Donald Hall and I have been sending poems back and forth twice a week for forty years. At one time, we had a 48-hour rule: the other had to answer within 48 hours. My generation did a lot with letters. Galway Kinnell and Louis Simpson and Don and I and James Wright would often send five- and six-page typed letters commenting on and arguing with each others’ poems. I’m amazed we had the time for that. Tranströmer and I exchanged hundreds of letters. The gist of it is that no one writes alone: One needs a community.
– Robert Bly
I will be sad when the National Writing Project’s summer institute ends in two weeks. Strong – and, I hope, lasting – friendships have developed among the twenty-four teachers who are teaching one another some of their best classroom writing practices. The institute fosters these friendships by making a once-a-week happy hour part of the curriculum and by having us meet five hours a week in writing support groups.
The project insists on writing support groups because it believes that only good writers make good writing instructors, and it finds that the groups help members write better. (Good writers may also make bad writing instructors, so most of our time goes to researching, developing and teaching material for classroom writing instruction.) I had never been part of a writing support group, and the chance to be in one was the selfish and central reason I applied for this fellowship.
Our writing support groups work like this. We stay in the same groups for the entire institute. Each of us is required to bring current personal writing of any genre to his group. We meet twice a week. Each time we meet, we look for suitable space around campus – outside if it isn’t too hot. The first member passes out a copy of her piece to each group member. She then reads her piece out loud as the rest of us read along. She may preface her reading with particular things she would like to hear the group address during the discussion. In the silence following the reading, we all read over the piece. We maintain silence until everyone has had a chance to absorb the piece to his satisfaction and to write whatever notes he wishes on his copy of the piece.
The member who wrote the piece then runs the discussion of her piece. She asks each member to comment in turn. People may make comments out of turn as the discussion goes on, and that seems to work well. At the end of the discussion of that piece, the writer collects the copies and the comments the other members have written on them.
Peter Elbow has a chapter on writing support groups in his excellent writing manual Writing with Power. One of the things he recommends is that the comments stay only positive for the first few meetings. None of us was in the mood for such niceness, and I’m glad we ignored his advice. The group shot down one of my poems entirely during our second session (“Diorama,” which I’ve posted here), and I’m glad they did. They also gave me some strong critical advice that made “Shenandoah Fourth” a better poem than it was. Very little of the original poem remains in the version I posted.
We have a diverse group. One of us, about half my age, is a strong poet. I can tell from her presentation that she is also effective teaching poetry to her students. Her advice is worth paying for. The other members of my group are also good writers. I have found that everyone’s feedback, both positive and negative, is helpful. Even if a member has no suggestions on occasion, her description of what she experienced when hearing and reading my piece are helpful.
Three of us live close by each other, but the other two live far away in different directions. I doubt our group will stay together once late August and school come. The looming end of our group makes me wonder more than ever: is there a way to experience something like a writing support group over the Internet?
Blogs give writers an authentic audience, and authentic audiences help people improve their writing. “Authentic audience” is big among instructors of writing instructors, and for a good reason. Most academic writing (think five-paragraph essay) mangles student voice and kills student motivation. I have blogged for over three years. I have used blogs in the classroom, and I hope to use them even more this year. Kids generally like them.
But I have sometimes wondered in posts here how blogging might do a better job of making better writers. I like comments – indeed, I am a better commenter than I am a poster, I think – but comments are rarely critical, even in that word’s positive sense. Also, most comments never venture an opinion – a specific opinion – about the way in which the post is written. This is true even when the post is a poem or “poem-like thing,” as a blogging friend of mine describes it.
Writing groups have it over blogs in a few ways. One is that written feedback alone tends to be harsher than the same feedback given orally. No facial expressions, body language, and conversational context are there to make written feedback palatable. One thing that I’ve learned this summer is that written feedback on student writing without meeting with the student about the writing is ineffective in part because it is perceived as being negative.
Another advantage of writing groups is the experience of reading one’s piece to a live audience. This makes a piece sound different sometimes than it did in private.
A third advantage of writing groups is the interaction of the same group of listeners around writing by the same writers. The group dynamics can be quite helpful, and they seem to get better as the meetings accumulate. Agreements and disagreements have force. Getting to know the source better permits members to consider the source of the feedback. A sort of healthy and informal accountability begins to emerge.
I have considered shutting down my comment fields and including a link at the bottom of many posts to a Google Docs page where the post in question lies on an operating table. My link would invite readers to comment on specific parts of the post and make suggestions about how it might be improved. I would look over the suggestions and republish the post on occasion. The various drafts would appear on Google Docs and would be a wonderful source of writing instruction for my students. (One of the many reasons writing teachers should be writers is that they can model bad first drafts and good revision.)
There are at least two problems with asking readers to use Google Docs to suggest improvements to my writing, though. First, readers could accidentally change the original text without meaning to, leaving the next reader with a different version of the document than the one I had posted. Second, Google Docs, while much simpler than Microsoft Word, is too complicated for the task I wish for it to perform. In other words, it is not user friendly enough for comments.
I just joined Wild Poetry Forum (wildpoetryforum.com), an online writing support forum that looks promising. As you might expect, members post poems on forums. Other members come by and critique the poems. There are four forums in which members may post poems, depending on the members’ writing experience and their stomach for criticism. Based on what little I’ve read on the site, the criticism seems to be thoughtful and constructive.
I don’t think even a great online poetry forum would match the interaction and community focus that a writer would get in a face-to-face writing support group, though.
I do have an idea to keep our group going or to start new groups among interested bloggers: disseminate the pieces to group members by email, and then conference by video camera over the Internet or by telephone. Members would return the pieces edited in Word or in Google Docs. Members would commit to write and to not miss conferences. I would love to try that or something similar to it over the school year.
Posted July 23, 2007.