Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

Writers – Vive la difference!

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In the circles I’ve been a part of over the years, I’ve seen many configurations. Some writers groups consist only of poets, historical novelists, crime writers, or journalists. Certainly sharing a common bond of taste or a targeted goal of specific markets can increase the accuracy of critique, networking and professional guidance. But I personally believe these focused groups can be a recipe for disaster.

Competition is one of the most toxic elements in any creative endeavor, and when people work on similar styles or themes, inevitably the green beast is invited to enter the room. At its least harmful, writers – so fearful of critique – will simply withhold their trust until there’s little left of their group but a forum for false flattery. I’ve also seen these homogeneous writers groups disintegrate as members grow steadily more ruthless, attacking instead of supporting, jealously guarding their egos at another writer’s expense. What started out as support turns into personal affront as friends turn into angry enemies.

But I was blessed nearly from the beginning. The writers group I worked with for ten years consisted of a playwright, a television screenwriter, a young adult novelist, a poet and essayist, a literary novelist, and only one other literary historical writer. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what kind of writing I would eventually do. I just knew I had stories within me of a peculiar sort, and here was a group of women (That was just about our only common denominator!) who were willing to help me.

And I can also honestly share that, at the beginning, my writing wasn’t all that good. It took years for me to find my voice, to perfect my technique, to understand my own approach and my vision. I’m still honing it now, as I believe all writers do. As a teacher of new writers who look to me for help, I regularly recall for them my own feeble beginnings.

Now in my own class, I try to honor each writer for what he or she brings – a different voice, a new perspective, a unique understanding of the world that I can never express or even imagine until I experience it through their words. Some writers enter my class well polished, sometimes published, with a clear idea of why they’re there and what they plan to do. Others are flailing in the first shallows of much deeper waters. Some of my writers are “commercial”: they like plot and action; they don’t care much for carefully crafted language, complex characters or imagery. Their approach is starkly different from my more “literary” writers. I tell them over and over that we cannot judge, that there’s room for every kind of voice, every expression of imagination. My goal is always to guide each writer to his or her own best work. I take what they offer and nudge, comfort, and gently push. And slowly, very slowly, each of them improves.

With all the different minds that surround our table, we often have dissenting voices, even loud disagreements about what a writer should do. When we get to that point, I shout, “It’s great that we disagree. Listen to everything. Then listen to yourself. Take only the suggestions that work for you.”

This is the only way to discover who YOU are as a writer. We each have to find our personal truth in whatever form it is revealed. Even published works rarely find unanimous approval. So when one of my “commercial” writers says, “OK, that was pretty. But why were we even in that scene?”, I say, “Great! So somewhere in that scene maybe you’ve missed a critical thread that draws the reader forward.” Meanwhile my more “literary” writers force everyone to dig deeper, to be more inventive. We even have a “cliché cop” – one writer who catches every slip into formulaic language. The end results are often magical as everyone sees the others’ work grow and slowly even the most divergent fall in love with what their opposites have achieved.

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Author: Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

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