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Jessica Breed

© 2003

How To Win Friends and Write Stories

Dear Muriel and Marsha,

During the MWP summer institute, you asked how our writing groups were going. The short answer is that our group is working miracles. We write, bounce off ideas, delve into the heart of stories and tinker with the flow of words in order to Frankenstein together polished pieces.

But your question deserves a long answer, too. There are stories behind the stories, layers of reflection within the thoughts we spill out in print. In three years and four writing groups, I’ve been musing this over: How can we, as teachers and as writers, make a writing group work? Well, I haven’t stumbled across any secret formula, but I have figured out how to win friends and write stories.

The first step is to take risks. Before I even picked up a pen, I had to look at the people in my writing group straight in the eyes. Could a savvy grad student from a lofty, mysterious place called the Writing Center forgive my ignorance? Would the nineteen-year-old boy snigger when he read the poem about my mother? It was like hanging my laundry out to dry where everybody could see it flapping in the breeze. I held my breath and wrote it anyway. She did forgive; he didn’t laugh.

Once you take a risk in trusting others, you have to take a risk in yourself. Back when I hung out with English majors, a self-described “piss and vinegar writer” made a confession to our group. He really wanted to write a horror story about something completely harmless—linoleum. We egged him on. He vacillated: Will it just come out stupid? Will the characters be strong enough? Can linoleum give you nightmares? Go for it, we urged. We can’t wait to read it.

Risk is like adrenaline; the thrill is infectious. Rita squared her jaw and declared resolutely that she would write humor, so I followed in her wake. One year earlier, a linguistics scholar in my writing group jumped off the high dive when she passed out her thoroughly documented treatise in place of a “reflection.” The rest of us hid our fear of heights, bravely taking our own great leaps for the next group meeting.

The second step is to get your hands dirty. Revision should be a glorious revolution. Splatter the ink like jumping in pools of rain. Make a mess. Spill coffee. Joanne just laughs when she gets it back—it’s already been drenched in her blood, sweat and tears, what’s another little stain?

The worst writing group was the first because we missed that step. Everyone smiled blandly and said, “Yes, it’s very nice.” Or, in Minnesota: “Interesting.” Heads nodded in unison; pens remained capped. The creative writing teacher who didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings prodded them to point out something they liked. “Ok, um, the title was nice.” “You have great commas.” “Do you really have a brother?” They went down the row like a firing squad shooting blanks, and I sat there flinching in front of nothing.

“Criticism” is a gritty word. It’s honesty without cruelty. It’s Christine telling me which paragraph in my review doesn’t make sense. She listens patiently when I explain the plot of a zombie movie she really doesn’t want to see, then suggests a way to fix the sentences. On a good day, the dirty process of questioning and clarifying ends in catharsis. I go home, press the delete key frequently and without regret, and in the end, it’s beautiful.

Finally, share your lunch and your lives. It’s a matter of knowing each other not just as readers, writers and editors, but as people who have good stories to tell.
I figured out early on as a teacher that sometimes the most important learning happens outside of class: chatting before the bell rings, walking down the hallway with a student, bumping into them at their part-time job at Perkins. Getting to really know a person—what they’re good at, who they love and where they spend Tuesday nights—challenges me to reach them in a way that is relevant and meaningful. The same is true in a writing group. When I care about the people who read my writing, I write better.

Sometimes the most important writing happens when I close the notebook. We sit around and talk. I’ve learned how long it takes to ship furniture across the Atlantic Ocean, what makes a rhubarb pie juicy and the difference between a stole and a shawl. We pull out our lunches, pass around the cookies, take off our shoes and sit in the grass. Getting to know the others in my writing group, I find that we have much that is worth saying and much worth hearing.

Quite simply, telling stories to people helps me write. Whether a tattooed stranger or an inconsiderate mayor, living characters drive our stories. I want living people to read my stories, too. I’m excited to share my words with people I respect and admire. I’m grateful to have the luxury of a writing group that works.

With fond memories,