Virtual meetings are for more than working from home
One of the very best things I did to finally finish my book was start my own writing group but it happened pretty much by accident.
Five years ago my company held a creative offsite. For those who have never worked in the corporate world, offsites are these odd things where you are forced to travel outside your office and comfort zone with your coworkers and prompted to do unnatural things in the name of team building and innovative thinking. You have to solve a puzzle with Janice from Accounting and Greg from Research Analytics (people from Research Analytics are always annoyingly good at solving puzzles) or write three ideas to move your brand forward using your left hand and an orange crayon. I loathe creative offsites. It feels like enforced creativity. I dislike them as much as work Happy Hours which feel like enforced fun. I guess like many writers, I am a loner at heart.
We ended this particular offsite by sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor taking turns announcing one way we could “improve creativity in the workplace”. Ugh.
Yelling “pass” didn’t seem like an option. I had to come up with something. I had been wanting to join a writers’ group to force myself to finish my book for some time and had been looking for just the right teacher who would guide me to that perfect best-seller. I was pretty sure there was no such person at my workplace, but when my turn came that was the idea that popped out of my mouth.
“We could order a pizza and meet in the 8th Floor conference room once a month at 6:00 pm and read out loud the pieces we’ve written. I mean…that is…if anyone is interested.” I said this as if I had been thinking about this idea for more than five minutes.
The response from the group was huge. Sign me up! That would be great! Please start one! I assumed the big reaction was the result of me mentioning pizza, and was pretty sure it would be forgotten the minute the offsite was over and we returned to our normal work lives.
A budding Proust snacking on a madeleine in the next cubicle?
But the interest wouldn’t go away. I was reminded weekly by at least one person that they couldn’t wait for me to start that writing group. Finally, after some nudging from my boss: “Those kinds of innovative actions are looked at favorably during promotion time”, I sent out a mass work email, found a place that delivered pizza and moved the lava lamp from my desk to the 8th floor conference room one Wednesday evening after work. The first meeting was huge. Who knew there were so many secret writers in my office? We had to rush through each person to get everyone home before midnight. But soon the novelty wore off and the group was whittled down to six dedicated writers. They worked in every department — from people in creative fields to those who were executive assistants — but each person who ended up staying was a talented writer with a unique voice.
Since the group met after work, we felt safe reading personal things, and I reminded everyone that what was read and said in the group stayed in the group. Over time, we shared our stories and our lives and got to know each other far more deeply than we had working side by side all those years. One production manager who lost her husband to alcoholism wrote a piece on addiction that was more powerful and insightful than anything I’ve read before or since. The shy tape librarian who had initially been reticent to join us started a book that eventually got published. It’s called Don’t Get Too Excited because that was what she would say to us every session before reluctantly reading one of her brilliant stories. Eventually our work group staged a public reading at our boss’ apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan twice a year that became a popular and anticipated event.
Light a fire
Our group lasted almost five years until corporate restructuring laid off many of the members. By that time, I had learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to start the perfect group. I started a new one with my neighbors in the small town of New Hope, PA. We meet in the back room of Farley’s, the local bookstore, (which they let us have for free) and it is still going strong today. We’ve also had a public reading of our work and asked people to buy a book from Farley’s as the price of admission. I am constantly reminded that these groups are an age-old tradition that started with telling stories around the fire. The more you tell your stories, the better you get at it. And all I had to do was create a safe space for those two hours we met.
Your computer can be for more than writing
But there are several reasons people can’t come together to meet as a group. There may not be an affordable distraction-free space. Coffee shops can be loud and unpredictable. Or someone may have a physical disability that makes mobility challenging. Maybe you don’t know any writers in your town or live in a remote area or just can’t be away from home for long. Perhaps you are looking for a group of very specific writers — mystery or romance novelist or cookbook creators— and there aren’t enough of you in close proximity. Or maybe you already have a wonderful group of writing friends, but they live in other parts of the world.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime workshop with memoirist Mary Karr in Greece. A bunch of us who attended would meet between Mary’s sessions forming an impromptu session where we read our own work to each other. After we returned home from that workshop, we tried to keep up the strong connection we had formed. We made audio files of our work and emailed them to each other. Everyone tried to listen to the files and reply with their thoughts, but something got lost in the distance and mechanics of it all. I discovered if I didn’t schedule time to listen each week, I just never got to it. Life had a way of interfering.
But in the last couple of years, technology has been able to bring humans closer. More people work from home because and Zoom or Skype into meetings. Why can’t we do the same with writing groups?
The rules don’t change: Bring work to the group no more than a certain length (I learned from a mentor that 7 pages is optimal), keep comments constructive, and make a commitment to show up. Instead of printing out copies, you can email your work beforehand. As far as I can tell, the benefits are still the same. There is something about reading your work out loud that is informative and illuminating. And there is nothing that gets one motivated like having a deadline
If you have wanted to be part of a writer’s group, now is a great time to start. Email five to seven writers you’d like to work with, and set up a time where you meet for a couple hours each week or every two weeks once a month and download Zoom on your computer (this is the most challenging part for people like me—but I swear if I can do it, you can do it too).
Put on sweats, order pizza, pour some seltzer or a little wine since you don’t have to drive anywhere and…viola! Of course, you still have to write something between group meetings. That part technology hasn’t figured out yet.
Who is on your fantasy writing team? Today is as good as any to send out a first email asking someone if they might be interested. Don’t make the mistake I did and wait for a creative offsite to force you to take that first step.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is currently using his innovative thinking skills to figure out how to conduct all of his human exchanges through zoom.