Interview with a Critique Group

When I talked to Tanya Egan Gibson, author of How to Buy a Love of Reading,  about interviewing for my blog and she suggested that everyone in her group answer the questions, I loved the idea. I thought it would be great to hear how different members answered the same question. Especially when Tanya offered to pull everything together & create a composite interview from everybody’s answers. So…without further ado, I give you The Tuesday Night Writers.

  • Cyndi Cadi
  • Chris Cole
  • Amanda Conran
  • Tanya Egan Gibson
  • Tom Joyce
  • John Philipp
  • Jill Rosenblum Tidman
  • Maya Lis Tussing
  • David Winton
  • Jon Wells

BL: Your group formed out of a writing class that was taught by Stephanie Moore. When she passed away, you all decided to stay together as a writing group. That must have, in some ways, been hard. What helped each of you make that decision?

Cyndi Cady: It didn’t really feel like a decision…it was more of a vow.  Losing Stephanie was really hard, not just professionally but personally, and us staying together and continuing to learn from each other keeps her alive for all of us, I think.

JRT: It just seemed like the best, maybe the only, way to honor what Stephanie gave us all—an energy and enthusiasm for our writing that made all our efforts feel worthwhile and our individual goals seem achievable and necessary.

TEG: I’d never met people I trusted more with my writing—people I knew cared about friendship as much as writing, and who believe, as Stephanie did, that you grow as a writer (and a person) by supporting each other rather than competing.  By the time Stephanie passed away, I loved these people.

JP: Keeping the group together kept Stephanie alive in our hearts and minds and we continued to get the nurturing we’d enjoyed before she passed on. Also we have developed a unique climate of trust so we don’t have pull any punches in a critique and know it will be well received.

Chris Cole: I didn’t have anywhere else I felt comfortable. I began really writing with these folks. They helped me identify a thread I could hold onto, and the last thing I was going to do was let go.

MLT: Staying together was a no-brainer. It’s like asking sorority sisters/fraternity brothers what keeps them connected. Shared experience, mutual affection and being part of a support system.

TJ: Stephanie doubted [her students] could hang together as a group, and she was right to some extent. Most of her classes went their separate ways, but there was a small, hardcore group of us—the infamous “Tuesday Night People”—who were just ornery enough to want to prove Stephanie wrong…for once.

JW: Losing Stephanie was hard, but the decision to stay together was the most natural thing in the world. By that time we were very close. Breaking up the group because Stephanie wasn’t there would be like breaking up a family because your favorite cousin passed away. We’ll always miss her, and always wish she were still there, but just like a loss in a family, in many ways, it made us closer.

AC:  I wanted to honor the part Stephanie played in our lives. I’ve always felt we should meet until we’re all published! And then keep on meeting anyway. I want to prove that Steph was right to believe in us as she did.

 BL: You can read John Philipp’s essay about Stephanie Moore here. Also, Stephanie’s daughter, Nyla Moore-Rodgers founded Mama Hope–“a non-profit organization focused on building self-sufficient communities in Sub-Saharan Africa”–in honor of her mother.

 

BL: It sounds like you don’t have a consistent schedule for submitting manuscript pages and delivering critiques. Instead, you provide writing prompts at each meeting, then read and critique short pieces if someone is ready for feedback, and you do longer critiques by email. Why do you choose this kind of looser format than a more structured give-and-receive set-up?

Cyndi Cady: Schedule, schmedule! We all have a lot of stuff going on, and who needs another deadline? Just showing up gives me a sense of forward motion, even if I don’t bring anything new to read. I’ve gotten a lot of writing started from prompts, and I think the ease and informality is part of what makes it possible to keep going.

TEG: Our group has been together so long that I think we all trust that the amount of time and attention each person’s work gets will end up equal in the long run.  So we tend to allot time and attention in a way that feels organic to us rather than structure the give-and-receive in an everyone-gets-X-minutes way.

JRT: As someone who puts plenty of pressure on herself with regard to writing, the looser meeting format takes the pressure off and allows for the group meetings to exist as opportunities to get and give support and to grow. The prompt format we took from Stephanie, and for me it works great in terms of generating new material. I probably use 90% of what I write with the group.

 

BL: Your members write in a large variety of genres—from literary fiction to action novel. Can you tell me what benefits you get from including so many styles in your group? In what ways do you have to stretch yourselves to provide critiques?

JP: I think writing is writing. Humor may be a little different; poetry certainly is. What I have learned from the poetry discussions has improved my sense of rhythm and imagery in my prose writing. What I have learned about writing fiction has made a marked improvement in my non-fiction humor articles.

Chris Cole: Being able to take a less narrow or myopic view of the genres and styles allows one to appreciate and maybe even integrate things you might not think of. With no exposure outside of your chosen realm things can go stale. We’ve developed a form of communication and trust that allows us to come from the same place. That’s something for which Stephanie definitely laid the groundwork. The stretching feels less like bending over backwards and more like yoga.

MLT: I’ve dabbled in personal essays, fantasy and now I exclusively write plays. The basic tenets are the same, if not the detail at the margins. Good writers, regardless of genre, understand the basics and if you get the basics right, you’re on track.

 

BL: What would you say is the primary reason for/benefit of your actual meetings? What do each of you get from keeping that Tuesday meeting as a priority, even when you’re not critiquing?

JW: First of all, we’re great friends. I look forward to seeing everyone, every time. There’s a lot of great emotional support of people who share the tedious, frustrating, wonderful work of writing. Perhaps the least sexy, but most important benefit is structure. Knowing that we’ll be meeting, I work to have something for every session.

TJ: It’s partly discipline—knowing you have to come up with something to read that is not going to embarrass you—and partly because, even when you are feeling down, beaten, and washed up, getting together with your lit-homies always makes you feel like you don’t really suck as badly as you think you do.

AC: Inspiration, friendship, fun, leaning. The group supports me in every aspect of my work and life. We share writing stories. We sometimes share life stories. Even when my writing isn’t going well, hearing other people’s triumphs and woes makes me want to keep going. Frankly,  I just have so much fun. I love the sharing, I love the joking, I love the writing…and the food and wine helps! But more than that, I realize I’m truly invested in the Tuesday people’s stories and writing styles. I want to see us all succeed. I love the way my friends write and I want their stories to be loved and appreciated by others as much as I like them!

 

BL: In a lot of groups, I think different critiquers have different strengths that everybody else counts on. For example, in my group one of us is especially good at thinking of bad things to happen to the characters, and others are great at pushing heroes to be more active and antagonists to be meaner. If you had to assign one critique strength to each member of your group, what would those be for everybody?

GROUP:  According to our various and sundry members, our varied and sundry strengths include:

Cyndi Cady’s incredible humor, which is devoid of cynicism and sufficed with heart; her ability to create original, memorable characters; and the way she sees things in our work that we may never have seen for ourselves.

Chris Cole’s wonderful imagination; his ability to tell you when you should be pushing boundaries; and the way he helps us pare things down to their essence.

Amanda Conran’s strength at compression editing; her ability to identify the “heart” of people’s stories; and the way she can pinpoint how to capitalize on the strengths of a piece.

Tanya Egan Gibson’s attention to structure and word choice; her feel for style and language; and her eye for spotting areas that don’t quite ring true.

Tom Joyce’s potent sense of place and setting; his ability to discuss a story in a way that feels less like critique and more like exploration; and his ability to pick out that one sentence that needs to be altered, changing it until it works and sets off the piece.

John Philipp’s attention to rhythm and punchline (he knows when a sentence–or scene–should stop); his storied career and straightforward sense; and his humor and instincts that are a thing of beauty.

Jill Rosenblum Tidman’s astute eye for personality that makes her terrific at detecting character inconsistency; her attention to language that springs from her poet’s heart; and her ability to see situations from both sides, which she brings both to her own work and the feedback she brings to ours.

Maya Lis Tussing’s incredible humor and ear for dialogue; knack for breathing life into situations that could otherwise seem mundane; and ability to detect and remove flat points in our work.

David Winton’s comic edginess; imagination; and insistence (true to his lawyer soul) that you hold up the facts.

Jon Wells’s ear for language and lingo; the honest emotional reaction he brings to a piece; and his mastery of subtle and important details.

And from everyone’s responses it is clear (to quote Tom Joyce), that we think we all “strive to encourage what is good and unique in the work without pulling any punches.”

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