This is a benefit of finding your cohort outside of an MFA: It’s much more flexible.
That’s what I’ve heard. I don’t have an MFA. For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that I will get one. Though the only degree my writing path includes is an undergrad degree in business management, it doesn’t imply that I’m deprived of one of the MFA’s greatest gifts.
Sin City Writers Group was everything a writer at the start of their journey could ask for: welcoming, gentle, and honest. Crossing the threshold and sharing work that has been private for days, months, and even years is a vulnerable act and one that deserves an audience that respects and understands the inherent challenges. I didn’t know this at the time, but I got lucky when I found Sin City Writers Group through the site Meetup. Not every workshop is created equal. Especially at the onset, it’s important that there is kindness as well as criticism. That the comments are constructive. Every group will have a de facto facilitator or actual leader. How does this person act as they set the tone for acceptable behavior? I often wonder how my writing path would have unfurled if my first experience wasn’t as supportive.
Meetup, since it’s free and easily searchable for in-person or virtual writing groups, is still a good resource for finding like-minded individuals. And it’s not the only one. What is the hub for literary activity in your community? These hubs can exist in many forms. Your town’s only independent bookstore (which, if you’re anything like me, has the oxymoronic effect of simultaneously slowing your heartbeat and raising your blood pressure). A library that dims the lights for story time, smells like reading on a picnic blanket, and sounds like the crinkle of something borrowed but precious. The community center where the contrary converges, water aerobics for the elderly and karate for kindergarteners. A coffee shop with an open mic night, mismatched chairs, and a purple velvet couch. Identifying these places can help give you the space to build connections.
You can grow those relationships over time by attending events at the aforementioned hubs, talking to staff, signing up for newsletters, supporting other writers’ work, checking bulletin or announcement boards, reviewing the businesses’ websites, or engaging through social media. Volunteering at a writing or literary-adjacent organization can widen your circle too. Depending on where you live, there may be an embarrassment of places where organic interactions can develop with other folks who are writing and may have already started a workshop. If you can’t locate a critique group in your community, consider starting one. As you start exploring your options, be mindful of what is a realistic time commitment for you. Joining or starting a workshop is labor that you may need to make room for in your life. And there’s nothing wrong with putting limits on what you can give.
As I moved farther along in my writing journey, the gentle approach was not as productive or inspiring. I sought to surround myself with writers who were more seasoned, whose goals aligned with mine and sparked a drive to reach their level. It was through a specific attendee of Sin City Writers Group that I was introduced to two other distinctive circles—Henderson Writers Group and Las Vegas Creative Writing Class. The latter splintered into a new group called Summerlin Writer’s Critique Group (for brevity’s sake, I privately dubbed them The Monday Group).
Henderson Writers Group, or HWG, is a full-on nonprofit organization powered by volunteers and government grants. They have paying members, educational events, and an annual convention. They also have three different weekly critique groups, one of which takes place in a church.
The atmosphere at the HWG meetings was congenial but markedly more serious than the breezy and boozy feel of my first group. HWG also had a subset meeting for erotica writers; it was hosted in the home of one of the members—a woman with a tender voice, big heart, and don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. Her gatherings were punctuated with easy laughter, low lighting, and homemade cake.
The Monday Group was famously critical. If you were looking for encouragement on the memoir or high fantasy series you started writing—without any regard toward revision or rules—these sessions were not where you’d encounter said encouragement. Everyone who brought in work was held to the same standard, regardless of experience level. This meant that newcomers often left with a laundry list of what they had done wrong. Questions like Why should I care about these characters? were common. A flair for vocabulary and not holding back promised that, while being eviscerated, you would at least learn some new words.
The fellow writer who encouraged me to attend thought I would benefit from this brand of critique, that it would aid in elevating my work. She was right. And not only from a prose perspective. The writing and publishing world is full of rejection. Rejection from literary magazines. Rejection from agents. Rejection from presses. Rejection from editors. Rejection from readers. The ability to persist in the face of repudiation is essential for any writer looking for longevity in their career.
Persistence and determination aside, my writing journey is by no means prescriptive. It’s only meant to illustrate that there is more than one path to take. And the way I participate and am read in writing spaces is reflective of my identity and the certain privileges (such as whiteness) that identity provides. Many writing spaces generally tend to center a white, straight, nondisabled experience. For folks in marginalized communities, the MFA—as it is now—can make for a lonely, othering educational ordeal, and for folks outside of those communities, it can lead to an echo chamber that reinforces rather than challenges. This reality is present in writing groups too, which highlights the need to work toward greater inclusivity in both arenas.
By 2018, I had added two more regular meetings, The Coven and the local chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or SCBWI. A few members of the Henderson Writers Group began attending writing classes together. We met for brunch after class and decided to invite the teacher to join us. With over-sugared pancakes, tea, coffee, and mimosas on the table, we discussed influences, inspiration, and what it meant to be a woman and a writer.
Later on, we exchanged pages. I was in awe of these women and their work. At this point, I arrived at an overwhelming number of workshops, and all the scenarios that led me to them have one thing in common—reaching out. Taking the risk and putting myself out there, talking to people, and asking questions. This may be easier to do than ever before. With more and more virtual options becoming accessible (Zoom, Slack, Twitter, online writing classes offered by places like Catapult and Lounge Writers), we’re starting to bridge formerly insurmountable gaps. Using these tools and spaces wisely, considerately, you can recognize who your people are and make a connection.
Using these tools and spaces wisely, considerately, you can recognize who your people are and make a connection.
With the additions of SCBWI and The Coven, my regular meetings were increased to a total count of six. I was hooked. Addicted to the camaraderie, community, shared experiences, and positive feedback. A fiend for these gatherings where my opinion mattered and I could be a cheerleader for emerging writers I admired. The meetings opened me up, soft, squishy organs exposed, ready to absorb the writer’s life.
But the writer’s life wasn’t my entire life. I had a husband, friends, family, a job. Trying to balance those elements with my newfound passion was troubling. The number of weekly workshops I was attending meant I was spending more time reading other people’s unfinished work than finishing my own. I chose to concentrate on fewer genres, and this alone whittled the assortment.
I decided to stay with the meeting that made me the most uncomfortable, in the best possible way—The Monday Group. I had to be frank with myself about what I was gaining from each crowd. This is a benefit of finding your cohort outside of an MFA: It’s much more flexible. You hold the power of curating the “group of people banded together,” whereas, in an MFA, that group is curated for you, with varying levels of success. In addition, leaving an MFA cohort means leaving the MFA itself, a costly and emotionally draining decision.
The decision to drop certain workshops was painful since I’d gotten close to members of those groups. But I also didn’t have the added burden of walking away from a financial commitment that I had spent considerable time and effort making. With fewer engagements came a sharper focus on the type of writing and skills I wanted to hone. It also gave me more free time to spend recharging doing non-writing-related activities (although, if I’m honest, I believe that for writers, all activities are writing related).
As your writing evolves, your needs and goals may be different. Being aware of those changes will ensure that you can continue to identify the people that will challenge you and the places where you can contribute to the community in a positive way.
Flexibility becomes even more important when you’re slipping in and out of groups, as there may be times in your life when you have the ability to give more. More of your time, energy, and labor. For me, it went as far as volunteering to co-chair the aforementioned writer’s conference for HWG, a decision that burned me out for months after the event. Be ready for an ebb and flow, for those days, months, or years when you (or others) can’t be as generous.
It’s a Tuesday evening in 2021. I’ve turned off the desktop provided by my day job. I walk downstairs and set my water on a coaster before wedging myself into my favorite corner of the overstuffed gray beast that is our couch. My husband has turned on my laptop ahead of time so that I won’t be late. A Zoom link waits in my inbox. A window pops up. I fix my hair and tilt the screen.
The Monday Group meets on Tuesdays now. I open three Word documents. One of them is my flash fiction list about movie monsters and an asshole named Chad. The other two include a chapter in a spooky YA novel and a short story about a neglectful, possibly murderous father. Four faces appear on my screen; one of them is backlit like he’s in witness protection. I tuck my legs under and wave hello. I am home.
Veronica Klash loves living in Las Vegas and writing in her living room. She is a Folio Award-winning essayist. Her fiction has been anthologized most recently in What I Thought of Ain't Funny a collection inspired by the comedy of the late Mitch Hedberg. You can read her flash fiction in Wigleaf, X-Ray Lit, and Cheap Pop among others. Her work has been featured in the Wigleaf Top 50 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Veronica is working on a short story collection set in Las Vegas. Find her tweets @veronicaklash.