Becky Levine and the Basement of a Mall

A while ago, I ordered Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.  Because I ordered it to be delivered along with the more-than-popular LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary (on back order for all you hard-core LEGO and Star Wars fans), I didn’t receive the book until last week.

I’m not far into Becky Levine’s book yet, but I read just enough to carry me through my first meeting with a local writing group this afternoon.

She writes:

Take care to make the meeting worth your time and money. Talk to people. Too often, at these events, writers give in to their nervousness, shyness, or just their uncertainty about their own writing.

…[R]emember: This is your writing. It’s important. I’m not advocating shoving yourself into the middle of someone else’s discussion or waving a red flag in the bathroom line, but put yourself out there (pgs. 14-15).

The woman who runs this particular local group emailed me the room information, said I was welcome to attend, and mentioned that they would all be bringing a sample of their work to share.

Yesterday, I worked a split shift at my paying job and was gone most of the day. My daughter cried both times I had to leave, so the decision to steal away for another two hours today wasn’t easy. Add, to that guilt, the anxiety about sitting in a room with strangers and reading a short story out loud (for the first time to someone other than myself), and I could have easily backed out. But, something in my gut told me – and Becky Levine’s words encouraged me – to go to this meeting.

When I got to the building, I came upon another woman looking for the meeting room. She smiled, told me her name, and immediately set me at ease. We made our way to the basement of the building and walked into the meeting together. She introduced me to her friends as a “fellow traveler.”

It was a small group, and I mostly just listened. When it came time to read our samples of work, I hesitated. A few of the members were aging adults, and the conversation, in the beginning, drifted from writing to assisted living. In the story I brought to read aloud, a young woman visits her grandmother in a nursing home. I thought maybe they wouldn’t like the story, that they would think I was rude to read that kind of story to this group. Worse yet, I worried they might not like my writing style.

Then, I remembered,

This is your writing.
It’s important.
Put yourself out there.

So, in the basement of a shopping mall, I sat around a table with six other writers and read my work. My face grew hot and my voice wavered. But, I pushed off that feeling of insecurity and panic and kept my eyes on the words.

After I finished, one person noted a place where I might change the wording to make it more clear. Everyone else sat quiet. Someone got up to leave. I tried to interpret the silence, then I decided, Oh well, at least I took the action.

I can’t control their response.
Nor, can I assume I know what it means.

And, isn’t that the way it is with every story a writer sends out into the world?

Before the meeting ended, the woman who introduced me earlier offered some kind words about my story. The man across the table suggested my published works will be filed in the group’s archives one day. I left the meeting with a few phone numbers and an invitation to come back.

I don’t know that I had much in common with the people there today, other than writing itself. But, when Becky Levine talks about finding a writing or critique group, she doesn’t mention we should search for people like ourselves: with kids or without, working day jobs or not, old or young. Instead, she emphasizes that we follow our gut instinct.

Find a group where we feel welcomed and supported – a group that will meet our writing needs.

My gut tells me that I found several good souls sitting at a table in a mall basement today, who passed kind words around the circle and who didn’t kick me out after my first reading. I can’t wait to go back.

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15 responses to “Becky Levine and the Basement of a Mall

  1. Good for you! Every group has such a different vibe. The commenting may not have been what you bargained for, but it doesn’t mean anything negative about your writing. I have a really hard time giving a critique off the cuff, and prefer to have the piece ahead of time to write comments on. Could be any number of responses you’re not hearing.

    First readings are the hardest. Hang in there and read to friends 🙂

    • Thank Victoria.
      Yeah, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t walk in with a romanticized vision of what might happen (kind of like Ralphy in the Christmas Story when his teacher reads his “theme”).

      So, everything about that experience was exactly what I needed, even the silence 🙂

  2. Good job! A silent response can intimidate anyone.

    The members of the writing groups I’ve participated in are varied in age, social class, profession, and family situation; and I’ve come to believe such diversity improves a group’s personality. Other kinds of diversity are less helpful, but Levine’s book probably discusses that.

    • Ann, I think you’re right. Diversity probably enriches the group. And, I can’t wait to read more of Becky Levine’s book – there’s lots of great stuff already!

  3. Christi, what a wonderful way to wake up this morning! I am SO glad you took this first step and so glad you met a fellow traveler. It’s a journey that should be shared! Good luck with your writing and your critiquing. Thank you so much for posting this.

  4. I’ve recently bought this book too, and I’m using it as a guide to “objectively” critiquing my own work.

    My first experience having my work critiqued by a group was a bit different, but just as jarring. In that group, work was not read aloud, but submitted ahead of time so everyone was ready with their comments. I was overwhelmed and nearly didn’t return to the group. But I did and learned a good bit eventually.

    I’m proud of you for taking this step. I’m sure your upcoming class will benefit you more with helpful comments.

    • Thanks, Linda. I’m looking forward to using the book to learn more about self-editing as well.

      Last night’s experience was a great (and safe) initiation to prepare me for the upcoming workshop, where – I know you’re right – I’ll hear a lot more of what I need.

  5. Nothing like that first exposing step into the bright lights! I haven’t done it ‘live’ as it were, but pitched a couple of stories (and critiques) into the online group Critique Circle, which felt pretty hair-raising. You don’t quite get the silence but you certainly get the diversity and even if it tells you nothing about your writing per se (unlikely) it does tell you about the vagaries of human interest and that’s valuable marketing information. Or so it seems to me, as a cheerful optimist.

  6. Congrats! The first group meeting is always the hardest. And you walked away with such a positive attitude…and you’re leaping and bounding into a workshop!

    I hope you go back to that basement a couple more times at least. In the end, it may not be the group for you, but the first meeting, the group is feeling you out as much as you’re feeling them out. I know several people in my critique group, myself included, are actually nervous when a new person comes in…we don’t know what level of critique they’re expecting and are not sure how they’ll handle it. It’s like a first date: everyone’s nervous.

    I had a similar experience when joining my current group. The piece that I shared was from the point of view of a senior with dementia and I was mid-20s at the time. I walked in and faced a table that was half seniors and completely freaked out. I think it was the realization that being published or sharing with a writing group meant that I wouldn’t be the only person reading my story (shocking, I know).

    • Cam,

      Thanks for stopping by, and especially for leaving your comment.

      It was a successful first date (love that analogy), and I’m definitely going back.

      And, I laughed out loud when I read about your first experience – the story and the audience. I’m always amazed at how writers’ paths run so parallel!

  7. Oh wow, Christi! My stomach got butterflies just reading about your experience! You were indeed very brave! I think it’s easier to do online when we can put our best face forward. But in person, it takes so much more courage!

  8. Thanks, Jody, for visiting and leaving a comment. It seems like everything about writing takes courage. I figure, the more I face my fears, the easier it will get…I hope, anyway! 🙂

  9. I’m proud of you. 🙂

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