A Love Letter to My Critique Group

Dear Crit Group,

I know you’re not the mushy type, but… well… I am, so let’s get this over with, shall we?

You’re so wonderful. Not to get too cheesy, but you honestly are one of the best things that’s happened to me in my adult life.

Five years ago today – a year and a half after I moved here – I saw a flyer for a new critique group about to have its first meeting to gauge interest. I went, along with maybe twenty other people trying to do this whole writing thing, and together we set up a tentative plan. After about three weekly meetings, we were down to less than ten regulars. Turns out that interest and commitment are two totally different things.

But we stayed, the half dozen or so of us who were determined to better our craft and get published. I still remember each one of those kindred spirits, although all but two have moved on. New folks would drift in one or two at a time over the months. Sometimes they would stick around; sometimes we only saw them once. Not long after starting up, the founder of that group handed it to me, asked me to keep it safe, and stepped away for personal reasons.

It hasn’t always been easy, but then, what worthwhile relationships are? There were times when attendance was so low I thought I’d have to close it, but still I held out hope that things would ‘pick back up’ when school started, let out, fill in the blank. There were times when the only people who showed up were me and one other person, but still we stayed and traded critiques. There were times when negative attitudes infected the atmosphere of the group and made me want to leave, but still I hung on and waited it out, knowing that most toxins work their way out of the system eventually.

Many of our practices and dealing were happy accidents. A few things, at times, felt like limitations. I didn’t structure the original group; I inherited it. So the name, the sponsor (our pretty extraordinary public library), and the skeletal guidelines were fixed in place. There were times when I got fed up — thought, “If I’m going to put in this much time and effort, I might as well start a new group and set it up my way,” but thankfully, the group members and I toughed out those rough patches. With patience, ideas, and support from various members over the years, we now have a system that is unique, wonderfully functional, and if not perfect, then at least well-suited to who and what we are as a whole. I have no doubt it will continue to grow and change with us in the years to come.

Today the group is healthier than ever with almost two dozen regulars and frequent new visitors. The atmosphere is generally clear and vibrant, full of talented minds dedicated to a common goal – though the paths may be multifaceted. We respect each other. We are honest, inquiring, kind, and demanding in the best way. I’ve forged several of my closest friendships from this group, and the group itself has become a tight-knit but welcoming group of friends that stretches far beyond two hours every Tuesday night.

I’ve learned more about the craft of writing through interacting face-to-face with these writers than I ever could have just reading craft books or schmoozing on Twitter. There’s something vital and necessary about human interaction, especially among creatives. I’ve learned self-editing through editing others. I’ve learned about my own strengths and weaknesses through their honesty about my work. I’ve constantly been supported but always pushed to better myself. There is no Can I trust them? for me. I know I can. What’s more, I’ve even learned how to better trust myself.

There is a give and take here that is organic, heartfelt, and beyond any hopes I could have had years ago when I decided that checking out this new critique group “couldn’t hurt.” Thank you all, members and visitors past and present, for helping me towards becoming the writer I want to be, and for allowing me some small part in your own journeys. It means more to me than you could know.

Happy five year anniversary.

With love,

(aka El Presidente)

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  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    What a great testament to the power of critique. Finding that perfect partner (or partners) isn’t easy, but it’s so damn special when you find it. I found my longtime crit partner through one of many Writers Digest online workshops I’d taken back when I first started writing fiction. We’ve attended retreats together and even had our own, here in the desert! And we are brutally honest with one another — a “let’s get on with it; you’re being too wordy” — isn’t an ego crusher. Nor are the more terse admonishments I’ve gotten (and fully appreciated). Long live the crit partner/crit group! And good for you for toughing it out!

    • It really is special! I still have one-on-one critique partners whose advice and candid feedback I trust greatly, but in a group setting the trust gears more toward things like phrasing things tactfully for sensitive members, keeping feedback professional instead of personal, and respecting each other as artists. It can be really scary to share something deeply personal with an entire group of people, and I’m so proud of my group for being welcoming AND productive. I’m a pretty lucky writer!

  • Regina

    Your work ethic, persistence, and the generosity and patience you have shown while enduring the growing pains of the organization are amazing. You are truly an excellent leader!

  • Peggy

    What a wonderful tribute to your incredible critique group!
    You are clearly blessed but also smart to know a good thing when you see it!!
    You and your group members are a real testament to the power of a self-help
    group. When courageous and dedicated creatives pool their talents to help each
    other, something powerful is born. I know you made a presentation for the
    Poetry Society of Texas annual summer conference about this called, “Reaching
    for Better Writing: Can Small Group Support Make a Difference?”, and I wish
    every aspiring writer (prose or poetry) could read this blog.

    • Aw, thanks! I agree about pooling talents. I’ve learned so much from other people’s strengths (and weaknesses) over the years. My poetry crit friends are amazing as well! Two great crit groups; lucky me!

  • The heart wants what the heart wants and it appears you’ve found what your writing heart wants and needs. Lovely post.

  • Happy anniversary to you too 🙂 I remember you mentioning vampires in your introduction on that first meeting. And you were pretty darn serious about it! I knew right then I’d be back.

    • Hahaha! I was deadly serious! That novel is permanently trunked now, but I brought the entire thing in week by week. Good lord, I learned a lot from that experience. I’m so glad I met you through the group, Feebs! And even more glad that we both stuck around all these years. 🙂

  • Benjambment

    I feel totally spoiled. Showed up so late to the party that I missed all the tumultuous bits and pretty much immediately fell in with the cool kids (and Sam). I’m kinda surprised you didn’t mention that we have a beard as our mascot or the one revolutionary who’s always trying to impeach you. Muchos kudos to you for putting up with / wrangling even the no-good troublemakers under your banner, EL PRESIDENTE!

    • Well I didn’t want to give away ALL our secrets. 😉 And yes, there were many a rough patch, but there were lots of great times in the early days too! I still remember them fondly.

  • I feel basically the same way about my critique group, though it’s only been a year and a few months for me. There really is something crucial about those personal connections with people who share your interests, goals, and frustrations. I hope the next five years are even better for your group!

    • I’m so happy to hear that! And thank you! I’m sure they will be. 🙂

  • Russell Linton

    There is a strange land filled with the strangest of people, each unique, each both marvelously strong and unfathomably weak. Each with their own odd desires and their own (often pointed) opinions. They wander aimless, driven by a need to create that sometimes goes awry or sadly goes unanswered.

    From each person in this strange land springs other equally strange universes populated by the most bizarre collection of inhabitants perhaps ever assembled. Spacemen lost on alien planets, greek deities on the line at greasy spoons, spirit questing everymen in their magic cars, guys who blurt and fumble their way through local politics and shattered lives, baseball players, sons of superheroes, sons of God, daughters seeking meaning in undead and dying worlds.

    These voices call for a place to be heard. It is a wild cacophony of shouts, and growls, and hungry moans. Indecipherable. Unmanageable. Yet, somehow, someone comes forward that can interpret that terrible din. Bring peace to warring factions. Provide a place of sanctuary and guidance for those that dare to create.

    That person rises as a leader in the strange land, marshalling the odd inhabitants of the many dimensional rifts* through an arcane ritual of button worship and the complex dicing of temporal realities which only she can master. The bizarre citizens of this previously untamed land celebrate her name:

    !Viva El Presidente!

    *Only one of us has seen all of these dimensions but is an inadequate translator.

    (On a critical note: This is a first draft. You may not understand this if you missed last week. Also, my printer isn’t working.)

    • Peggy

      Wow, I can certainly see that you’re a writer!! After reading this hilarious & adorable comment, I want to become a writer and join your group! Do you allow strange observers?

      • Russell Linton

        a) El Presidente and company taught me everything I know and b) we have an entire peanut gallery though expect heckling if you don’t bring your own writing to be picked at, gnawed on, and bloodied (red-ink, natch.)

      • Benjambment

        Ha, one of our most chronic “observers” is our beloved unofficial mascot, actually.

      • All of our observers are strange. It’s required!

    • This is the most hilarious, adorable, strangely poetic piece of mundane epicness I’ve ever read. Well done, sir. A+ And thank you. You’ve made my day. 😀

  • What a beautiful letter! I’m amazed you have 24 people in the group. My online group’s only been together for about three years and we hover around 6-8 members. (I keep inviting people from outside–people who could use the help as we could use the fresh blood–but no one applies…) You’re a great writer, so your group must be awesome! I <3 CPs!!! 🙂

    • Thank you, Lexa! That’s sweet. There’s still hope for your group to grow! Ours didn’t truly take off for the first several years — at least 3, maybe closer to 4! Also, those 20-odd members don’t all show up every week; normal attendance is closer to 15.

  • A. B. Davis

    Dear El Presidente,

    I found this “mushy” post very sweet and encouraging. I must find or found a critique group like this! It sounds like just the thing I’m missing in my writing life: more outsider opinions to balance my (however valuable) loving best friend’s opinion. Would it be against the rules to divulge the secrets of your unique and functional system? Do you just submit a certain amount each week for critique by all or certain selected members? Surely there isn’t enough time to consecutively read a members’ work as they write it (the way my writing partner and I in our very private group do it), right? I kind of feel like it’s cheating for me to ask you to divulge any secrets after you just spent 5 years toughing it out through the trying times to reach a balanced, rewarding, successful give and take. But I am just so damn curious how you folks in your big groups do it. I might need to talk to Lexa Cain about joining her online one. 🙂

    • Thanks Ashley! And no, it’s not top secret info. I would be happy if another group of writers can benefit from our trial and error. I don’t want to leave the most massive comment ever, though, so I’m going to send you to the “guidelines” page of our group’s website and then invite you to email me with any follow-up details: http://dentoncritique.wordpress.com/guidelines/ I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

      I’ve never been involved with an online crit group, so I can’t speak to that, but Lexa did say she was looking for new members. 🙂

  • Cynthia Robertson

    What a journey, Annie. I co-inherited a group once that didn’t
    turn out well, but took the best it had to offer in the way of writers and we
    started up our own. Now we meet in each other’s homes – sort of like a literary
    salon of old – and it truly is the best thing that ever could have happened for
    my writing.

    It’s amazing how much you learn about caring for a thriving
    group along the way, isn’t it? And your own ego, and other’s egos, and how to
    care for people in a way that nurtures creativity. It makes one grow as a human

    • It certainly does. Really beautifully said, Cynthia. I’m so glad you’ve found a group that works for you!

  • jclementwall

    Love the honesty in this letter. I’ve had both bad and wonderful experiences in writing groups (and workshops). This is my favorite line in your letter: “We are honest, inquiring, kind, and demanding in the best way.” That is, to me, the perfect description of the best writing group, and I’ve never quite found it. I go back and forth on whether or not I’m meant to be part of a group (some writers aren’t), but I suspect if I found one (or nurtured one into being) about which I could say all that, I’d feel at home.

    • Thanks j! I know what you mean. I thing the wrong group is worse than no group. It can be personally damaging, not to mention it wastes time. Like you said, I don’t know if groups are for everyone, but I suspect there’s potential value, at least, for everyone if they find the right group.

  • Traci Kenworth

    Crit groups can be awesome!! I know I wouldn’t have come as far or learned as much without mine. And yes, they’re growing pains but aren’t there in all relationships?

  • It is so hard to find a group that works this well. What a fantastic ode to them!