By Edie Hemingway, Spalding MFA Writing for Children & YA Faculty
If you’re at all familiar with the Spalding University low-residency MFA in Writing program, you know that the daily workshop is a fundamental part of the intense 10-day residency. Each student submits approximately 20 pages of a manuscript to be read and critiqued in advance by each member of the workshop, as well as by the faculty leader/s. Then, over the course of the residency, an hour of positive, constructive discussion is devoted to each piece. Although there are many other exciting events and inspiring aspects of the residency, I have to say, speaking both as a former student and now as a member of the faculty, the workshop has always been my favorite part.
This is the time when you feel most exposed as a writer, but also when a literary bond is forged with your fellow writers through trust, honesty, craft discussion, and a shared interest in the genre, whether it be fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, or focusing specifically on writing for children and young adults. But this happens only at the residencies attended once or twice a year, depending on how you are working your way through the program.
Most serious writers would agree that an ongoing critique or workshop group, whichever you wish to call it, is an essential part of becoming a successful writer and then maintaining that success. Since I first started writing over thirty years ago, I have been involved with a number of different critique groups, some that met once a month, others that met once a year to discuss an entire manuscript, and others with varying parameters, such as online only or as needed. Those have come and gone due to a lack of serious writers willing to make a long-term commitment. Of course, I do have my trusted readers to whom I send a completed manuscript before submitting it, and I do the same for them in return. However, it wasn’t until I was invited to join a weekly critique group two years, two months, and three weeks ago (you can see I am counting) that I truly became part of a committed writing “family.”
There are six of us now, though we started with seven. We are all traditionally published authors for children and young adults, each with at least two books in print, including picture books, graphic novels, MG and YA, fiction and nonfiction. But our leader is a Newbery Award-winning author with more than 140 books to her name. She had been a member of a similar group, which lasted 26 years until it eventually disbanded due to illness, death, or members simply moving away. Widowed and living in a retirement home, she was desperately missing that camaraderie with other serious writers. She is the one who set the parameters, invited us to join, hosts us each week, and requires a commitment to a weekly meeting so we can maintain consistency with the various works-in-progress. We do occasionally miss a meeting due to illness, holidays, planned vacations or family crises, but we are expected not to miss simply due to a whim or because we have nothing new to share with the group. I drive 45 minutes or more each way, depending on traffic, and have driven through rain storms, sat in traffic jams, and have made it there even with a cast on my arm. However, I do draw the line at driving through snow or ice storms.
Because we all lead busy lives and meet so frequently, we don’t have time for extra reading. So we must come each week prepared to read our new pages aloud (generally 4 to 6, but occasionally up to 10 pages), to listen carefully to the other work, to give on-the-spot feedback, and join the discussion. If members have nothing new to read, they’re invited to discuss a problem they’re having with a scene or character, talk about a new idea still in the fetal stage, raise a question about an editor or agent, or simply pass for that particular week. We’ve learned to listen carefully and take notes, as well as to read our own work aloud effectively.
Pressures include having to produce new material every week and sharing material that may still be very raw. And then there’s giving and receiving instant feedback that isn’t always well thought out or delivered in a positive manner. There are times I’ve gone into the meeting with the confidence of having written a good scene but left in despair that it’s not coming across the way I intended. A few times I’ve even considered dropping out of the group, thinking it’s just not for me. But by the time the next meeting rolls around, I’ve changed my mind, having come to the same conclusion and rewritten that scene.
One of our most introverted members admits the worst pressure for her is feeling exposed. Her words are, “I am as a windmill, swinging wildly between wanting to be seen and heard and wanting not to be.” Yet she shows up week after week.
The pleasures are what keep us coming. That pressure to produce new work each week and making it the best it can be becomes a pleasure that keeps me at my computer or jotting ideas down in a notebook. In the past, I may have gone weeks, even a month, without sitting down to write. But now I dutifully make my way out to my writing cabin and don’t stop until I have a new or revised chapter. And one of the greatest pleasures is receiving an email between meetings from a fellow member, saying that she couldn’t stop thinking about my character.
Our leader has this to say about the pleasures of being part of a group of seasoned writers who meet weekly: “We know the ropes of the industry, whether helpful or not. We all know about deadlines, revisions, the ups and downs of editorial committees and sales conferences, bad reviews, which journals are important, and how little say we have on certain issues and censorship. We do not have to explain to each other what we’re talking about, worried about, disappointed in, or excited about. Most of all, we genuinely care about each other, and we’re not competing. There are so many different things we’re working on. I enjoy seeing illustrations that I could never do myself, listening to research I wouldn’t have the patience to do, laughing at a story book idea that would never have occurred to me, as well as feeling myself getting into the spirit of someone else’s novel. For me, it’s bonding time. Something rare.”
I couldn’t say it better myself, so I’ll end with the fact that we persist because we’ve found a group we trust with our “babies” and with whom we can both commiserate and celebrate when we send those “babies” out into the world.
A weekly critique group may not be the perfect one for you, but do try to find a serious group that meets consistently and often enough to pressure you, while still giving you that safety net of honesty, commitment, understanding, and acceptance.
Edie Hemingway lives in Frederick, Maryland, and teaches writing for children and young adults in the Spalding University low-residency MFA in Writing program. She is the author of three middle grade novels. Road to Tater Hill, her creative thesis in the MFA program, later earned a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and was named to Bank Street College’s Best Books List, as well as several state lists. Edie can be found on the web at https://ediehemingway.com/.