Critique Groups: Saying Good-Bye

The Cochise Writers’ Group, which I co-founded with Cappy Hanson, has gone through phases of growth and contraction, as every group does. We’ve been as small as four members, and as large as 17! We hit that number about a year ago and it became obvious very quickly that if we didn’t do something, the group was going to be unmanageable. The first thing we did was close the group to new members.

Our only saving grace was that not everyone in the group was submitting work. A lot of the new members did initially, in that burst of enthusiasm that comes with being new at something, but that tapered off over the months. Now we’ve got about half a dozen members who submit work more or less regularly, and that makes things easier to handle, both from a critique standpoint and from a management one.

But as the months went by, it became clear to us that some of our longer-term members weren’t actually contributing much. Their attendance was spotty, they only provided critiques once in a while, and they weren’t submitting work. Something had to change.

Now, we’d been pretty tolerant with these folks. Some had been regulars at our every-two-weeks meetings, and had contributed work in the past. But now they were dealing with medical issues, either their own or their aging parents’, or there were work issues, or other things, and for the sake of keeping them engaged in the writing process, at least a little, we’d let them remain members. That was fine while those problems were active, but as they resolved themselves, these “writers” now weren’t living up to the expectations document we’d put together over the summer.

So Cappy and I looked over our membership list just after Christmas and picked out half a dozen people whom we felt we needed to say, “Time to fish or cut bait.” We each took three and either talked to them in person or over the phone. No e-mails; this all had to be personal.

The message was this: You have until the end of March to do the following, or we’re going to have to ask you to leave. (1) Start attending regularly, even if that’s only at one of our two locations. (We meet in two different towns, Sierra Vista and Bisbee, which are about 30 road miles apart. Some of us drive 60 miles or more, round trip, to get to our meetings. This wouldn’t be acceptable, or even necessary, in a big city. In a rural area, it’s just the way things are.)The end of a dream

(2) Start critiquing everything the other members send out. If you have to send your critiques back via e-mail, that’s fine. If you have to give them to one of the members who goes to all meetings so they can deliver them in person two weeks later, that’s fine. But do the work.

(3) Start submitting, or at least participate in the Google Docs spreadsheet one of us created to record your daily word count, how much time you spent working, or whatever. In other words, we’re a working writers’ group: prove to us that you’re writing.

That got some of the people to step up.  Some took that necessary deep breath and made their first submission. Others, however, did little or nothing.

And so, on Tuesday night, Cappy and I took the first of those people aside and gave her the news: we were asking her to leave the group.

This is never easy. We’ve only had to do it once before. The truth is, though, that besides actual writers, critique groups attract other people: wannabes, dreamers, procrastinators, lookie-loos, groupies, people looking for some kind of social contact. Dead weight, in other words, for a working group. Those people have to be identified, given a chance to change, and if they fail or refuse, let go.

It’s not easy. It’s never fun.

And it’s absolutely necessary.

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