Today’s guest post is by editor and coach Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).
You’ve been avoiding this for so long, but the problem is now unavoidable. Your fists clench on workshop day, your jaw tightens before every critique. You skim workshop submissions and check out of group discussions. Your anxiety has gotten so bad, you’ve “forgotten” a few submission dates or had “unavoidable scheduling conflicts” with Netflix or your dog. Some days, you feel like the world’s biggest jerk. On others, you dream up elaborate escape plans.
Deep in your marrow you know the truth: it’s time to leave your writing group.
You’ve left groups before, like the one with Douchebag Ken who mansplained all the things you didn’t get in his latest draft and Humblebrag Kate, who lorded her latest “Oh it was nothing” publication right before tearing your manuscript to shreds. You’ve largely blocked out that library-sponsored writing group that turned into a one-woman therapy session, and the one that quickly became a coffee klatch.
Ghosting those groups felt easy and justified. In retrospect, you can’t believe you stayed for so long. But this time, you love the people in your writing group. They’re your friends, your peeps. Only a monster would desert them.
A wise woman once told me some relationships are for a season, some for a reason, but only a few are for a lifetime. Most writing-group relationships fall in the season or reason category. That means leaving is a normal and healthy part of the workshop cycle. The question isn’t whether to leave, but how.
As a workshop aficionado and writing coach, I’ve discovered five reasons groups stop serving writers. The first is personality conflicts. But the other four have nothing to do with writer temperament or the stage of your work in progress.
1. Sometimes you outgrow your group.
Writers progress at different rates. Sometimes one critique group member leaps ahead of the others, either because they’ve studied harder or written more. Signals you’ve outgrown your group include feeling a need to catch everyone up on a missing skill and craving more sophisticated critiques. At times, you might resent the basicness of the feedback given to you.
2. It’s possible your interests have changed.
Maybe you’ve spent the past three years in a speculative fiction group, but now you’re working on a memoir. Cheers about your fantastic worldbuilding have morphed into beady-eyed glares at the three-horned, navel-gazing beast who dares to write about herself. Or maybe you’re in a memoir group and recently turned to poetry. Your memoir friends are scene-writing whizzes, but they know nothing about line breaks or meter. When a poetry group invites you to join, you feel torn between your growth and your friendships. Do you stick with the writers you know or seek the right audience for your work?
3. Sometimes priorities shift.
At first, the biweekly critique group that allowed forty-page submissions made you feel so alive. A recent promotion has whittled your writing life down to a few precious hours, turning this commitment into a burden. Sometimes the internal pressure feels so intense you avoid your inbox on submission day. Then there was that time you almost wrote I really hate you on a forty-five-page first draft. Part of you believes a real writer would tough it out, but these lengthy submissions are chipping away at both your creativity and time to generate new material.
4. Even great groups can develop unhealthy habits.
Perhaps you’ve become—or have always been—the group’s scheduler and taskmaster. You’re eager to hand the reigns to someone else, but the last time you tried, no one stepped up. Or maybe someone else has decided they’re the group’s unofficial honcho. Over time, they’ve subtly, and not so subtly, dictated meeting times, submission rules, and expectations about what, when, and how things are workshopped. You absolutely love the talented people in this group, but you already have a boss.
Leaving your writing group can elicit the same feelings as any other breakup, including grief about not seeing writing friends as often, anger that it must be this way, and fear that you won’t find anyone else to work with. But staying in a group that no longer serves you can not only stunt your growth, it can harm the relationships you’re so eager to preserve.
Tips for leaving your group with grace
- Find out why you want to leave.
- Make time to feel your feelings. If needed, discuss them with someone you trust. But don’t talk to other group members or people who gossip, especially if they know the writers you’re working with.
- Honor your desire for growth, expansion, and nourishment. Remind yourself that leaving something that doesn’t serve you is both normal and healthy.
- If fear of not finding another group arises, explore your options. Knowing what’s available will help you communicate from a place of power. If you discover other options don’t exist, maybe what you need is a reframe or a different conversation with this group.
- Once you’re ready, think about what you’re going to say. Keep it clear, concise, and kind. Set a positive tone and communicate using “I” statements. Maintain a focus on your needs and how this is good for everyone. Here’s an example to help you. “Hey guys, I’m really sad about this, but my priorities have changed, and the group isn’t working for me anymore. I love you too much to stick around when I’m not fully committed. Leaving gives you a chance to find someone who is. Because you’re so important to me, I look forward to seeing you at other times. Who’s going to next week’s reading?”
- Prepare for reactions and pressure to stay, especially if you’ve played a pivotal role. Affirm how sad and disappointing departures are, then repeat the key lines from your rehearsed speech.
- Refrain from hopping on the guilt train, and don’t buy into phrases like “we can’t go on without you,” or “I guess this means the group’s breaking up.” If the group breaks up, it probably wasn’t that strong or large enough to begin with.
- If you’re feeling generous, you can offer to introduce the group to someone who might be a good fit, or you can share resources that can helps them regroup. But don’t place their writing lives on your shoulders.
- Commemorate your time together through a closing ceremony. If the people in your group truly are friends, there’s no reason to say goodbye. Instead, have a picnic.
While writing group horror stories abound, many of us have belonged to special groups that have furthered our growth. And, while we continue to love those writers, we’ve had to move on. You can too. Wanting to leave doesn’t make you a jerk. Departing with grace is an act of kindness that furthers your development and the friendships you cherish.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.