In our last article, we talked about building your community through in-person events like conferences, author readings or other such gatherings. Today we’ll address the issue of using writing classes and workshops as a way to meet and connect with other writers.
Wait, what? You read that right. I’m suggesting that one great way to build your community is to take a writing class. I’ll be the first to admit that writing classes offered at an MFA program are great for this purpose. You can connect with other like-minded, serious writers and build a circle of trusted readers and critique partners. But do you really want to spend that kind of money for a glorified writing group when there are other more affordable options out there?
Here are a few alternatives to the MFA workshop, where you can meet other writers and build your own DIY-MFA-style writing group.
Where To Look:
Depending on where you live, there are a few different places where you can look for writing classes. Since I’m primarily familiar with New York City, I’ll share some of the options I’ve discovered in my hometown, but you can easily do an online search for similar programs in your own area.
- Specialized Writing Schools. If you live in or near a big city, there are likely a few specialized writing schools or programs that offer workshops and classes. For instance, in NYC we have places like The Writer’s Studio, The New York Writer’s Workshop and Gotham Writer’s Workshop, among many others. I myself took several classes at Gotham Writer’s Workshop before applying for an MFA. In fact, it was the work I wrote in those classes–as well as recommendations from those teachers–that helped me get into the MFA program.
- Local Colleges and Universities. Many colleges or universities offer continuing education classes, and writing is often one of the topics they will cover. For instance, The New School in New York has a Summer Writers Colony that offers writing classes open to the public. Usually MFA workshops are limited only to the degree student and most schools won’t let people outside the MFA even audit those classes. However, some schools do offer public programs like that summer writers colony, where you get the benefit of learning from MFA faculty without having to enroll in the full MFA.
- Community Centers or Local Libraries.The first writing class I took was through New York’s 92nd Street Y, which is known for its high-quality writing classes, and literary programs. But there are many excellent community centers with writing programs across the country. I would recommend checking out the YMCA in your community, or asking at your local library if they offer classes or know of classes in your area. Also, check out your local independent bookstore, which might offer readings or other events, and may also post announcements for writing classes.
What To Look For:
Use the class time as a testing ground and observe the other students. This is a great way to gauge which students are serious about writing and which ones are just dabblers. Once you get a sense for the other writers in your class, you can decide whether you want to approach any of them to continue working together after the term is over. Here are a few things you should look for in potential critique partners.
- Observe the give-and-take quotient. Some writers are very prompt and prepared when their own work is on the line but when it’s time to focus on another writer’s work, they can be conveniently absent or unprepared. Taking a class is a great way to get to know writers before you invite them into your “circle of trust.” Also, make sure that you offer at least as much “give” as you take, but don’t let the other writers take advantage of your generosity either. Focus your time and effort critiquing the work of writers who offer generous critiques back.
- Be on the lookout for writers in a similar stage as you. You want to build a group of writers around you who are in a similar place in their writing journey–people from whom you can learn, but who can also learn from you. It will do you no good to team up with a bunch of writers who are querying their books if you’ve never put a pen to page before. Similarly, if you’ve already built a solid writing career, joining a group of writers who are just starting out may force you into more of a teaching role than that of a colleague. The best groups are ones where everyone can learn from each other, but also everyone feels they contribute something of value to the group. Whenever possible, I try to find writing colleagues who are a half-step ahead of where I am. This way I still feel like I bring something to the table but I also feel motivated to work hard so that I don’t hold the group back.
- Watch for quality and resonance of feedback. After a few weeks in class, you’ll have a good sense about which writers give feedback that feels spot-on and resonates with you, and which writers just don’t seem to “get” your work. This is not to say that you should avoid working with writers unless they agree with everything you write, but if someone doesn’t understand your writing then their feedback won’t be all that useful to you. If you write kids books and another writer insists your writing is “too young-sounding,” clearly they don’t get your work. You want to connect with colleagues who will challenge you to be the best writer you can be, but you don’t want them to force you to be something you’re not.
In later articles, we’ll talk in more depth about actually putting a critique group together, how to manage meetings and make the most of each other’s feedback. For the time being, consider taking a class in your area. Focus on looking locally because chances are the other students in your class will also be local, making it easier to meet up again afterwards.
TIP: If any of the programs offer a free sample class, take advantage of the opportunity to see if a teacher or course is a good fit for you.
At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of long-distance critique buddies either. Some of my most trusted colleagues live in another state from me and we communicate over email and Skype. The beauty of technology is that you can connect with like-minded writers around the world! In the next article, we’ll talk about connecting with writers via online communities and you’ll hear about an exciting experiment we’ll be trying here at DIY MFA.