“We should have cake,” I suggested. Carol, one of our long-time members, said, “Sure,” while Amy, my co-leader said to Carol, “What about your Depression era cake?” And so a party was organized, just like that, in celebration of our writer’s group meeting together for the past two years.
When my kids were growing up we had parties in our neighborhood for events of much less significance. My neighbor Chris was ready to celebrate anything from a doll’s birthday, to the anniversary of when their sandbox was built, to all the traditional and not so traditional holidays. We had neighborhood potlucks before going out trick or treating. Eyeball chili was just one of the appetizing foods on the menu. We dyed easter eggs together, made graham cracker ginger bread houses at Christmas, and had tea parties for all the American Girl dolls our girls loved. We even had a May day celebration, complete with a maypole, and ribbons to weave around the maypole. But children grow up, neighborhoods change, and Chris, my co-conspirator in all things party-like, died much too young. The parties became few and far between.
I found myself remembering all those fun times as we planned our monthly writer’s group meeting/party celebration. Could we sneak food into the Teen room, where we meet? The Bellingham Library recently installed a Cafe. The Cafe really was meant for this sort of event, and by the time I arrived, Carol already had her cake ready, with paper plates, plastic forks, napkins, and some other snacks all set out in the new cafe area. Her cake even had writing on it. Oh, how I love friends who get into the spirit of a party.
The cake was dispatched quickly, we grabbed a few group photos, cleaned up our mess, then headed on to our meeting.
Ann came in late, apologized, and smiled. “You said it would be a party,” she said, pulling out a bottle of wine. We ended up saving the wine for another time.
The group started two years ago after I read a story from a Facebook friend raving about her own writer’s group in Martha’s Vineyard. Susanna explained the format of their group, which basically offers a chance for writers to share what they are working on, and anyone is welcome to come listen to these small snapshots of local writing. I had a hard time grasping exactly how the group might work, and Susanna graciously explained more by email. I got the gist of it, but suspect our group has evolved into a somewhat different format, simply because that’s what people do.
My neighbor Amy agreed that it would be a good idea to start a writing group, so she and I approached our local library about hosting the group. And thus, May of 2017, we had our first meeting. The first gathering was small, but each month, new participants showed up. Amy suggested we create a secret Facebook group to help members stay in touch with each other. Membership is by invitation only, but not exclusive. We only require that someone physically show up to at least one meeting, and the rest is up to each person how much or little they participate. We average around ten participants any month, and continue to meet throughout the year, no summers off.
Through the months, we have offered editing comments, encouragement, cheered each other on, commiserated about the difficulties of rejection, and have offered inspiration to each other. Many of us have become “Beta readers” for those of us working on bigger projects. Each meeting allows time to read a small piece, and receive comments from the group if desired.
The number of participants has been fluid over the past two years, and most every type of writing has been welcome. We set up “house rules” when we started, reviewed them after a year, and found that they have endured. “Avoid profanity when possible, leave the erotica at home where it belongs, and tell Marjorie when the story is venturing into the field of Horror so she can leave until the story is over.”
I was asked recently for information about our group since another library was interested in starting a writing group. The following is what I shared with them:
1. Program facilitators ideally would have had some experience leading some kind of group, but be open to people who are willing to learn. Leading a writing group is a challenging and ultimately exciting experience. Having a pair of leaders has worked great for Amy and me. When one is not able to attend, the other takes up the reins. I typically lead the actual meeting, while Amy handles Facebook invites to our private group (see below) and schedules the meetings with the library. We have had enough time together that other natural leaders are able to step into the leadership role if neither of us is able to be there.
2. Do not be discouraged by attendance. We have had meetings with nearly 15 (a pretty large group for us) but also meetings with only 5 or 6 people. We meet monthly, but we keep in touch through our secret Facebook group, so even if members are not able to attend, they can easily communicate with leaders and others through this group. We use the Facebook group to share documents of writing we are working on, share again what was shared during the group to receive additional comments, and offer writing tips any of us come across in our travels. Because the group is secret, it is by invitation only by physical attendance to at least one meeting. New attendees are issued an invitation to participate in the group and are welcome, regardless of further participation in the meetings. We have had zero issues with participants posting inappropriate items, and it has facilitated connections between us.
3. Let the group decide on format—I attend two different writing groups (one in Bellingham, the other meets at the Fiske library in Wrentham.) The two groups utilize quite different formats, and have rather different age ranges. The Bellingham group is on the whole younger, and seems happy with our format of allotted time (usually 8 minutes) to orally share whatever each person chooses to, that they are working on. Portions of a book, a poem, a single article, etc. We have often asked for a chance to offer more feedback on what was read, and if the writer chooses, they will offer it to the Facebook group for further comment. And yes, we use a timer, one of our members keeps track with a time on her phone, to keep each reader accountable. The other group requests that all writing be shared beforehand, and the entire meeting consists of discussion, feedback on each person’s writing that was submitted for comment.
4. Choose a day and time and try to be consistent. The Bellingham group has been meeting the 2nd Monday of each month, at 6:30PM-8PM, and we have rarely had to vary from that. It is a hardship for some who work full time, but on the whole it has been successful, and we have only varied once or twice by moving it to the third Monday, same time.
5. Allow the group to focus on what they are interested in. The Bellingham group allows every genre. Since the group is men and women, and since we talked about it at the beginning, we request that erotica be kept at home where it belongs (some members were not willing to hear erotica–romance–read aloud.) We also do not welcome gratuitous violence. That said, we have writers who write romantically suggestive pieces, but as long as it does not get into pornography (we know it when we hear it!) nor graphic ,gratuitous violence, we are fine with just about anything anyone has brought to the group; science fiction, YA fiction, regular fiction, dystopian novels, memoir, children’s books, mysteries, poems. About once a year we review our “rules” for the benefit of those who have joined the group later.
So yes, the fact that we have continued to meet for the past two years, and still enjoy each other’s company is pretty sweet. We have no real agenda other than to offer encouragement and enjoy the creative process, seeing how members are growing and taking steps to develop their skill, and venture into new areas of writing. So happy anniversary to our little writing group, may we have many more years to come to enjoy the process, and share the joy.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then.