By Jen Finstrom and Matthew Fledderjohann
Jennifer Finstrom is the Outreach Coordinator for the University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL), a peer writing tutor, and a writing group facilitator. She is also an instructor in the First-Year Writing Program and the Honors Program and a poet.
Matthew Fledderjohann is a fourth year PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison currently working on a dissertation on how writers revise in response to experiences of radical dissonance. This is his third year with the Writing Center at UW-Madison.
Jen Finstrom and Matthew Fledderjohann served together as graduate assistants and then professional staff at DePaul University’s University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) for four years. During that time, Jen began in her capacity as a facilitator for Writers Guild—the UCWbL’s creative writers’ writing group—and Matthew was a regular participant.
The following is a conversation between Jen and Matthew about Writers Guild, its unique qualities, and what its success suggests for writing centers’ facilitation of writing groups in general.
Matthew: Hi, Jen!
Jen: Hi, Matthew!
Matthew: Thanks for agreeing to engage in this reflective dialogue with me about Writers Guild! Writers Guild is a group that has been influential for both of us across the years, and I’m excited about this opportunity to share some of its vibrancy with the wider writing center community. To start things off, could you describe what Writers Guild is?
Jen: Of course! There’s nothing I like talking about more than Writers Guild. To provide a quick description, Writers Guild is one of the UCWbL’s writing groups. It meets twice weekly when classes are in session. Its purpose is to provide a supportive and inspiring setting for writers working on fiction, poetry, screenplays, narrative nonfiction, etc. to share, brainstorm, meet other writers, and talk about publication practices. Just like a face-to-face appointment in the Writing Center, the writers who bring work to Writers Guild read it aloud and then engage in discussion about it. Each meeting is 90 minutes, and time is divided before the sharing begins. For most meetings there are between 3 and 6 writers, so the time allotted to each piece is generally between 20 and 30 minutes–though it can be either more or less, depending on how many participants brought work. Sometimes writers just come for the community!
Matthew: I remember being really surprised in my first couple of meetings by those writers who would show up not to share but just to listen to others’ work and weigh in on possible revisions. I feel like that commitment to assisting others even when you’re not receiving help is really distinctive. I want to talk more about Writers Guild’s wonderful peculiarities, but before that, what can you tell me about Writers Guild’s origin story?
Jen: Writers Guild has been a part of the UCWbL since 2011, but that wasn’t always the case. Writers Guild began separately from the UCWbL (in 2008) and had a faculty advisor in the English department. The Guild’s original creator no longer lives in Chicago but is a good friend—and I can never thank her enough for starting this wonderful community!
When I arrived at DePaul as a returning student later in 2008, I saw a flyer in the Student Center about Writers Guild and decided to attend. So even pre-UCWbL, Writers Guild was the first place that I connected with writers at DePaul!
Matthew: This is fascinating! It certainly seems that the UCWbL made a savvy move in acquiring the Guild.
How many people do you think are currently a part of this group? How many total people do you think have been a part of it since it began? Are these mostly undergraduates? Graduates? Alumni?
Jen: I send out the group reminder email every week to about 130 writers, not including the other three facilitators, and the UCWbL’s Associate Director, Erin Herrmann. Of course, not all of those email recipients attend! But they know that the group is there and they know that they’re welcome. The writers on the email list include past and present attendees–unless someone who moves asks to be taken off the list. You didn’t ask, so you’re still getting the emails!
Matthew: I know! Even though I’m not in Chicago anymore, the weekly updates from Writers Guild make me feel still connected.
Jen: Not everyone on the email list has attended; some have just signed up to learn more—or to come in the future when their schedule allows. Here’s a breakdown of the folks on this list:
- Current DePaul Students (both grad and undergrad): approximately 35
- DePaul Alumni: approximately 90
- DePaul Faculty/Staff: 9
It makes sense that mostly alumni receive these communications: most people start attending as students and then continue as alumni. You joined Guild as an alumnus, right?
Matthew: Yeah, I had just finished my MA and was shifting into my professional staff position at the UCWbL. Writers Guild provided me with the motivation to write regularly. I came in with some ideas for what I thought might be a collection of short stories or a novella, and through Writers Guild’s support and brainstorming assistance, I realized I was writing a novel! My goal became to have at least eight pages of new material to read every week. Other group members seemed genuinely interested in my story, and that interest motivated me to consistently get writing done.
So, we’ve touched on the way Writers Guild functions as a supportive community and how intrinsically motivated its members are to encourage others to write and revise. How do you account for the group’s capacity to sustain these compelling attributes?
Jen: I think the idea of community really is central! I know that I always leave the group feeling inspired even if I’m not managing to produce much writing (interestingly, what I started out sharing with the group in 2008 was fiction, and now, when I share on nights I’m not facilitating, it’s almost exclusively poetry). The group is really a way to see how writing functions as a social act.
And Matthew, there are still plenty of people who ask about your novel and want to know what happened to the characters! I absolutely see Writers Guild as a community beyond its weekly meetings. In addition to the community created by our Facebook page, I really feel like even if a person has only come once, they’re still a part of the group.
Matthew: I think this idea of community is additionally expressed through how Writers Guild, while supported by the UCWbL, also exists independently of the UCWbL. Maybe this goes back to its origins, but the Guild certainly lives a life of its own. Between terms and through the summer, it keeps on meeting, and I think that commitment speaks volumes. During these breaks Writers Guild spills over to coffee shops and participants’ apartments. I have fond memories of Guild meeting at my place; my spouse made us cookies, and we talked about poems and plot arcs. What is it about this group that encourages such full devotion?
Jen: Oh, that meeting at your apartment was amazing! I know Guild participants who say that that was their favorite meetings ever. And I think that there was more delicious food than just cookies. I seem to remember chili and cornbread, too. And in regards to devotion, I think that goes back to the idea of community. While we do take breaks for maybe two or three weeks total over the year, it’s fun to try out new locations and talk about writing in different settings. And summer gives some writers more time to work on their projects! This summer, for example, we started out by trying a new coffee shop every week. That was a nice idea in theory, but not so much in practice. Sometimes a place would be crowded or noisy, and it would be difficult to fit a larger group of people. The place we ended up sticking with (after a few weeks of moving around) had a huge outdoor patio that worked perfectly.
One really neat thing that happened this summer is that five writers brought work to share for the very first time! And one of them was actually an original member from before the group was a part of the UCWbL—and from before I ever attended!
Matthew: This idea that someone could be part of Guild for years and only now bring original material to workshop speaks to the widely welcoming nature of this group. I’ve also been intrigued by the variety of people Guild brings together. When I was regularly attending, I’d be there with a slam poet, a published short story author, a high school English teacher, a novelist working on an epic retelling of the Titanomachy, a flash fiction writer, a freshman trying out blank verse for the first time. I’d be exposed to all kinds of writings-in-progress and then have the chance to express my thoughts about their work. Writers Guild is like a living embodiment of the UCWbL’s core belief: “Anyone who writes anything is a writer.”
Through your experience facilitating these gatherings with all these various participants, how have you tried to find the balance between encouragement and constructive criticism?
Jen: I certainly think that it goes back to writing center best practices and being an invested and engaged reader. I will often ask questions about the purpose of what the writer is working on (i.e., publication, a class project, trying a new genre, etc.) and try to frame my feedback as something that addresses that purpose. Before a writer reads the work out loud, I or another facilitator will ask what specific questions the writer had, if any, and make notes about those questions so that they can be addressed. Other things might certainly come up in the conversation as well, and something that I think works so very, very effectively in the writing workshop model is that there are multiple readers who might see the work in different ways and might offer different suggestions. That way, whatever writers decide to do for revision, they have a variety of options to consider. Maybe a few group members are uncertain about a character’s motivation, but there might be other group members who feel that it’s clear.
Matthew: When it comes to organizing and sustaining writing groups, one of the big concerns is participant retention. I’ve led academic writing groups at both DePaul and UW-Madison, and I’ve noticed that many participants who are eager at the beginning of the term drop off as the weeks go by. Of course, Writers Guild’s workshop format distinguishes it from the come-and-compose model, but what do you think other writing groups could learn about participant retention from Writers Guild?
Jen: Hmmmm. I do feel that word-of-mouth works very well in promoting the group and building a collection of participants who want to keep coming back. Many of the first alumni who came (right around when you started to bring your novel) saw me posting enthusiastically about the wonders of Writers Guild on social media, and they started to message me to ask if they could come too. I guess that having group members who are excited about it all the time really keeps people wanting to be there and read, listen, and just chat about writing and publishing.
Matthew: So, in order to foster a sustainable writing group, it helps if it’s the kind of group that people can get excited about—excited enough to return to year after year. Do you think this kind excitement is easier to build with creative writing than it is with more academic composition?
Jen: I’m glad you mention academic work. I feel that “creative writing” is a bit of a misnomer since academic work can certainly benefit from creative thought. And we’ve had a few instances where work in academic genres was shared—or work that seemed to be somewhere on the genre border between what would be considered academic or creative. A few of those instances were with personal statements for PhD and MFA programs, and the group was very invested in providing suggestions and feedback on a genre that they either had experience with or might find themselves writing one day. Another time, a writer brought a history paper because it was very shortly due—and I remember being surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) about how excited and invested the group became. So to answer your question, I do think that it’s possible to build excitement about academic composition.
Matthew: At Writers Guild, this excitement is often directed to the interesting, entertaining texts people are bringing, but I think there is also enthusiasm for the writing process—for the possibilities of revision revealed through the group’s collective feedback. And regardless of the content, it’s exciting to have other people pay attention to your writing.
Jen: Absolutely! And in Writers Guild this enthusiasm is also evidenced in brainstorming sessions. Much of the time, writers will bring in a work in progress, but sometimes they just bring their ideas or a prompt for a literary journal that they’d like to address. Not only does talking through ideas out loud seem to make those ideas more “real” than if they just stayed in the writer’s mind, seeing other writers excited about a potential project is so empowering. I like that you mention how feedback from a group reveals “the possibilities of revision,” and I feel that in brainstorming sessions, what’s being revealed is the possibilities of invention or creation.
Matthew: Certainly one of the things that has sustained Writers Guild is its consistency as an institution. Even though participants and facilitators come and go, writers always know they are welcome to return and they always know what they’ll get when they attend: an opportunity to listen, read, and respond to other writers’ work. And then there are snacks, and food brings people together as well!
Jen: This is so nicely summed up, Matthew. Members certainly do come and go, but past facilitators will sometimes return as participants, and writers know that even if they don’t come to the group for a year or more, they’ll certainly be welcomed back. Our quarterly open mics, called Aloud!, is another time when we might see writer friends who haven’t been able to attend regularly—those open mics are also a great opportunity to collaborate with other writing groups or organizations on campus.
And yes, snacks are a plus!
Matthew: As we come to the conclusion of this dialogue, I’m curious about what our readers think about all this. Beyond the importance of a varied community, participants’ intrinsic interest, and enduring hospitality, are there additional Writing Guild attributes other writing center-facilitated writing groups can draw from? I wonder what other writing group models folks have found to be successful or other ways writing group facilitators have sustained enthusiasm and participation.
Jen: I would love to hear more about other writing-center facilitated writing groups as well! Thank you so much for this conversation, Matthew! I’m always excited about the group, but having the opportunity to reflect on it and articulate some particulars makes me feel even more revitalized as the fall quarter begins. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Writers Guild!
Matthew: Jen, I’m glad that this is a conversation that will continue, and I hope this week’s Writers Guild meetings are great