By Cindy Brookshire
“Isabel’s church seems to split up every five or six years with great drama and many hard feelings,” writes Margaret Maron in her 2010 Deborah Knott novel, “Christmas Mourning.”
Sound like your writers group? It happened to mine.
I helped found Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. We started out in 2011 as a handful of writers networking at a local coffee shop in Manassas, Virginia. We established monthly meetings, shared book sales tables at events, produced a New Departures anthology. We crafted bylaws to become a chapter of the state organization. We joined the Prince William County Arts Council and Prince William Chamber of Commerce, applied for grants, hosted Rising Writers workshops, supported George Mason University’s Fall for the Book festival and read to children in schools.
Then I moved to North Carolina in late 2014. The group back in Manassas was experiencing growing pains as its rolls swelled to close to 100 members. Simple tasks, like updating the member list, or sharing the treasurer’s report, weren’t being done. Not everyone was on Facebook, so communication with the whole membership was spotty. Domineering personalities bullied others when they didn’t participate. On the same day two officers resigned in frustration, one writer summed it up: “Not everyone is on the same page on the mission of group and expectations of members.”
At the request of the president, I stepped back in to help. I felt like I was entering an overwhelmed restaurant, where departing sous chefs had thrown off their aprons while a dining room full of hungry customers clamored for food. I rolled up my sleeves and started working. I updated the member list, drafted e-news copy, helped administer the Facebook group, and traveled to Manassas to volunteer and participate in three literary events. I didn’t respond to private messages or emails that tried to pull me into the drama. It just wasn’t productive.
Thankfully, the October 2015 event that the chapter sponsored with the Poetry Society of Virginia, “In the Company of Laureates,” went well. Monthly meetings since then have been peaceful and a fresh leadership team is in place.
I asked June Forte, lifetime member and former president of the Virginia Writers Club for her reflections on the chapter’s bumpy ride:
“Writers groups, as they grow, naturally evolve,” said Forte. “But the officers or administers of these groups have an obligation to consider and balance the entire membership’s interest. If things seem unfair, walking away from the group may turn out to be a self-imposed exile that excludes a member from the comraderie, information and inspiration of fellow writers – the very things that brought the group together.”
“Flexibility is central,” Forte added. “Many successful writing groups create complementary smaller-group writing activities that meet more specific interests: open-mic nights, critique groups, genre-focused meetings, and informal meetups. Other members may want to spend time participating in activities that encourage writing and reading in the community through visits to classrooms, libraries, senior living communities and even jails or prisons. A thriving writers group embraces change; it goes with the flow.”
I wish June Forte and my other writing friends in Virginia a healthy 2016 as the local literary scene continues to expand. June reports that besides Write by the Rails, she has joined a small group of screenwriters that has begun to meet in Bristow, Virgina. My goal: To apply the lessons learned from past experience so I can thrive in my current writers group in North Carolina.
Five takeaways to keep writers’ groups on track:
1. Focus on your group’s mission. Are you a critique group or a networking group? Are you both? Set goals and motivate members to take positive steps to achieve those goals.
2. Share basic knowledge of writing, editing, publishing and marketing with fellow members. Save book sales pitches for exterior audiences.
3. Have a code of conduct. Confront strong personalities and enforce the code. Respect each other. Keep conversation civil, especially on social media.
4. Foster positive community relationships with bookstore managers, news media, etc.
5. As June Forte recommends, embrace change and go with the flow. Be flexible.
Cindy Brookshire is co-founder of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, based in Manassas, Virginia. (www.writebytherails.org). She now lives in Pine Level, North Carolina and is a member of the Johnston County Writers Group, which meets the second Thursday of every month at 6:30 pm at Selma Public Library, 301 N. Pollock Street in Selma. Her short story, “Loose Threads,” won second place in the 2015 NC Senior Games’ Silver Arts competition in Raleigh. Visit her blog athttps://cookies4nataka.wordpress.com/.