Tonight, seven of the eleven members of the Chunky Monkeys writing group spoke on a panel at Belmont Books. I’d seen Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light, speak once before (at the Arlington Author Salon) but hadn’t had a chance to hear the others speak, even though they’re all local (they meet in person) and many teach or have taught at Grub Street.
The group started in 2012 with Jennifer DeLeon (Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From) and Adam Stumacher, and expanded to nine members, then eleven. When the group started, none of them had yet published a book; the goal was that, within a decade, all of them would. Grace Talusan (The Body Papers) said she believed in all of the others, but “I didn’t necessarily believe in myself – but all of you did.”
Grace, Jennifer, and Adam were on the panel tonight, along with Whitney Scharer, Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere), Sonya Larson (who just won an NEA grant), and Calvin Hennick (Once More to the Rodeo).
They started by discussing tenets of an effective writing group (noting that, of course, the exact same rules won’t work for every group):
- Discuss and agree on expectations and hopes for the group, and level of commitment, at the beginning
- Rigorous feedback
- Positive support
- Specific systems in place (more rigid at first, more flexible now)
- Ongoing experiences together
- Relationship with each other and each other’s work (“they know how to give feedback in a way that you can hear it”)
- Inspiration and integrity; mutual admiration and “healthy intimidation”
- Respect each other as readers and as human beings
- Make decisions by consensus
Sonya described the “standard workshop”: a writer submits 20-25 pages, and receives a written letter and line edits. The group meets once a month for three hours on a Sunday, planned 5-6 months in advance (they use a Google calendar and a Doodle poll to set the dates). Hosting rotates, and they workshop three writers’ work each time, but there is not a strict rotation.
Sometimes, in order for the group to thrive, and to be useful to every member of the group, they do things differently. (“Ask the group for what you need on this project right now.”) In fact, the name Chunky Monkeys doesn’t come from the ice cream flavor – it’s because they referred to “chunks” of writing, sometimes asking for the group to review a “double chunk” (twice the usual length) or asking a few members of the group to form a “side chunk.”
They are also connected via e-mail, daily (though this isn’t a formal requirement for group membership). They share “yay-ables” and occasionally have family get-togethers. After many years together, they have a high level of trust, and Sonya said, “with high trust comes high freedom,” which is reflected in their feedback on each other’s work. And being in a group with other writers you admire makes you “up your game” in a way that is positive, not competitive. “All boats float.”
Celeste also talked about the high level of trust among group members: not only do they workshop each other’s writing, but they offer support in “meta-writing” activities, like practicing Q&As before a book tour, helping each other with book proposals, helping each other find agents (“and break up with agents”), and figuring out how to ask for an honorarium. Because they’re at different stages of their writing careers, and have different areas of expertise (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, short fiction), it’s useful to compare notes.
When bookstore employee and moderator Miriam Lapson asked, “How many of you are in multiple writing groups?” the reaction was almost comical, with everyone looking around at everyone else, asking, “Who’s cheating on us?!” (Only one admitted to being in another group, but others said they sometimes asked other people to read their work to get “fresh eyes.”)
Moderator Miriam asked the group how they manage conflict; Jennifer replied that there’s usually something underneath, but “there’s a level of maturity – it’s our passion, but also our profession.” Adam reiterated the group norm of decision by consensus, which means they have to talk through big decisions (such as whether to allow members who move away from the Boston area to stay in the group, or whether to add a new member). It can be a long conversation, but everyone gets heard. Celeste said, “All of us are very invested in making sure everybody’s voice gets heard.”
Once the Q&A time opened up, I observed that every member of the group had a background in teaching writing – how did that inform their workshop process? (At the beginning of the panel, they had said that any writing group could have their kind of success, which I thought was a tiny bit disingenuous, since all of them had taken and/or taught classes at Grub Street and some had MFAs.) Adam replied that when the group started, they’d had a facilitator/moderator for each session, and that, as teachers, they had a specific way of thinking about craft. Celeste added that their feedback is focused on the intent of the writer; they don’t read a piece and say, “You should do this,” but rather, “It seems like your intent is _____, here are some ways you can do that.” (As someone who hasn’t taken creative writing classes or done any formal workshopping, I found this particular piece of advice really helpful.)
Another person asked what the group members did when they had a complete draft ready for submission. Enter “side chunks”! Three or four people read the whole manuscript and critique it. This is also a point at which “fresh eyes” from outside the group may be helpful.
Thanks to Belmont Books for hosting, and to all seven of the Chunky Monkeys for sharing their time and expertise on a freezing Thursday night.