Writers. Groups.

Untitled-writerCreative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.

First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?

Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?

And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.

The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?

The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?

bookmkheartleaf

Redbud leaf in fall

I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.

Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.

Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.

During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.

And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.

Just a suggestion.  😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Entitlement, humility, & self-esteem

Among my academic colleagues in the USA, I hear a refrain of grousing about so-called millennial students who, it is averred, perceive themselves as entitled to good grades, exceptions to rules such as number of absences, timeliness, and response to communication, and other “special treatment.” The general criticism goes along the lines of Kenrick Thompson’s letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

… I grew increasingly weary of all the whining, crying, excuse-making, and general lack of attention to responsibility that appear to characterize most of today’s college and university students. I began to sense a growing atmosphere of entitlement among a majority of my students, who apparently believe that society owes them an education. I even endured several instances of students’ insisting they should pass my course simply because they had paid their fees and purchased the required textual materials.

Thompson lays some of the blame for such behavior at the door of college administrators who care more about admission and retention numbers than about the whole package of education, which includes less-measurable outcomes such as personal responsibility and mature problem-solving. The Chronicle has published other essays on related topics, among them these by Elayne Clift and Frank Donohue.

Other critics have blamed Baby Boomer parents for overdoing positive reinforcement so that their offspring do not have to suffer from low self-esteem. These critics suggest the everybody-gets-a-prize approach has watered down the go-get-’em competitiveness formerly considered a hallmark of the individualist American.

The word “entitlement” pops up in a blog post by Toby Woodlief back in 2007, and certainly appeared in conversations I had with colleagues long before that; but there has been much general buzzing that this sense of entitlement is “a Millennial thing.”

What does entitlement really mean? Webster’s has three main entries, the third of which is: “belief that one is deserving of … certain privileges.”

I can therefore say that I believe I am entitled to something, and I can accuse others of feeling that way; but because the word is based upon the subjective sense (“feeling or believing” that one is “deserving of”), can I say for certain that other persons “believe that society owes them an education”? [Note, Thompson does qualify with “apparently”.] No one can independently ascertain what another person believes or feels. My students do not tell me they feel entitled to things.

Could this be just a problem of perception or point of view, as so much inter-generational sniping is? Certainly my generation received criticism for its youthful irresponsibility, though it was of a slightly different kind (drop out of the rat race, turn on, be free). Did we feel entitled to ignore the paths our parents took?

I wonder if the real reason older people feel so annoyed with Millenials is the perception that there’s so little humility among the young. Many people my age were raised with the Protestant ethic formula that one should be humble, and humility has long been valued by the Catholic church, as well. Humility is closely allied with shame, however–and even guilt, to some degree (original sin and all that)–giving us neuroses along with our humility. It depends, once again, on your sociological and personal outlook; I am not suggesting that humility is bad or good, nor that entitlement is bad or good. These are just extensions of feelings people have, of personal and subjective perceptions.

Blaming the young people, or blaming their parents, or blaming the culture, for that matter…none of it helps us to understand or to respect one another. And as fellow travelers on the planet, are we not entitled to at least an initial moment of respect?

A balance might be nice.

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I work with 18-year-olds every day, and I enjoy them. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally wish to wring their necks or boot them out of their warm beds in the morning or remind them that I am not here to make them feel good about themselves for no reason other than their uniqueness. It does not dissuade me from doling out Fs when Fs are deserved (or, shall we say, earned) or reminding them, now and again, that most of their annoyances qualify as first-world inconveniences undeserving of hysterical rants.

I try to keep in mind that they are still learning about the world of other human beings.

In time, if they are mindful and observant and lucky, they should discover that the participation trophy for life is life itself–

IMHO   😉

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