In order to survive, every baby bird must eventually launch from the nest. Imagine that first instinctual leap, the one that comes because it has to, because even a bird, weeks old, knows what must happen for it to thrive. That leap is what it’s like to leave a critique group.
When I was a little baby writer (and, yes, I am still a little baby writer—I believe we are all little baby writers no matter what the future brings), I was a lost girl. I wrote poems at random in notebooks I couldn’t keep track of. I kept an online journal that was intensely personal, a journal that, turns out, was only written for my friends. Once they stopped reading it, I stopped writing it. I was writing a book, a very bad book, and then a short story, a very bad short story, with a fresh, false start each week. I kept at this story for months. No, I never finished it, thank god. In other words, I was completely aimless. That is, until I joined my first critique group.
Typically, it takes a few tries to find the right group for you. I was incredibly lucky to find my group on the first try.
This group met weekly, every Tuesday night at the local library. I joined for a year, dropped out to get my library degree, and came back three years later. I still remember that first session coming back, how terrified I was. The opening pages of my novel shook in my hand. The group read it in silence. I tried not to vomit. Then, the timer went off and critique began.
Reader, they loved it. It was as if no time had passed since my last visit. There was work to be done, but it was work worth doing. “Come back again next week,” they said. And I did, unfailingly, every week for the next three years.
I wrote the entire first draft of my first book with them. I wrote the drafts of the first three short stories I ever published. For years, we shared our work, our successes, our let-downs—and then I moved to Nashville with my husband.
I did immediate Googling and found a couple of critique groups right off. None that met weekly or all that often. None with regulars. None with that same unique center that held me together for so long. I started my own group, somewhat in vain. I knew I was just trying to recreate something that couldn’t be copied. What I’d had was magic. Now it was gone, and I was struggling.
I kept in touch with my old group; we emailed our work back and forth. But I had gone from having others read my work and give me feedback face to face every week to a big black hole that looked strangely like a blank Word doc on my computer screen. I wanted my group back so badly. I wanted anyone to read my work and tell me it was okay, that what I was doing was worthwhile. But now, hundreds of miles away in a new city, the only person to tell me my writing was valuable and important was me.
So I did. I took the leap. (Imagine me, the baby bird.)
I eventually published a short story I had drafted with the group but struggled to finish since leaving them. I was struggling because, ultimately, I was waiting for someone else to tell me it was finished. All this time, I had always waited for permission to submit. Now, I had to give that permission to myself.
I took the story as far as it could go, I figured out what “done” meant to me, and I submitted it, again and again. Six months later, it was accepted for publication at one of the oldest, established print journals in the country. I cried. And then I immediately sent the news to my old group, who were ecstatic.
Since then, I have tested my wings and published more stories in more amazing journals, side by side with writers I admire. I have stopped trying to recreate the exact group I once had but instead focus on finding a handful of readers willing to share their work with me.
Turns out, Nashville does have a burgeoning literary scene, thanks to The Porch, which I joined and now work for. I collected enough writers looking for feedback that we started Draft Chats, a monthly feedback circle held at The Porch headquarters. I still have my original group to lean on when I need them. Like right now—as soon as I finish the draft of this piece, I will be going to our Facebook group to ask if anyone wants to read it. I know there will be takers; there are always at least two.
So how will you know when it’s time to leave your critique group? More important, how will you know when it’s time to go back? Here’s how I break it down:
Use trusted readers on the early drafts.
Those writers in my first critique group know more about me and my process than anyone else in the writing world. They encouraged me when I didn’t have the ability to believe in myself. Even now, years later, they can still see through the blemishes of my early drafts to the concept underneath, even when it’s still a shaky concept for me. So when I have a draft I’m not sure about, or a story that frankly scares me, I turn to them first for feedback. They know how to strengthen my weakened heart.
Use targeted readers on the later drafts.
Since I have been actively collecting writers for feedback, I now have a handful of people in my back pocket I can ask to give specific critiques. One who is great with essays, another with genres, a poet, short story editors, novelists, those with MFAs and those without. I have a perfect feedback reader for nearly every situation.
How do I find these readers? Simple. I offer to trade work. They read my stuff and I read theirs. It becomes very clear to us both if we’re a match for each other’s work or not.
Find your formula for the right amount of feedback.
If there is a piece you’re struggling to finish, it might be because you’ve gotten too much feedback. All readers are different and all experiences are subjective. One reader may notice one issue while another focuses on something completely different. (This is why it’s good to have targeted readers.) If you were to “fix” every issue every reader brings up, you’re guaranteed never to finish the piece, and may even lose what it was you loved about it to begin with. (Remember the story I mentioned restarting every week for months? Yeah.) After years of tinkering, I now have a “formula” I use for feedback:
- Draft quickly. Set the piece aside.
- Read it later, and write a “clean-up” draft.
- Send to trusted readers. This second draft is the one I usually send to my trusted readers. I will either have it read in a critique group setting and or send it to my shortlist of trusted crit buddies.
- Receive feedback from trusted readers. Edit.
- Send to targeted readers. Re-read, identify the issues I am still struggling with, and send it to targeted readers–usually just one or two other writers who I know will have good insight on the issues.
- Take a few more passes.
- Make my own final decisions.
This process can take days, weeks or several months, depending on how confident I feel about the work. Which means that you must…
Learn how to trust your gut.
This is the hardest part of writing and the part that is most rewarding. This is what separates hobbyists from professionals. And it is only earned through time, practice, and experience. The more you write, the more you receive feedback, the more you are able to discern what works for you and what you like.
This is how you find that elusive voice—it can’t be found if others are constantly speaking. You’ve got to hear it with your own ears. You’ve got to learn how to fly.
Imagine you, baby bird, soaring from the nest.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee where she is currently at work on her second book. Her stories and essays have appeared in Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine and more. Her story “Formation” was named a finalist in the Texas Institute of Letters Kay Cattarrula Award for Best Short Story. To see more of her writing or to get in touch, please visit her website or follow her at @lisabubert on Twitter or Instagram.