The Concord Writers Group certainly could have picked a meeting room with lower implied expectations. But for more than 26 years, members have gathered twice a month in the Concord Public Library’s Shakespeare Room.
No pressure, right?
In fact, a pressure-free environment is precisely what the group strives for – and, according to its members, achieves. Though attendance is lower than in years past, those who make the trek to the library on two Saturdays a month continue to receive constructive feedback that ultimately improves their writing.
“We critique each other’s work, give lots of encouragement and keep each other posted on writing opportunities and news in New Hampshire,” Barbara Lassonde said. “We try to give each other encouragement to continue writing. We don’t want to discourage anyone.”
The group was formed in 1986 by people who had taken a creative writing course at UNH Manchester and wanted to continue collaborating after the course’s conclusion. So the members began meeting on the first and third Saturdays of the month from September to May, a tradition that continues.
Membership has been as high as 12 or 13 people and as low as a handful. Five people attended Saturday’s meeting, which took place as the winter’s first light snowfall drifted by the large windows in the Shakespeare room.
“We’ve had people from all over the southern half of the state, from all walks of life,” Lassonde said.
Each meeting features the sharing of work by one or two members, scheduled ahead of time, with the other attendees offering feedback. The excerpts – which have to be 10 pages or fewer – are generally emailed or distributed prior to the meeting so the other members have a chance to read them and formulate their responses and can be from any work the writer selects.
The type of works read vary, from poetry to short stories to histories, memoirs and biographies.
Brian Phelps took a bicycle trip across the country for 86 days in the summer of 2011. He’s working on a book about the journey, and has used the group as a sounding board for most of his ideas.
“It’s priceless,” Phelps said. “These people know what they’re doing. The book will have a lot of what I’ve learned here. It’s really been a great group for me.”
Paul Levy has written a book about an uncle who was killed during World War II. Saturday he presented a query letter he’s drafted to help publicize the work.
“They’re very encouraging,” Levy said of the writers group. “They keep me moving. The feedback is good for what reads well, what doesn’t read well, how to organize the book.”
It was important to develop a pressure-free environment, Chris Weeden, the longest-tenured member at 25 years, said, especially given the personal nature of writing. But that environment does require a concerted effort on the writer’s part in order to take advantage of all the potential benefits.
“We don’t take attendance, we don’t have dues; but we expect a commitment from people if they want us to critique their work, and we hope they reciprocate,” Weeden said. “You really do get close to people because you do bare your soul. You get to know each other. You really open yourself up to people. That’s why what we say about the feedback is you can take it or leave it; we can make a suggestion, but it’s your work. You can do what you want.”
That approach allows new members to ease into the group. Judy Boucher-Leidner has been attending meetings since September and is beginning to feel comfortable enough to share some of her more intimate work.
“I’m still feeling my way, but I’m starting to bring more soul-baring kinds of things,” Boucher-Leidner said. “I’m a crier, so you can be giving me a critique and I might be crying, but it doesn’t mean I’m not coming back.”
Phelps came back, although he admitted he had to talk himself through the door on his initial visit. Though he kept journals since he was a teenager, he never considered himself a writer. He came in hopes of learning some “English 101,” he said, without having to take a formal course. Once he showed up, he knew he was in the right place.
“When I first came I was extremely intimidated before I even came in the door. I was skeptical, but I told myself I had to face my fear, that I could do it,” Phelps said. “It was a real eye-opener. I said, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ They were being very gentle and helpful. That was the hook. I tip my hat to these folks.”
Getting through the door can often be the most difficult part, but the members all seem to believe that once that hurdle is cleared, there’s plenty to gain.
“Come and see what we’re about, see if it’s for you or not,” Lassonde said.
To join the Concord Writers Group, prospective members are encouraged to stop by a meeting (the group meets the first and third Saturdays of the month at 10 a.m. in the Concord Public Library’s Shakespeare Room) or to contact Chris Weeden at 224-1715 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.