workshops in Brooklyn, New York, through her literary arts space, Lost Lit. When the city’s 2020 lockdown extended into months, Connor had to give up the lease on the rented space for Lost Lit and put a pause on running her workshops. Still, the bond she shared with these writers was strong, especially with those who participated in her grief writing workshops, and Connor wanted to find a way to continue writing as a group. “I missed coming together in a supportive environment,” she says. “I write my best raw, emotional work by writing with others.”

A group of six writers from Connor’s workshops agreed to begin meeting once a month via Zoom. Each meeting started with a check-in to see how everyone was faring through the pandemic, and then the group was given ten to fifteen minutes to write from a curated prompt. Members could then read their work, but it was not required. Only positive feedback was given, with emphasis on encouragement and a focus on the craft of writing. “The mix of having a prompt and the time limit, then the boost in my writer’s self-esteem from the positive feedback—it’s just the right ingredients,” says Connor. “It made the pandemic bearable.”

Many writers groups are small and intimate, but there are also examples of larger groups that are open to new members. The East Austin Writing Project run by Marissa Anne Ayala is a public group that uses Meetup to organize meetings. The group, which is primarily focused on supporting writers and artists in the East Austin neighborhood of the Texas capital, was founded in 2018, managed by James Morena, and is now led by Ayala and Julia Bouchard. With more than six hundred members, the East Austin Writing Project caps each monthly meeting at seventeen members who sign up to attend—and there is usually a waiting list of about ten writers who may join the following month’s meeting. Some members consistently attend each month, while others flow in and out depending on their projects and schedules, but there is always a strong sense of community among the writers. At the start of the pandemic the group met virtually, but it has recently begun to meet in person again at small, locally owned businesses in East Austin such as coffee shops and restaurants. Writers working in all genres are accepted, and members include poets, prose writers, screenwriters, and songwriters. Meetings begin with twenty minutes of freewriting from a prompt curated by Ayala, and members can opt to read their work, but there is no critiquing. “For me the writing prompts are designed for each person to experience writing as a place of play,” says Ayala. “When we share our stream of consciousness writing, we are able to support one another through vulnerability and experimentation.”

Critique is reserved for the second part of the meeting in which three to four writers, who submit their works of poetry and prose to be read ahead of the meeting, have their pieces workshopped. Ayala carefully structures the traditional MFA workshop-style discussion with guidelines so that writers give and receive constructive and specific feedback. Members are encouraged to consider how best to help each individual writer and use the process to push forward their own artistic endeavors. “My goal with the East Austin Writing Project is to truly create community through the practice of writing as a collaborative act that brings together diverse perspectives, people, experiences, and art,” says Ayala.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Alyss Dixson, and Ashaki M. Jackson founded Women Who Submit (WWS) in Los Angeles in 2011 as a response to the lack of gender diversity in the publishing industry. What began as a small group of women writers hosting submission parties at one another’s homes has grown into an organization with over three hundred members in Los Angeles and twenty-seven additional chapters in the United States, as well as one in Mexico and another in France in the works. The flagship group in Los Angeles also hosts quarterly workshops and panels on aspects of submitting, publishing, and cultivating a writing career as an extension of their mission to empower women and nonbinary writers to submit their work for publication. While WWS isn’t a writers group per se—“The term implies we’re meeting to workshop or write; we’re more like a writers support group,” says Bermejo—it is another example of the myriad kinds of groups writers can look to for community.

Despite the growth of Women Who Submit, the sense of support and intimacy has not been lost: Submission parties still consist of small groups of writers meeting online or in physical spaces such as local coffee shops. Another aspect that hasn’t changed is the encouraging, uplifting atmosphere. “When we meet in person to submit in real time, we clap for each other when we hit Send,” says Bermejo. “It’s the best feeling to hear a roomful of writers clap for you. We also clap for being rejected. We celebrate every part of the publication process.” 

Whether it is about writing together, sharing resources, or cheering one another on, participating in a writers group expands the experience of being a writer and of the writing process. If you’re a writer feeling stuck and a little too buried in solitude, there is a group out there for you. And if you don’t find one that suits you, make your own. As Cutler says about the support she receives from her writers group: “We are all taking our writing lives out into the open; it helps to have people you can trust in your corner.” 

 

Jessica Kashiwabara is the digital director of Poets & Writers, Inc.