Step 1: Know Your Community
Are there existing writing groups in your community? If so, attend them. Give it some time, get to know the group and be a regular if you can. Does the group meet your needs? Are there opportunities for leadership in the existing group? Perhaps you can influence the group to shape it into the right group for you. Or, if necessary, you can create your own group, but then you will be more informed about your competition.
Investigate other clubs where you are likely to find writers, such as book clubs (where there are readers there are often writers!). What genres do people in your community like to read?
When I first moved to Jersey City, I started attending workshops with Jersey City Writers. I attended workshops for a year before I developed a poetry workshop within the larger group with the approval of the co-chairs Rachel Poy and Jim DeAngelis. Even though I only regularly attended this one writing group, which most closely met my needs, I also attended other writing groups in the community such as Jersey City Slam and Wordsmithing, to foster partnerships and see where we could collaborate.
Step 2: Conceptualize the Group
Do your homework about how other writing groups function and think about the choices you will make. One great resource for doing this comes from the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: 13 Ways of Talking About Writing Groups (nice nod to Wallace Stevens). Will you simply critique each others’ work or will you also do spontaneous writing in the group? What do you do in the event that someone fails to show up on his or her assigned day? Answering these questions allows you to define the scope of your group and decide on logistics. While you will want to consider some of these questions on your own, before you initiate your first meeting, keep in mind some decisions you may want to make with the folks who show up to your meetings. Additionally, sometimes the group will evolve over time.
For example, the first few weeks I organized my poetry group, we workshopped two poems and then had two prompts, but I soon realized that members preferred a bit more time to critique the poems, and only work on one prompt a week.
Step 3: Choose a Venue/Platform
The key word here is partnership. If you are meeting in a physical venue, you will likely have to negotiate terms. If you meet in a cafe or bookstore, are your members buying enough coffee or tea for the owners to justify having you in their space? Can dues of the group support rental of any facilities such as a co-working space? Perhaps a library or community center would be willing to offer their space to your group, but make sure you establish the terms clearly.
I tried a couple places before I found a great partner in Gia Gelato & Café in Jersey City. The owners Debbie and Angela are very supportive of the arts and were happy to allow us space during peak brunch time on Saturdays. In return, we offer them regular business as we purchase food and drinks.
These days, it is also important to consider virtual venues as well. If you are in a more rural community, perhaps this may be a better option for you. In that case, get to know your virtual community and investigate different platforms, such as Basecamp.
Step 4: Advertising and Marketing
There are many ways you can advertise your group, such as social media, local newspapers and community papers, and bulletin boards in libraries, bookstores, and cafes. Try and saturate your community with your campaign so it is hard to miss. Also, try to be creative and think of your audience when you prepare the materials. Are you trying to emphasize the supportive and collaborative nature of your workshop? Or, if you have a strong publication background, perhaps you want to focus on your own education and credentials as a leader of the group.
When I first started my group, I was lucky to already have the larger group to help me advertise a poetry specific workshop. I did not advertise my credentials to lead the group initially, as I did not have as many formal ones when I started and I wanted the group to be collaborative. Now that we are offering occasional workshops on form, I am highlighting my publications and expertise as well as that of the members offering the workshops.
Step 5: Only Connect
Listen to the members who show up to your meetings. Allow them to influence your decisions on how to organize the group, but make sure you are focused on the goals you originally set out for the group.
Step 6: Be Reliable
Whatever your frequency of meetings is, it is important to offer meetings at a regular time and space, or it is likely the group will fade. If I found I couldn't run the group one week, I would invite a regular member who seemed to show leadership a chance to shine. This kept the momentum of the group going, and made the members feel more invested in the success of the group.
Step 7: Be Open to Growth and Feedback
Periodically monitor the group and ask for feedback. What is working in the group? What could be improved? Perhaps the members would like to invite speakers to the group, or they would like to host an open mic to showcase their work. Try not to take anything said personally, and respond in a positive, constructive way to the feedback.
One thing I found in my poetry group is that the members wanted more serious study of the craft of poetry, so I responded by hosting a lesson on line breaks, and also by organizing a series of workshops on form offered by members in the group with different expertise than me.
Sarah T. Jewell is a Jersey City Writers moderator and founder of the weekly Jersey Plums Poetry Workshop. She has published in Bird's Thumb, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Cross Poetry Review. She has a chapbook forthcoming from dancing girl press. She posts weekly poetry prompts at www.stjewell.com.
Read Sarah's poem, A Prayer for Provenance.