Writing can be like folding a banquet-sized tablecloth; you can do it yourself, but it's a lot easier when you can find somebody to help.
-- Ted Kooser & Steve Cox, in Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing
Note: some of the information on Bearlodge Writers was previously published in an article by Writer's Digest Online that you can access here. Read it and you'll also learn about how groups in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, California and Montana operate.
guest post by Kathleen Smith
Writing is a solitary endeavor until you have written an essay, a poem, nonfiction or fiction piece and want to make your craft better. Then you must share your words laid so carefully on the page from your heart. The easiest way to improve your craft is find a source of writers for companionship and critique.
In Wyoming because of the miles between communities some writers utilize on line writing groups. Others like me drive miles to be in the company of good writers with the desire to make the writing better for everyone at the table.
Let me share how Bearlodge Writers work.
THE BEARLODGE WRITERS (BLW) group has been active since 1979. BLW is open to any writer, new or experienced, seeking a welcoming, safe place to present work for praise and for constructive, sensitive critique. The group works with writers from first draft to last revision prior to publication. While BLW’s main mission is to offer assistance and support to one another, it has also sponsored writers’ residencies and scholarships and participated in writers conferences.
WRITING FROM: Sundance, Wyo.
SIZE: Currently, we have 20 members on our active email list. Members have ranged in age from 15 to 82.
FORMAT: BLW’s format is simple and effective. We sit around a large table located in a conference room at a very supportive local library, read the work, and garner both praise and critique from the other writers present at the table.
At one time, we did not bring copies of the work to pass around, but simply read the work while listeners made notes. Now, writers bring copies of the material to pass around the table. The writer reads while listeners write notes on the pages or suggest comments, and marks any corrections.
Sometimes, a writer will ask another writer to read the material. After critique, all copies are signed and returned to the writer. It cannot be stressed enough that we value kindness and respect for each writer’s work above criticism.
MEET UP: BLW gathers at the Sundance Library on the first Tuesday of every month, at 11:00 a.m., and on the third Tuesday at 5:00 p.m.
Before the reading and critique session, BLW spends about 30 minutes discussing any business, sharing information about writing successes and publishing opportunities, and answering general questions.
Those present needn’t have a piece of writing on a given day. Those who have brought work to be critiqued draw from a bag of dominoes that is passed around the table. Work is read in order from the smallest domino number to the largest.
Each writer brings a unique and valued skill set to the table. We have writers who envision the story arc, ferret out the thread of the writer’s intent and give advice on overall structure. Others are “grammar police,” able to determine proper word usage and phrasing. Members often comment about how the piece affects them emotionally and/or intellectually.
SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: Most importantly, it is about respect for the writer and the work. We are earnest about sharing a deep level of trust. What is read or said at BLW stays at the table until such time as the author chooses to share it. We offer consistent and sincere encouragement. As one member recently stated, “Bearlodge Writers is a safe place to be vulnerable.”
Welcoming new members keeps the group vibrant, while long-time members offer an historical and experienced perspective.
I am the writer referenced in the above article that travels 150 miles. I choose to make that drive because I always know the words I share at the Bearlodge critique table will be improved.
After years of attending this writing group I have come to realize one person’s dedication and sacrifice of time has made group possible for all. Through the years, others have assumed small responsibilities for tasks to assist the group’s goals. There must be someone to arrange the meeting time with the library and maintain a current contact list for the multi-genre group of beginners and advanced writers.
Gaydell Collier was that dedicated person for Bearlodge and was a charter member of Wyoming Writers. She wrote the following in February 2007:
So what makes a good writers’ group? If we had to answer in one word, we would say, respect, and that includes trust.
Respect for the writer. The writer comes as a pilgrim, bearing an offering. Whether the writer be prince (experience/published) or pauper (brand new beginner), he is granted the respect of willing attention and receipt of the critique he desires, whether it be “Does this work? Are the characters believable?” or a complete pre-pub edit. This includes respect for the writer’s emotions—a willingness to laugh or cry along with him.
Respect for the piece. To place the offering on the table requires an act of faith by the writer. This is met by the respect of serious consideration and gentle but honest critique, focusing on the merits of the piece itself, the type of critique desired, and the intent of the writer. It is never the group’s purpose to change the intent, but to clarify, to suggest, and to encourage.
Respect for the group. Each writer brings to the group his respect for its function and for the other members, making sure each one has time for his work to be discussed, is willing to give his thoughtful critique or expertise, and holds sacred within the group whatever revelations might be shared. Because of the mutal trust within the group, there is no “competition.” Everyone has the same goal—to make each other’s work the best it can be.In my mind, the most important aspect of a writing group is to make the writing better without changing the voice of the author.
Our trust and respect is built by sharing an annual Christmas party, working together to bring guest speakers to our writers and others in the area, but most of all is developed by sharing lives in essays, poems, bios for submissions, and by being present at the table.
By Kathleen Smith
PRAIRIE PENS writing group has been active since October 2004 in Gillette, Wyoming. Our group has undergone important milestones as we’ve moved forward through the years, and after experiencing the loss of Midge Farmer, the anchoring individual who gave unselfishly of her time to establish the group and was a Charter Member of Wyoming Writers.
Prairie Pens leadership has passed to Kathleen Smith and Donna Robbins, who continue to invite and encourage new writers.
Another milestone was the hosting of the Wyoming Writers Conference in Gillette in June 2017. We worked together as a group to host the catered conference in the Camplex Events Center, utilizing a hotel within easy walking distance. We learned about conference mechanics.
Our third milestone is the comaradarie and trust developed among our group from working together on this literary event. This event tied our writers in friendship and writing to others from Wyoming and other states.
FORMAT: Our writers bring copies of double spaced, one inch margin, formatted writing to share with those in attendance. Writers read their work and request criticial input, as well as praise, from the group as they look to improve their efforts. Members record their comments on the critique copy, then sign, and return the piece to the writer.
MEET UP: Prairie Pens meet at the Campbell County Library on the third Saturday of each month at 1:00 p.m. in Pioneer Room 1. We are a multi-genre group welcoming writers and writing of all kinds and of all levels who wish to participate or observe.
SUPPORT OF THE WRITER: We have governing guidelines based on those used by the Sheridan Range Writers and Bearlodge Writers. Over the years we have modified these guidelines to better fit our local writers.
LESSONS LEARNED: We host in-depth work days on specific pieces to take critique to a deeper level. We share mini lessons on topics specific to the craft of writing. Prairie Pens serves and encourages talented writers in our community.