Learning to Trust the Circular Nature of Writing

Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I was younger, I loved arts and crafts but was low on patience. I had a lot of creativity and maybe some artistic talent, but I needed instant gratification. If I did a sketch, I expected it to look exactly the way I wanted it the first time around — I was not a fan of erasers. When learning to sew, I expected to turn around ready-to-wear garments and accessories. There were many lopsided purses and pillowcases I insisted on using because I couldn’t admit that I needed to practice my stitching or measure my materials a little more carefully.

Writing was a nice outlet for me, especially in school. I used to love being able to write something during journal time and volunteer to read it out loud, getting to see my classmates’ reactions to my stories and ideas. Then, when all was said and done, I could close the journal and move on to the next thing.

But the more I started to learn about creative writing, the more I realized how important the revision process was. It was tricky to be able to filter through the noise of feedback, to tiptoe along the line between my original vision and the advice of others. As I started wanting to work on longer projects, the idea of how long of a journey it can be to see something through, all so it might just sit in a drawer or on a hard drive, became incredibly daunting. I stopped writing for a while, because it didn’t feel productive when there wasn’t necessarily a visible finish line — or anything else that would give me the same feeling as seeing my classmates respond to my work.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the lack of writing was still a part of the writing process. In the first long break I took from writing with any kind of frequency, I traveled, living in Georgia, then California, then studying abroad in London. I reconnected with family that I hadn’t been able to spend time with. I got my first job and made my own money for the first time. By the time I started writing again, inspired by a writing course I took in London to help fill out my class schedule, I had a lot more life experience to draw from, a lot of new perspectives of the world to explore. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different phases where I’ve come in and out of writing, and I’ve learned that those times can be as important as the ones where I’m fully committed.

I used to believe that writing was a linear journey; that you had an idea and then you put that idea onto paper and then you tightened that idea through editing and then you got that idea published. There were two finite points, a beginning and an end, for every project, and to take stock of one’s work would be to lay out every line, sorting them into two piles: those were that complete and those that still needed to be finished.

Over time, I’ve come to see that writing can be more like intersecting circles. Every piece can be a representation of a particular moment, while intersecting with different stories at different times. And every circle, while complete in its own right, does not exist in isolation.

One of my most prized pieces I’ve ever had published is an essay about my grandfather. It was born out of a short piece I wrote when I visited him one summer, basically a journal entry scrawled on loose-leaf paper as I tried to come to terms with my feelings about his living with Alzheimer’s. It lived in a purse for a year and then eventually became the inspiration for an essay I wanted to submit to Longreads, which was not accepted, and then shortened to send into Modern Love, where it was also rejected. The piece was sent to a few other places before I set it aside completely for a few years. 

When I finally resurrected it, a lot of things had changed. I had written a full-length play inspired by my grandpa and Alzheimer’s that had a reading in New York City, and I had sadly lost my grandpa more recently. Using this piece that I had revisited every so often over many years, I wrote a new personal essay that reflected new discoveries and experiences. Eventually, that piece found a home where it was edited and published, and I completed one of many circles that got a passion project where I needed it to be.

While treating writing like a discipline is important, I’ve also found that sometimes an idea needs time to develop — and even if you put it on a shelf, it has a tendency to come back around. Sometimes bigger works require multiple versions, lots of notes and revision, and research. Sometimes the darlings we’re told to kill have a second life as an important puzzle piece or totally new thing. Sometimes a piece doesn’t make sense until you have the life experience to understand other people’s critiques.

Learning this has allowed me to put less pressure on my writing. I used to get worried — especially when I wrote something I was immensely proud of — that I might never feel so inspired again. But time always helps, and I keep getting the opportunity to look at the body of my work and all its many circles, making new connections and rearranging them into new configurations. As long as I want to write, I not only have the potential to create something new, but also a whole foundation to build on to get to the next thing.

Now, if I get into the weeds of a project and find that it’s not working, I don’t feel pressure to mold it into something it’s not or to feel the need to salvage it out of pride. Instead, sometimes I step back and tell myself that I’m completing the circle for now, that I can let go. Maybe there will be a chance to revisit it in the future — to pull it out of a drawer or a hard drive and reacquaint ourselves, like old friends.

The Perks of Having a Writers’ Group

Today’s guest post is from Kimberly Lew, a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I first started working at a play publishing company, I was immediately taken by how creative my coworkers were. They were mostly in their late twenties, and they all wrote plays or directed or produced on the side.

I remember early on, when I was just an intern, one of the founders of the company — a very prolific playwright himself — hosted an informal reading of his latest comedic one-act, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t an actor by any means, but no one seemed to care. Despite fumbled lines and lack of writing expertise by some of the participants, me included, we had a really productive discussion about the piece and all got a sense of what was really working and what wasn’t.

I had done writing workshops and classes my whole life. I knew the graces of a good compliment sandwich and the pained challenge of perfecting a piece in time to be shared with a classroom. But never before had I felt the vibe of room that was so constructive and so fun while simultaneously educational.

When the play company moved to bigger offices that included a small but well-kept conference room, a couple of my coworkers, who had been friends since college and were both playwrights published with the company, began using the conference room as a meetup space for their after-hours writers’ group. As the company grew and a few other young female 20-somethings joined the team, I helped organize us into our own writers’ group, which remained a consistent creative outlet for the next couple of years.

That informal one-act reading I attended with the company founder was deceiving, though — while good discussion and feedback doesn’t necessarily require professional writers and creatives, there is a delicate balance that separates a constructive creative meeting of the minds from the dry writers’ workshops that leave you wishing you’d stayed home.

Here are a few things I’ve since learned about having a successful writers’ group:

Everyone in the group needs skin in the game

Theoretically, everyone who joins a writers’ group shares a common love of writing, but everyone has different creative processes and produces differently. In a good writers’ group, everyone needs to be able to feel like they are learning and growing from the experience — or they’ll be less inclined to contribute.

Many writers’ groups operate workshop-style, where people take turns bringing in pieces to be critiqued by the group. In ours, it was especially nice that a lot of people had long-term projects that they could share in smaller chunks, instead of needing to bring in a finished piece every time. This gave everyone a forum to try new material still in development and bounce ideas off the group.

We also had members set goals from week to week, so even if we didn’t have a piece to discuss, we could discuss the progress we were making with our creative projects. As we became better friends, this became an opportunity to share goals related to both our careers and our lives. Writing wasn’t just about making a script for a play or typing out a short story — it was also about setting up a website for clips or submitting an application to a development program. We weren’t simply commenting on each other’s work; we were providing a support system for people’s creative endeavors.

A writers’ group needs structure

It wasn’t enough to simply open the floor to anyone who wanted to bring in a manuscript and have them share with the group. We needed to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to both receive and give feedback. We also wanted to make sure that everyone felt represented in decisions about how the group was run.

The ways in which we structured our meetings varied over the years. At one point, we had everyone take turns running the meetings, and usually the person who ran the group would have a piece to present. We also took notes every session, usually by having someone record any goals we discussed and circulating those goals to the group after the meeting to hold us accountable. When people were having a harder time consistently bringing new material to the writers’ group, we instated short writing prompts, sometimes for free-writing sessions during the meetings and sometimes for us to develop short pieces that would be shared in the meetings.

We also once tried to instate a “punishment” for people who didn’t meet deadlines. This involved creating alternate song lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as a shame song for not fulfilling writers’ group duties, and then singing our song out loud as a group. This was all in good fun until we realized that this actually just punished all of us who had to sing in front of everyone.

A writers’ group doesn’t need to be just about creative writing

While it was always incredibly helpful to use the writers’ group as a forum for getting feedback on creative writing projects like plays and stories, it was also a place to get feedback on anything. As one of our members began getting more and more interested in graphic design and printmaking, she would share some of her art with us. When I started blogging for an arts website, I shared my initial posts with the group.

I feel like everyone could benefit from a writers’ group, even if they don’t think of themselves as a writer. It could be a great forum to get feedback on a resume, or a letter to an editor, or a Yelp review. Sometimes it’s nice just to get another pair of eyes on your work — and sometimes, in our group, we would simply share ideas about what wanted to see happen with our writing and our lives. It was nice to have a built-in think tank to discuss ideas with, even if those ideas never evolved into anything.

A writers’ group isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to one space

While our writers’ group met regularly in the office conference room, we would often go out to support each other in the real world. We often attended each other’s readings and performances. It was nice to have a group of people at these events who understood the nature of a work in progress — and how far our work had progressed!

We also planned a writers’ retreat once, where we all went up to the Cloisters for a day writing around the property. We split off to sit in the little courtyards, working on whatever we wanted to. We even stopped by the park on our way home for a quick writing exercise where we all sat on a park bench and wrote as much as we could in a few minutes. It was a great opportunity to get ourselves out of an office setting and feel like our creativity could roam free.

A writers’ group doesn’t have to last forever

In a successful writers’ group, everyone feels like the group is helping them grow as a writer and a creator. Unfortunately, not everyone grows at the same speed. It’s important to communicate with your fellow members and check in with how everyone feels about their contributions to the group. If someone doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they need out of the group, or that their time is not being well spent with the group, it’s fine to re-evaluate whether or not the group is serving its purpose. It’s important to keep people accountable, but depending on where you are in your creative development, sometimes you need to reprioritize to be accountable to yourself first.

Our writers’ group ended quite unceremoniously. Our goals just weren’t as aligned as they were when we had started and we were finding that we were getting less and less value out of our meetings. When one of our members decided not to continue, we disbanded. I missed it a lot, but with time I’ve also come to see that sometimes a writers’ group is a support group for a moment (or luckily, in our case, years) in time.

Bringing other people into your writing is always a tricky thing, but when you find a group of people with similar goals who genuinely want to give feedback, it can feel like the most valuable thing in the world. A writers’ group doesn’t have to follow a blueprint — you don’t have to bookend your criticism with compliments or have regular in-person meetings. You can form a writers’ group over email or FaceTime. You can discuss your latest novel or your list of failed ideas for novels. All you need for a good writers’ group is the ability to share your work with creative people — and a clear structure and/or agenda that ensures everyone gets what they need. It may sound simple, but when done right, it can be the most magical thing in the world.