f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: This Just In! Leif Enger Warns of Nefarious Writers Group Subterfuge

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

This Just In! Leif Enger Warns of Nefarious Writers Group Subterfuge

Leif Enger, who lives in a quaint suburb of Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota, raised a few eyebrows in a talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing with his answer to a question about writing communities. Mr. Enger was asked how he found community in writing. He said he didn’t. He thought if he lived in Minneapolis he might, but for the time he did without. He went on to say that sometimes “writers groups” weren’t quite the boon everyone makes them out to be. They breed competition and ego and can often lead to situations where your group isn’t looking out for your best interest as a writer.

I’m sure all the writers groups who journeyed to the festival together liked hearing that and I can only guess at the many suspicious glances that were shared on busrides home.

Enger has a point, I suppose, though I think he overstates the menace of writers groups. Knowing many Christians, I think most might suffer from a lack of useful criticism. Besides, competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing and if someone’s trying to submarine your work either you ask them to stop, get them to quit, or take your writing elsewhere.

The point Enger didn’t speak to (and to be fair, this was a cast-off comment by the man, he didn’t dwell on the issue) is the problem inherent in the very name: writer’s group. Say you have eight people in the group. Well, at any given time, do you know how many should be acting as writers? One. The rest should be acting as readers. But the reading isn’t the important part to us. It’s the writing we focus on—our self-expression.

I said this in an earlier post: Anyone who calls a writer “humble” doesn’t understand the very nature of writing itself. There is an intrinsic arrogance to putting words to paper (or web page, thank you) and then trying to have them read. (And let me step forward, raise my hand, and go Pauline by saying, “I am the most arrogant of all. I’ve written two novels and I keep a daily blog. I’m one magazine column away from being the Ryan Seacrest of the literary world.”) The arrogance that impels us to write is not a bad thing. In fact, I should probably stop using the word arrogance because of its heavily negative connotations. Still, it’s a focus on the self that can become too consuming. In conversation, a person who only speaks is considered self-absorbed, a motor-mouth with no time for anyone else…known elsewhere as a “Bill O’Reilly.” The “conversation” of writers is much more stilted, shared over weeks not seconds and it’s far easier to just “talk.”

Our goal is to learn how to turn our “reading” into “listening.” (Man, that sounds like Dr. Phil.) We’re going to try to become good readers who are available not only to listen to the words of those at whose feet we sit (great authors with published books) but those with whom we are equals. (You, me, and everyone else at this blog.)

I think this touchy-feely garbage has been sparked by my mom not reading a poem I wrote as a six-year-old. She just glanced at it, wiped the excess Elmers off her hands, picked up the silver glitter macaroni that dropped to the floor, and shrugged with anhedonic pity. It tore my heart apart. I’ve never recovered.*

And that’s why I want to be a good reader for you all. I take this editing business pretty seriously. I need to think through what you all need as writers (besides a timely response which has been my nemesis so far) and how to approach the business—and it is a business—of reading professionally.

If this works, I think we’ll be in a better place to begin moving forward as a community of writers who are readers. WWAR! Like Susan Sarandon with a stutter.

*100% tangential fabrication. A good editor would've stripped this part out.
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Go to Day 3 of our discussion of being a good reader.