Six years ago, a casual email from a writing friend changed my life. “Hey, I heard through the grapevine a critique group near you is looking for a new member. Are you interested?”
I was interested. I inquired and found out this group was heavy on rules and expectations: 20 pages a month from each member; written as well as face-to-face critiques; a try out period; a set meeting at a set date with a set period of time between submitting and the meeting.
That was a bit daunting, but the group had been in existence for decades, so the regulations must work. Plus, all the members were published and active in the writing community. One had been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. Another was doing great stuff with memoir. The rules seemed stringent and tough, and expectations were high, but I decided to try out. I’d been floundering on my own for too long. Maybe it was time for stringent and tough, and high expectations.
After a writing sample and a test meeting, I was in. Hurrah! The welcome was great, and so was the ambiance. I’d found the perfect group. Month after month, I turned in my 20 pages like clockwork. I critiqued the other members’ work—80 pages a month—and did my written and verbal critiques per the guidelines.
After joining, I wrote regularly and more. I did not dare miss a month of submitting because I didn’t want to disappoint or not meet expectations. I learned about some of my writing habits and weaknesses. I was praised for what I did well. I noticed what the other members did well, and how they achieved that. Because they had divergent writing backgrounds, I tried out new genres and got feedback laced with knowledge. When another member and I both won state arts council fellowships, we gave a joint public reading. We had bonded and, once a month, sat in a room together and ripped apart, and then built up, one another’s writing.
It was, without a doubt, the best and most educational six years of my writing life. I can hardly describe my gratitude for the challenge and for the group’s generosity.
For that reason, gratitude, I did what I had to do a few months ago, for the benefit of the writers who’d spent so much time helping me to grow as a writer.
I quit, amicably, when my editing business took off. I quit when I couldn’t spend the solid couple of hours I needed to devote to critiquing their writing. I quit when I had to beg off of submitting my 20 pages now and then because I was drowning in client work. I quit when I had to ask for meetings to be juggled to meet my conference schedule. I quit when I wasn’t giving the 100% the group deserved.
I was sad, and it was a hard decision. The decision was met with regret and respect, and an invitation to come back whenever I thought I could manage the time again.
I may do that. But a few months out and in retrospect, I quit for other reasons too. After six years, I realized I knew my fellow members’ writing so well, I could predict how they would end their stories. I knew what they’d compliment in my work and who would criticize what. I knew their strengths and weaknesses, what they enjoyed and what they found tiresome. I knew all of that about them, and they knew all of that about me.
We knew one another so well…was it too well?
I left the group for the external reason of not having enough time. Now, I wonder if somewhere inside, I knew it was time to move on, at least for a little while. If I stayed another year, or five years, would this familiarity lead to stagnation? Would I start to predict their critiques to the point that I’d ignore them?
I don’t know. I had to quit because of time, but maybe I also quit just in time?
Now I write on my own, no specific number of pages required to submit for any specific time. I do my own reviews and revisions. And it’s funny, but I find I try to write 20 new pages for the first Sunday of the month, just like the writing group days. And when I’m reviewing my work, I sometimes wonder what each of my former group members would have to say about it.
I left the group, but it remains with me. So maybe I haven’t really left, completely? Or, in some ways, at all?
Have you ever left a writers group you loved? Is there such a thing as outgrowing a group, or getting too comfortable? Is a break from a group the same as letting a manuscript sit in a drawer for a while?
This last question is the one I ponder. Have I quit, or am I taking a break for a while?