I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I attended my first Madison Area Writer's League (MAWL) meeting tonight at Banzo's Mediterranean restaurant on the east side of town. I have attended other writer group meetings similar to this before and they haven't been particularly useful as a tool for motivating and improving my writing, other than just to validate that I am a fairly talented writer on the whole. Validation is certainly good, because I tend to be a bit insecure about my writing talents, notwithstanding a journalism degree and over 15 years of professional writing experience in Corporate America. The mechanics I certainly have down. But what I am really looking for is not validation so much as brutally honest constructive critique of my writing, no matter how painful or irritating or demoralizing it may be to hear, so I can get better at the art of creative writing and give my readers what they want.
My friend Elizabeth, a writing professor and published fiction and non-fiction book author, invited me to this meeting during a social outing late last fall when I told her I was working on a couple of books. I had picked her brain on the subject of book writing via an "informational interview" a few months before that. Elizabeth had asked me to review some of her writing last year and I must have done a decent job of it if she thought me worthy of attending her writing critique group.
I was not disappointed with the MAWL group. It met my expectations and may be a good one for me to be involved with. I didn't submit anything for critique because it was my first meeting and I wanted to scope it out and see how it went first. I had a sense that if Elizabeth found it worthy, I probably would too.
Prior to the meeting, I had reviewed Elizabeth's submission, the first four chapters of her newest novel in progress, which she had emailed me a few weeks before my recent fortnight of tropical vacation. Several of the participants submitted their work a day or two before the meeting and I didn't have time to review the longer ones of those (other than a short triad of haikus submitted by a woman I learned was an MD resident at UW Hospital). I fully disclosed this when I arrived at Banzo and met the small amicable group of writers. It seemed to be understood that if you submit at the last minute, you might not get as many or as comprehensive reviews from the group, par for the course. My rule of thumb for writing group submission etiquette is to allow one full day per page of manuscript, probably because I am a slow reader, but also because people have other responsibilities too and there are often multiple submissions for each meeting that people need to get through.
The group was intelligent and got really deep into the critiques and discussion of the submissions, which proved helpful to the submitters. Even though I did not have a submission at this meeting, I could tell this group is the sort I am seeking as far as getting serious, useful feedback to empower my writing. I felt like I was among equals and professionals, which also served to validate my self worth as an aspiring author.
I am feeling good about submitting some of my short fiction or book excerpts for review at the next meeting, in late March.
Near the end of our meeting, one of Banzo's wait staff enquired as to what we were doing.
"Are you guys working on a book or something?" she asked, apparently eavesdropping on as well as intrigued by the energetic discussion we were having.
"Several books," Eric, the MAWL group organizer replied warmly. "This is our group that meets to talk about our writing."
"Oh, how cool," the waitress said, smiling. "I graduated from college with a communication arts degree, but my favorite class I took was creative writing."
"We've recruited waiters and bartenders in the past," Eric informed her, by way of passive invitation that the group was open to newcomers of all stripes, such as myself.
I left the meeting feeling very upbeat and positive and I am looking forward to the next one.