Writer in Residence

I Joined a Writing Group and I Liked It

By Nancy Jo Cullen

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When I moved to Kingston two years ago I was transitioning to the happy stage of life after raising kids that I’d been anticipating for a few years—tidy house!  Lower grocery bills! The reality of the change was much more difficult. Who knew it could hurt so much to not have dirty dishes left tucked under beds? I was lonely and a little depressed. It was hard to want to do anything. In an effort to combat my ennui my partner suggested I join a writers group — a poetry group, to be specific. I think my reply could be eloquently summed up as: LOL! Not a chance.

By the time I’d finished my MFA I was done with writing workshops. As much as I loved being part of a MFA program I was over reading other people’s work, and I was so done with having other people comment on my work. The workshop is the linchpin of MFA programs and it’s a fact that workshops allowed me to move much more quickly through my thesis, as did commentary from thesis advisors and mentors. But participating in workshops also involved sitting with the raw feelings of having my work critiqued around a table. I was definitely ready for less of that and, if I’m really honest, I was ready to let the pace of my writing lag a bit too.

I’d never had the desire to join a writing group. They seemed so earnest, or as my kids might have said, “so try hard.” I’ve certainly shared early work with trusted readers and I’ve been a trusted reader to friends’ work. But there is no structure involved in this kind of sharing and no ongoing obligation. I just couldn’t see the value of joining a writers’ group and, anyway, I knew what I was doing I just had to do it. Well, my partner said to me, you could go once and if you don’t like it you don’t have to go back.

As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures so I printed several versions of one of my poems and trotted off, with great apprehension, to my first group meeting. For all my outgoing personality and chattiness (if I don’t say so myself) I’m actually a pretty shy person and often it’s easier to stay home and be lonely than it is to go out and meet my community. I went to the meeting begrudgingly, even though I’d met all of the poets at least once and I’d liked each of them.  Sometimes it’s just easier to be judgy than it is to put myself on the line.

Of course, no surprise to anyone who belongs to a writing group that works for them, I loved my first meet-up!

It’s a tight ship, our writing group. We’re made up of people who have full-time jobs, or who are cobbling together a number of jobs plus kids, plus relationships, plus writing. We do not come to play; we allow a little time for chatting but then we get to it and in about 2 hours we’re off again to our jam-packed lives. I’m continually inspired by the work that’s brought to the group and my own writing benefits greatly from their perceptive analysis.

I never would have guessed I would become a writing group cheerleader, but I am now, with a caveat.

Not any writing group. I think it’s best to share some commonalities with writing group members, enough that the group understands and respects what it is you’re trying to do in your work. If you’re in a writing group where you feel like you’re always defending your creative worldview, you’re probably in in the wrong writing group. I show up to share critique and analysis but I also show up for support. In my opinion a writing group should provide critique and camaraderie. I think the best writing group is small and work oriented. If you’ve found the right people to work with they’ll push you to make your work better, and it’ll feel pretty okay.

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Each time I leave my writer’s group I feel reconnected to the practice of writing and, more importantly, to the value of rewriting. I feel enlivened by the salty group of brilliant writers with whom I’ve laughed and shared time. We talk about where we’ve submitted work and we celebrate one another’s successes. We encourage each another to keep going. Writing is a solitary pursuit that most of us sandwich between other jobs that actually pay us enough to live. My writing group keeps me grounded in the work of being an author and in the pleasure of community— I’ve made some great friends. It took me a long time to get to a writing group but I’m glad I made it here and I highly recommend!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.