The Perfectly Balanced Writers Group

Aimee Christian
From the March/April 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I got kicked out of the first writers group I ever joined. I answered a Craigslist ad back in 2001 and exchanged a few reply-all e-mails with strangers. I felt hopeful as I trudged through New York City’s snowy St. Mark’s Place to a stuffy, overcrowded café on Avenue A and Tenth Street. I tried to appear knowledgeable when the others, all NYU grad students, talked enthusiastically about their work. I was an avid writer too but only in my journal.

They’d chosen me because I’d already finished grad school, but I disappointed them quickly. I had studied ancient languages; I’d never taken a writing class before. I didn’t know what workshopping was. But I was a quick study, I promised.

“Explain like I’m a little kid,” I said. “I’ll learn fast.”

They exchanged dubious glances. “Eh,” they agreed. “There’s really nothing to it.”

My writing was dark and full of self-pity. It was helping me cope with the complexities of being an adoptee reuniting with my birth mother. It was a lot to process, and I had little self-awareness. All these years later I’m still not sure what got me kicked out of the group after just one meeting. Instead of an editorial letter or explanation, they had one guy dump me via text message. I was so humiliated that I didn’t try to write again outside of my journal for almost a decade.

In 2010 an old friend and I became writing partners. We’d met on LiveJournal in the nineties and had stayed close. She lived in San Francisco and was a poet. I still lived in New York City and was a would-be memoirist. On and off for about five years, we’d swap tentative pages. She wanted to self-publish chapbooks. I wanted to publish essays and articles and work my way to traditional publication. We didn’t understand each other’s genres. We met on Skype and congratulated each other for being brave and writing pretty lines. I pointed out her improper use of punctuation; she doggedly flagged my sentences that began with conjunctions. The time difference was tough. We let our exchanges peter out because of the kids and work, always saying, “I miss our sessions. Let’s get together soon!”

My writing didn’t improve from our swaps. Hers may have, but it certainly wasn’t because of me.

It was time for some writing classes. Having relocated to the Boston area, I looked to GrubStreet’s memoir courses. I submitted my favorites of the pages I’d made my poet friend read. I sat in the cone of silence, as per that gag rule for a writer being critiqued that was standardized at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a lifetime ago. I listened while everyone else picked apart my words. I realized that while I was finally learning to workshop the way the academy taught, the way the academy taught did not feel inclusive. I wanted to be able to explain myself in workshop because if I could, then my peers could help me explain myself better on the page. Still, I was inspired and motivated to write more and better because I was starting to feel like part of a community of writers. I had peers now, and we respected one another and one another’s work even if the paradigm we were coming up in needed to shift.

Fourteen years from the dump text and five years from the first page swap with the poet, I was published for the first time, in 2015. When I’d finally published more than just a handful of essays and written the draft of a book in GrubStreet’s yearlong intensive memoir class, I was ready to buckle down and edit my manuscript. I decided to form a writers group myself.

This time around I knew I didn’t want to deal with anyone like the twenty-eight-year-old Aimee character. My wise narrator still didn’t like how I was dumped but knew I hadn’t been ready for a writers group with a bunch of MFA students. I’d begun to forge strong connections at GrubStreet, especially among those whose experiences in workshop mirrored mine: those who loved the community but agreed that the workshop needed to evolve from the traditional model. These were the people I asked first.

I soon had a critical mass of like-minded folks. We began with a series of surveys and planning meetings to lay a strong foundation. The group structured submission deadlines, page limits, attendance, and other logistics. We abolished the cone of silence, opting instead for questions and open discussion in workshop. And the rule we never, ever break is that we’ve agreed to be direct and honest with one another. So if someone needs or wants to bend or break a different rule or something else isn’t working well, we discuss it. We leave time in every meeting for discussion, so it’s built in. Part of our process.

The group is diligent about this so we can concentrate on the writing. The structure gives us the space to be serious about our work. Even when our skins are not thick, we act as though they are because we are here to be pushed, not to be complimented. We come right out and say the thing. We say it bluntly but with love, and we do our best to receive it with love, because that’s what we want for ourselves when it’s our turn. Every time we meet, there’s good news: publications, agents, now a book deal (not mine)!

Through my website I teach a one-day class on starting and improving writers groups, and people are always telling me about problems not dissimilar to those I experienced in my first and second groups. I’m not the only one who found it so much easier to say, “Your lines are so pretty, your writing is so brave” and correct conjunctions and punctuation. It’s also easier to send a mortifying breakup text than set clear guidelines and offer straightforward feedback. So is quitting writing out of humiliation or resentment. I tell my students about my group now, and some are amazed. I get it. Direct communication is not for everyone. It takes hard work to speak up.

When Barack Obama was president, he had a plaque on his desk that said “Hard things are hard.” I love this phrase and say it to myself whenever I have to do something I know will be difficult. Taking critical feedback when it comes to my personal stories, my pages, my darlings might be the hardest thing in the world for this writer. I know of nothing more difficult, except for giving critical feedback to another writer about their personal stories and pages. But for me both are easier than facing—or letting writers I love face—harsh comments or criticism that might’ve been avoided through early feedback. The end result is that my workshopping has become more meaningful and my writing is improving—and I know I have my beloved writers group, my poet friend, Obama, and even those NYU students to thank for it.


Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction and essays about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, and other publications. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus Magazine and is an instructor at GrubStreet. She is currently working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her website is