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WINTER 1999 ISSUE

How to Start a Taller Líterario In Your Community:
A guide to the joys and challenges of sharing your writing with others

by Rachel Barron
illustration by Francisco Letelier

 

Ready to up your ante in the literary world? Why not start a writers’ group - a taller líterario - in your community?

In a writers’ group, “you actually might live your life as a writer,” says Margarita Luna-Robles, Public Relations Officer for California State University Summer Arts Program, and a writers’ group facilitator. “If you don’t hang out with writers and artists, then the other part of your life [becomes] more important.”

Working with other writers - published or unpublished - who want to strengthen their skills can help you hone your work and lead you to new creative territory. You’ll experience critiquing sessions, the sharing of useful market information, and can find relief from that feeling of isolation - after all, writing can be a lonely endeavor.

• You can start a writers’ group

“Whoever musters the audacity” is the person who should begin a writers’ group, says Tony Díaz, author of “The Aztec Love God” and “Latino Heretics,” and director and founder of the non-profit organization Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. If you’re worried that professional experience is a prerequisite, Díaz says, relax. “Usually it’s not a ‘writer’ who starts a writers’ group.”

• Step One: Find other writers

Post announcements at your local bookstore, college, and community center. Consider placing an ad in a writers’ magazine. You can also recruit members when you attend writers’ conferences and workshops.

Seven to ten people seems to be ideal - it’s small enough to hold meaningful dialogue and big enough to diversify the conversation.

• Create goals and guidelines

The first item to discuss is the goal of the group. This can be as simple as everyone agreeing to produce a new piece of work for each meeting, or as detailed as a mission statement. Either way, with a clear definition of what the group wishes to accomplish, meetings will be more productive.

It may help to make sure that everyone is interested in the genres that will be discussed. An essayist and a romance novelist may both be writers, but they might not have the desire to provide constructive critiques.

Once the group has a goal, address the logistics. Where should you meet? How often? And for how long? Will there be one leader? Should members be reminded via e-mail or phone call of the next meeting? Who will contact them with a friendly reminder?

• Keep the group focused

It’s all too easy for writers’ groups to degenerate into reading clubs, social soirees, and mutual admiration societies. Keep the group focused on writing by creating a loose agenda for every meeting. But keep it creative, too. “Smooth anarchy” is the way to go, suggests Díaz.

• How to critique members’ work

Critiquing is an essential component of most talleres. Luna-Robles and Díaz recommend no more than four critiques per meeting, with perhaps ten pages per writer.

Should the work be read before or at the meeting? If members receive materials ahead of time, they have time to contemplate and formulate their thoughts. On the flip side, if they hear the work read at the meeting, members might offer more spontaneous reactions. Each group evolves its own style of critiquing.

• Be constructive, make it mutual

“It’s important to keep the talking to what’s on the page,” says Luna-Robles. Make sure that a critique session doesn’t turn into a slugfest by providing constructive criticism. Luna-Robles reminds her groups that “we are here because of writing. We are here to respect each other and to put value on our writing, not to say that ‘your writing sucks.’”

Those being critiqued should take an active role. “Writers should be clear with what their intent is,” says Luna-Robles. It is important for writers to understand that, in the end, “to change or not change their work is the writer’s decision.”

• Dealing with disruptive personalities

If an overbearing or destructive personality overtakes the group, Luna-Robles says a good leader should step in to keep the group on track. “Listen and validate what people are saying,” she says. Many times disruptive individuals desire attention, and acknowledging their comments in a constructive manner can reassure them. “But be O.K. with saying that your time is up,” she says “A good leader will be concerned with time.”

Make sure there’s a back-up plan. Early on, establish a set of guidelines and a way to deal with or remove troublesome members.

• Keep the juices flowing

Look for activities that will keep a group’s enthusiasm up. Luna-Robles assigns a writing exercise once a week. “Homework is crucial,” she says, since it gives writers a tangible goal. It’s also a practical way to get big projects done: “One assignment per week, four pieces a month , 48 pieces a year, that’s a small chapbook.”

“Get beyond your own circle,” says Díaz, and invite visiting writers to participate. “Contact writers you respect or loathe and use them as models,” he says. “When they read, they are setting examples. Have them look at others’ work and give insight.”

Even though you don’t want your group to grow too large, it’s a good idea to stay open to new recruits. “There is a whole globe of writers out there,” says Luna-Robles. By introducing new personalities and their work, writers’ groups can regain a fresh perspective.

• Beyond the door

Writers’ groups are not restricted by the rooms in which they meet. “Get beyond self-expression and bring it into the community,” says Díaz. If the group feels confident, host a reading at a local coffee house or book store.

If you’re still apprehensive about starting a writers’ group, remember: try not to place outrageous expectations on yourself or the group. “Your final definition of success should not be publication. Publication is an expression of success,” says Díaz.

“Writing does not just happen at a desk,” reminds Luna-Robles. “It happens every time you breathe. Believe in what you do and follow through. Consistency is the practice.”

“And love it,” she adds.

Excess

Professional and closeted writers alike can benefit from forming a writers’ group. This can be an excellent opportunity to develop your writing and unleash the hidden prowess of your written word. bottled up creativity. Spending time with a group of people-published or unpublished -who are serious about writing often acts as the inspirational tool to help you get writing.

Be open to new and diverse members. “There is a whole globe of writers out there,” says Luna-Robles. By only remaining with only one gathering (set) of people, writers’ groups can begin to exhibit undue or excessive pride. “We need to be careful with a self-righteous attitude,” she says.

“You have to imagine what your ideal writers’ group is and work toward that. Listen to the delusions of grandeur first and try to find it and the core group will mitigate what can’t be done.”

Pulled quote from website: “Make it a firm rule that no one may critique another’s work unless his or hers work is being critiqued as well. This forces those who need a writing incentive to come up with the “price of admission” for each criticism session. It also puts everyone on equal footing, something important where egos and personal sensitivities are involved.”

By only remaining with one gathering of people, writers’ groups can begin to exhibit undue or excessive pride. “We need to be careful with a self-righteous attitude,” says Luna-Robles.

Writers’ groups offer an opportunity to unleash individual prowess for the written word. Spending time with a group of people - published or unpublished - who are looking to up their anti in the literary world often ignites efforts to improve writing skills and push writers into new territories of creativity.

When starting a writers’ group the first step is to post an announcement. “Once you put the sign out, people will fall out of the trees and fall into writerdom,” boasts Díaz. “Once you become the manifestation of this group, the rest will fall into place.”



© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine