Monthly Archives: January 2011

Five reasons to love/have/consider getting a critique group:

1. For one, there is nothing like having support. Nothing. If it weren’t for those five other people out there with whom I meet every other week for three or so delicious hours—hours spent considerately, lovingly, brutally plucking apart each other’s work—I don’t know what I’d do. We all know how it is; we have all swooned over, wailed about, been furious at, and wanted to dunk into a cold and airless chamber that thing which haunts us till it’s realized—our stories. And that, friends, distinguishes a small, specific sub-group of the human race. Most people do not mentally wrestle with an untold or half-told or nearly-told tale as they attempt to calmly go about their workday—whatever that work may be. I find it lovely that I can picture Jennifer at her cubicle, mentally fighting with whether her protagonist should discover the murderer in the bathtub or the phone booth; and that I envision Leroy diagnosing patients as he secretly wonders if his hero should REALLY swallow a whale? (This one may be a tad more questionable.) But really, who does that? We do, and goody.

2. It prepares you for working with an editor. If I had managed the nigh-impossible task of churning out a workable manuscript and hooking an excited editor WITHOUT having previously worked with a critique group (whew, that’s a long sentence), I would have been a frustrating client indeed. I would have whined and needed hand-holding and dared to argue that parts of my story were ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY even with the editor prostrate, sobbing that they made no sense at all. Yes, I would have been that silly, falsely proud client with little perspective about my own work. But with a critique group, you learn that sometimes you can be blind when it comes to your writing, and that that’s OK because other people can see for you. You are honing your project under the watchful eye of people who care about you, but hopefully, care about your story more—people inclined to reign you in when you need wrist-smacking, or to prop you up when you are about to re-enact the printer scene from Office Space.

3. It is the next best thing—or, dare I say it, possibly an even better thing—to an MFA. Not to begrudge any of my friends who have doled out tens of thousands of dollars to a university to learn the art of writing creatively, and who are still paying off said schools. I think MFAs can be helpful in many cases. In terms of being critical of those programs, I have only the words of several MFA graduates I know to back me up—that they could have done just as well with a wonderful critique group, and that hardly any MFA programs out there address the nuts and bolts of actually breaking into this industry. And after seeing the shape some of my fellow critiquers (and I) were in when we began, I can’t help but agree. I, for one, had only an abstract, diaphanous bubble of an idea so unwieldy that it once led our most vituperative group member to slam his fist on the table and exclaim, “I have NO IDEA what’s going on here!” Yes, that was my story. With their help, it is now, I dearly hope, a much more structured way of telling a very abstract story. But only with their help.

4. We meet at a yummy place that has a fireplace and a long table we can hog if we get there early enough, and we sip hot chocolate and tea and eat cookies and think about writing. Really, what’s better than that? I even pretend it’s cold and Christmasy outside, even though it’s Austin and that takes more imaginative fuel than my entire story did.

5. And really, it’s just a miracle to me that I know these people. Sounds cheesy, but I so mean it. Like I said, it takes a special, very specific kind of person to keep going, going, going with a story when all you really have is your own faith that it’s any good, to just plain love your story enough to see it through. And that’s just the writing side of it. After all that, the writer may have developed thick skin or be a withered husk on the roadside—it matters not to the publishing industry. You still have to hunt for an agent, which can be devastating, or an editor, which can lead one to despair; whatever it is, you must endure rejection from the world at large—the Large World of publishing, which can loom over an unpublished writer like a scene from the movie “Brazil.” And I know five people personally who are doing just that. Count them—five. Five brave amazing single-minded souls determined to bring their work and passion into the world. I can’t help thinking if they’d been alive in Babylonian times, they would have majorly challenged the Assyrians to get out. Or been right behind William Wallace when he took on the British. They are warriors, innovators.

And as far as the members’ names go, they have been changed, of course. Worry not, fellow group members; I am a ninja of stealth.

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