COVID-19 has made a big impact on a writers group I’ve attended the last four and a half years.
But before describing the changes we’ve experienced since March, I should explain why I’ve been with this particular group so long. We use a format that’s not I haven’t found in similar groups I’ve attended. The customary format is to come to the meeting with about five pages of your work — be sure to bring enough copies for everyone! — and when your turn comes, distribute your copies among the group, read what you’ve submitted aloud, then solicit responses from the group. During someone else’s turn, read along with your copy and make notes on it while the author reads aloud. There’s a lot I don’t like about this format:
- All those copies make for a lot of wasted paper
- Each author typically gets 5 – 10 minutes of reading time. That’s not enough for a complete story, unless flash fiction is your genre.
- As a reader, I have no time to reflect on a piece before making comments
I much rather prefer the approach taken by the writing group I’ve attended since 2016. Each month, four or five writers submit up to 3500 words (around 10-12 double-spaced pages) a week before the scheduled meeting. This gives readers several days to make comments, which are then printed and shared with the writer during the meeting. While this approach requires even more paper, it does lead to more discerning critique, the type new writers like myself desperately need.
Our group met the second Saturday of every month in a library conference room. When the COVID-19 lockdowns hit at the end of March, we faced a decision — meet somewhere else, go virtual, or suspend until the library reopened. The third option was never really considered; we had a good thing going, and didn’t want to stop. A few members wanted to continue meeting in person, an idea that generated several proposals: meeting at member homes; community parks; a particularly bizarre suggestion of gathering in a parking lot and addressing each other through open car windows (“I REALLY LIKED WHAT THIS CHARACTER DID.” “WHAT?” “WHAT THIS CHARACTER DID.” “WHAT ABOUT IT?”). Being part of the majority that wasn’t comfortable with any kind of in-person meeting, I offered to coordinate an online meeting, going virtual like every other group in the world. The response was skeptical, but with no other suggestion garnering any more enthusiasm, we held our first Zoom meeting in April.
That first call was filled with difficulties both technical (Nancy texted me and she can’t get on) and procedural (you’re on mute. You’re still on mute.). But we got through it, and the May meeting went much more smoothly. It was around then we noticed some advantages to meeting virtually — no travel time! Sending files instead of printing saved paper! You can run to the john or grab a drink when it’s not your turn and nobody will notice!
It was such a good experience that the group did something it hadn’t done before: a second meeting, two weeks later. And with more time at home, members were writing more, meaning we had more than enough material for two meetings each month.
Since then, July has been the only month without a second meeting. Saturday will be our second meeting for October, and with major holidays occurring at the end of the next two months we’ll go back to one meeting for the rest of the year.
I’m glad the group’s continued, and enjoyed the virtual format enough to accommodate the additional meeting. But what’s more gratifying is knowing everyone is writing more now. We all have to find a way to fight through this pandemic, and if my fellow writers want to keep churning out material, I’ll be more than happy to read their submissions.