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Group helps writers hone their art - and craft

September 22, 2010

Many people have a little secret tucked away in their hearts – and their desk drawers – that Marylee MacDonald would like to bring out in the open.

You can almost envision her standing on a rooftop and shouting, “Get that unfinished novel or short story out and finish it! Then let’s try to get it published!”

MacDonald, a published writer herself, leads a group of writers that meets every other Monday evening at her Tempe home for critiques – and support.

Most of the writers have an ASU connection, as does MacDonald, but that doesn’t matter. She just wants them to write, to improve, to get published.

The 15 or so writers in the group – which MacDonald hosts at no cost to them – gather around 6 p.m. for coffee and a light meal. Whoever is being critiqued that evening brings the food.

“The trust level in the group is high,” said MacDonald, who is an adjunct faculty member in ASU’s creative writing program. “People are comfortable with each other. We start with the good stuff. There are a lot of very thoughtful, good comments.”

“I try to make sure we spend a lot of time on the positive. I try to work in ideas about how stories work. Other members also lead the discussion.”

Each writer has two or three opportunities during the year to have their stories or novels critiqued, with an eye to such questions as whether the characters are plausible, if there is something at stake for the characters, and whether there is emotional logic in the story.

The group, which is informally called “Monday Night at Marylee’s,” grew out of a writing class MacDonald taught for the Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Some members came from that class, and others joined through word of mouth. Many have graduate degrees and miss the structure of taking classes.

“After people earn their MFAs, they don’t know what to do. They feel isolated,” MacDonald said. “The group helps people take themselves more seriously as writers.”

The group members support each other by showing up en masse if one has a public reading, as they did recently for a staged reading of “Off the Rails,” a play by Pat Hays, and the release event for Bhira Backhaus’ novel, “Under the Lemon Trees.”

And there is rejoicing when members have stories or novels or plays published, or win literary prizes. “I want to celebrate when people get things published,” MacDonald said.

The writers all stress the importance of the group experience, as well as the collective expertise that they can tap into – and the warm benefits of friendship with fellow storytellers.

Margaret Spence, who is married to ASU Regents’ Professor Jon Spence and is working on a memoir about her Australian roots, said, “The support of this group pushes each one of us to ask more of ourselves and to keep producing work, to find time to do it, no matter how much our other lives intrude. And of course, we have a tremendous amount of fun in our twice-monthly meetings!”

Ann Bergin, who was director of the ASU News Bureau for many years, and then worked as an assistant to President J. Russell Nelson, and earned her MFA in poetry and fiction at ASU, said the group pressure motivates the writers to “finish the work and get it in the mail.

“I don’t know about you, but I work best with deadline pressure. That was my initial reason for joining the group – to have someone expecting work from me at a date and time certain. Otherwise, it’s easy for life to get in the way: A friend wants to go to lunch. I’ve got a new Nelson DeMille novel on my Kindle. The refrigerator needs cleaning. I really ought to walk the dogs. The phone is ringing. I’m out of bread. You know the drill.

“So. I was looking for deadlines. In the process, I found a diverse group of experienced and polished writers whose work I respect and whose opinions I value. I found an exceptionally well-organized and well led group, thanks to Marylee MacDonald, who’s had considerable experience with writing groups and knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Wendy Marshall, a former journalist who holds an MFA in fiction from ASU, also stressed the importance of community. “The list of most important thing(s) I've gained would also begin with community, followed by instruction, followed by inspiration. Writing, even if not full-time, is a solitary endeavor. I do better work when I bounce my ideas around the group, and have several new sets of eyes look at it to find the holes I've missed.”

Marshall’s current project is the first of what she envisions as a series of three historical novels about two Irish immigrants and their sons and grandsons that will span the years from the draft riots in New York City in July 1863 to 1914, and a cross-country move to work in the motion picture business when Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt road lined with orange trees.

“It's a HUGE project, so one page at a time, one day at a time,” Marshall said.

Deborah Bauer, who earned an MFA degree from Antioch College and is the group’s co-founder said, “I participate because writing is a lonely activity. It's important to get out of the room.

“Our members come from different writing backgrounds. It's always enlightening to hear their varied opinions. I greatly enjoy reading their pieces. My writing has greatly benefited from the feedback. I learn during the critiques of others. I always have a wealth of information to use during revision.”

Roberta Binkley, who holds a doctorate in English, and teaches business writing to W. P. Carey students, gives the writing group credit for helping her get her first book to press.  "Before the Gods: There Was Enheduanna the First-Known Writer," a nonfiction book about a Mesopotamian feminist, who lived from 2285-2250,” has just been released by Noble Knight Publishers.

“The writing group has been invaluable,” she said. “No writer can ever have a complete perspective of their work. There are always things you don't see; things that you miss.

“When we get together we talk about the characters in the work as real people. We become involved with their past, their present and their future. The discussions are thoughtful, always productive. We then return to our work with new creative insights and ideas, with new excitement. Always, these discussions richly feed the writer's imagination.”

MacDonald, whose story "Break" is a finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Short Story Competition (winners will be announced Sept. 25) jokes that writing was her second choice of career.

“I wanted to be either a woman wrestler or a star on the Bay Area Bombers' roller derby team,” she said. “Instead, this widowed mother of five became a carpenter, historic preservation teacher, and writer for shelter, consumer, and trade magazines.”

Her work has appeared in Sunset, Better Homes & Gardens, Consumer Reports, Journal of Light Construction and the National Park Services series "Preservation Briefs," among other publications. After her children graduated form college, she began writing fiction and creative nonfiction, and has won numerous awards. MacDonald is now married to Bruce Rittmann, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute.

Getting a short story published in a literary magazine is a much bigger challenge than having a free-lance journalism piece published in a general interest magazine, MacDonald said.

She routinely submits the same story to many literary magazines at the same time, a practice she jokingly calls “carpet bombing.” Should a story be accepted by a magazine, she immediately notifies the other publications.

“I don't send to a magazine if they say they don't take simultaneous submissions, but most magazines these days do take simultaneous submissions if you let them know as soon as a story is accepted elsewhere,” she said.

“The odds are so against writers today that this is almost the only way to get into a magazine—be very aggressive about submitting.”

“It is a LOT different from magazine journalism. You don't get paid. You shell out money for postage. Your story disappears into the void after it's published. And you can only hope that an agent is looking through some literary magazines for new writers. Certainly, without establishing your bona fides by publishing in lit mags, you will have zero chance of being taken seriously by an agent.”

Now, about that novel, or that short story… .