|How To Start and Run a Memoir Group|
How To Start and Run a Memoir Group
It’s often best to begin by meeting at a coffee house or a local library; once you get to know each other better, you can switch to a person’s home.
Begin informally. The first session you just might discuss how you’d like to organize the group. Once a month, twice a month. Another way to start is to choose a memoir to read, then discuss it at your next get-together. Once you start bringing your writing to share, start with short pieces, say, five or six pages. Eventually you’ll get better at critiquing and can do longer works up to ten pages. If you have more pages than that, pass them out ahead of time.
A good size is four to eight participants. And obviously it’s best to have people who will commit for a time, say, six months.
Please note: Do NOT allow fiction writers in the group. They, along with poets and biographers and historians, need to find their own group. Memoir demands focus on truthfulness, honesty (not fictionalizing, not embellishing), emotional intimacy, the psychology of writing about personal joy and hardship in our most important relationships. This is not what fiction writers deal with.
"Critiquing" is what writers do with each other’s work.
Let’s say you have five in the group and three people bring work. Each person brings five copies of her work. Let’s call one of those who has brought her work, Jane. Jane passes out her copies to the group. Then she reads her work aloud.
As Jane reads, each group member makes notes in the margin about what you are hearing. What is working? What needs work? Underline things you like. Use a question mark for questions. Write a comment as it occurs to you. Do not just sit listen; keep your pen in your hand and respond as Jane reads.
When Jane finishes, take a few minutes to write two responses of several sentences each: what is working in the piece; what needs work in the piece.
Next, take a good fifteen minutes to discuss the piece. Take your time. Allow cross-talk between group members. You should be able to discuss the work and come up with new ideas about it as you proceed.
During the discussion, Jane DOES NOT TALK. Jane listens. She takes notes. She writes down questions she has that the group raises about her work. Jane doesn’t talk because it takes time away from the discussion, and she may become defensive about her work, especially after hearing her work aloud. Jane should try to relax (I know it’s hard) and listen to the group.
During the discussion, group members do not ask direct questions of Jane. Don’t ask her, "How old were you Jane when your father left?" Say, "I wondered how old you were when your father left." The latter is not a question and thus it doesn’t need a response. Jane makes a note to answer that question later.
When all the group members have spoken, then Jane can speak. She can ask questions or process the critique out loud. She can even ask questions of the group, and then everyone can talk.
Try to keep each individual critique session to under an hour. Forty-five minutes is about right.
More Critiquing Tips:
At first, let the writer know your response to the whole piece, its organization, its emotional effect, its qualities as story or essay. Avoid small points (grammar, mechanics) unless you see noticeable patterns.
Don’t spend a lot of time arguing with another critiquer’s view of the piece: acknowledge differences (there will be differences) and move on.
If you speak later in the discussion, try and add things that have not been said.
Your truthful reaction is most important: the writing’s effect on you personally, how it made you feel or didn’t feel, is much better than "I liked it." Explain/clarify your feelings.
Encouragement is most helpful at first. Encourage things you find working. Say why the language, the form, the dialogue, the description, the "whatever" works and push the writer to do more of that, where appropriate. Donald Murray, a wonderful teacher and critic, says that "Writing improves by the extension of what is working, not by the criticism of what is not working."
If the piece reminds you of other writers you’ve read whose craft you admire, then refer the writer to those sources.
Remember what you say in groups will probably be said back to you. Groups tend to adopt their own language. Avoid talking with one another as therapists (overt psychology) or as best friends (overt forgiveness), and stick to the writing itself. You can always delve deeper with the writer privately.