Q & A with the Shenandoah Valley Inkslingers

How did you come to join the group?

KB: Chad and I, along with a few other writers, got a group together around the end of 2005. Eventually Andrew joined us. For various reasons, the group fizzled out after a year or so. In 2008, we rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes. Over the years, four became eight. By last spring, we had to cap the size of the group and actually sponsored a local meet-and-greet matchmaking session so that more of our writing friends could form their own groups.

JP: When I moved back to the 'burg, Kirsten and I decided we needed a writing group. I think she had had one previously (also named Inksligers) and we decided to resurrect it.

AMJ: I was fairly new to the area, had met Chad, and expressed an interest in writing, so he invited me to join. I think I also met Kirsten around that time, so got two invitations.

Shortly after joining, I began applying to MFA programs in writing. Getting to know a few folks who had taken the steps to pursue grad school and careers in teaching/writing allowed me to be able to imagine that a dream I'd always had might actually be possible.

TO: I searched for a writing group to no avail, then someone told me of Inkslingers.

AJ: I was in an earlier version of the group that Kirsten had started. I don't actually remember how I got I got back in the current group, but at some point an invitation was received, and I got involved with the current Inkslingers.

PM: Alisha was designing costumes for a play I had written, and said, "Hey, there's this group you should join..." with very few details provided. The first meeting I attended was in Chad's basement, and the whole thing felt like a covert meeting with double agents. Very stealth-y and sexy. And then Chad served tea and people started talking about their essays, and I realized it was writers' group, not an anti-government organization. Less stealthy, still sexy. Writers are sexy people.

How has being in SVI helped your career/journey/whadayacallit as a writer?

AH: It's kept me writing, especially through the past year. I call my son my 20-pound writer's block, and without the accountability of the group, I wouldn't be writing at all. I also feel like the group's encouragement has gotten me to really dig in on some nonfiction that I probably wouldn't have the courage to explore without it.

TO: It keeps me working on my writing. It has made me think of readings and publishing as a reality rather than some pie-in-the-sky idea. It is important to have a writing community because it feels like such a solitary process.

PM: Deadlines are a great motivator, of course. I think also the spirit of respect and challenge we've cultivated gives us the freedom to stretch ourselves when we write-- to try different genres, to be vulnerable in theme, to deeply explore projects we would otherwise shelve.

JP: It has kept me writing! It's easy to put it off if you don't have a deadline--even a friendly one like SVI's deadline. It’s also nice to have a forum to grouse about writing issues--rejection letters, stupid winners of the contest you entered, etc. You don't feel totally alone in your writing process.

KB: I can't write without readers. The group provides the instant gratification of sharing work fresh from the laptop, and it also provides a challenge--in our group, we hold four (soon five) MFA's and other advanced degrees, experiences, and ambitions that would make for an intimidating crowd if we hadn't already seen each others' worst work. Sharing deadlines and opportunities has been great: My little publication in Hint Fiction came from a tip from Anna Maria; Jessica's recent win in the Bellevue literary contest came from a tip from me; Jessica and I made a manuscript pact early this fall and groomed our manuscripts to send to a book competition--hers in fiction, mine non-fiction. About once a year, the group has a submission party, sharing ideas about where to send manuscripts. Finally, several group members wrote (and rewrote) to order for my anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies. It's a scary thing, asking friends for work, knowing you may have to reject it. The pieces they gave were fantastic from the start, and yet I felt much more comfortable suggesting changes and pushing them to take their ideas a bit further than I felt with any other contributors.

AMJ: Being part of a nurturing and supportive writing group gave me the courage to submit stories and essays for publication in literary journals, as well as to apply to graduate school. Knowing other people who are finding success as writers and as teachers of writing has helped me to able to imagine possibilities for myself that previously would have seemed too out-of-reach. Before, authors were people "out there," with more talent and opportunities than I had. Now, authors are people I have met, am friends with, can laugh with, and who give me the occasional nudge to push my own work to the next level. We don't see one another as the competition, but as a network.

AJ: Because our group involves writers working in a variety of genres, I've been encouraged to try my hand at fiction for the first time. Also, we've gotten to know each other very well, and I think we've gotten better than many writing groups at giving honest feedback and criticism. We all share a basic respect and admiration for the writing that all of us are doing, which takes away the awkwardness of being criticized, or criticizing another Inkslinger's writing. That helps us all improve.

How would you describe our process? How might the theme of embodiment apply to it?

AJ: Everyone reads all the pieces that are submitted, often making notes and comments on hard copy, or in electronic format. At the beginning of our meetings , we spend 45 minutes pigging out and drinking tea and gossiping. Then we spend at least that long talking about each person's piece, sometimes focusing specifically on questions prompted by the author (e.g. "does this stand alone as an excerpt from my novel-in-progress?") or just giving general feedback. Embodiment applies to my experience of the Insklingers process in the sense that everything I run through the system ends up improved or changed in some manner thanks to response from the group. The group wisdom becomes embodied in specific pieces of writing after post-Inkslingers editing. That sounds cheesy, but is factual and very important.

TO: I feel the writers honor the process and individual voices and they are also an honest audience of what worked, what didn't work. Embodiment is a theme in how we serve tea and snacks and are invited into someone's home--there's care in that. I like that we have four one month and four the next, so that we can spend some time on the stories.

JP: Usually over the year we see the initial stages and final revisions of the same work. It's really fun to see where people go--what was once an ounce of something cool becoming the main idea of a story or a play. It may sound silly, but it certainly reminds me of a child growing up and running around and being annoying and wonderful at the same time.

KB: We eat and drink in each other's homes. We've shared about a lot of personal stuff. Giving birth, infertility, brain tumors (2), weird family stuff--and that's just the nonfiction. Our pages become extensions of our physical selves, and we trust that they'll be handled with tenderness, good humor, and honesty. (I was going to move into a metaphor about making love, but with a group of eight, it's just going to come off sounding wrong. Never mind.)

PM: One thing I've learned with this group is writers are not the embodiment of their work. Sometimes our work is autobiographical; sometimes it's just fiction. Sometimes it falls in the grey between. But a writer is seriously more complex than anything she or he writes. When you read our work, you're only seeing a piece of us (albeit a very intimate piece). Don't mistake it for the whole.

AH: One thing I think is important about our process is how the writer doesn't comment on his or her work until everyone else is done. This takes the writer's ego and presence out of the mix and replaces it with the text--our work is our body. It's both instructive for the writer and, perhaps, freeing for the others. They can say things about the textand not the individual.

AMJ: Our workshops are usually more informal than those I experience in graduate school, and also go a bit deeper into personal territory than what is possible in an academic setting.I'm very interested in the fuzzy borders between fiction and creative non-fiction; I'm fascinated with how people's real lives find their way into their writings (whether in stories or essays), and how writing, in turn, influences our real lives. Being part of a close-knit body of writers allows me to examine this interface between reality and writing: how the writing gets embodied in life, and how life is embodied in words.

What are the challenges of being in a writer’s group that meets everybody’s needs, and how has SVI dealt with them?

JP: I'd say the biggest challenge is making sure we are honest about each other's work. Since many of us see each other in other situations or have a past beyond SVI, it's tempting (at least for me) to only be positive about everything. But I've found it pretty easy to get over that challenge. All of us are confident in ourselves as writers, so we're not just looking for pats on the head, and are prepared to take a firm shoulder shake every now and again.

KB: Knowing when to quit is important. The original group worked for a time, but it didn't meet everyone's needs, and we let it die. It helps to have similar goals--we are all interested in publication and continuing to educate ourselves. We crave serious, challenging critique. We write mostly fiction and creative non-fiction, though scripts and screenplays also show up. An ongoing challenge is scheduling--we want to spend a good bit of time with each piece, but we can't give more than a few hours each month to meeting. We keep renegotiating just how often we'll meet and how many pieces we'll review. As we go through different life phases, some of us have to skip or stop submitting for awhile.

PM: Group size comes up for debate often, as does the structure of our meetings (how many pieces? how often?). Right now I think we're better arranged to critique short forms than long forms, but we're a very flexible bunch (in addition to being funny and sexy). I love that we represent all different genres; we approach pieces from all different angles, which leads to some really creative and profound critiques.

AH: I think it's hard with everyone's schedules to make sure that we have a time when we can all get together. Having eight in the group is actually helpful because we feel like we have a quorum even if not everyone can make it.

AJ: I that eight people seems like an absolute maximum size because we're committed to giving lengthy, thoughtful feedback and allowing each member an opportunity to submit every other month. There have also been times when one of us becomes aware of another writer who is looking for a group, and we've felt torn about being welcoming to new people and new ideas, and protective of the good system we have that doesn't have any room for growth at the moment. The meet ‘n greet was a good way of addressing that.

AMJ: I think we are all, more or less, on the same page in terms of our goals for writing, even though there is a diversity of kinds of writing represented. All of us want to push ourselves to become better writers and to succeed in having our work published. I think that this collective ambition prevents us from staying too "nice" in critiques, even though we have become good friends.

We always stick to the scheduled meeting date (one Sunday evening per month), so we don't run into scheduling snafus. But individuals do sometimes miss a meeting. We are fortunate to have enough members that even if a couple people are missing, there's still enough of a core group to make for a valuable critique.

Best SVI moment?

KB: Hilarious conversations best left unrepeated. The meet-and-greet was pretty cool, too. I felt that we were spawning--without all that strenuous upstream swimming. Or death. The Tongue Screws launch was pretty cool, too, because four of us got to read with some other fine local authors.

AH: Oh, there are so many. Our meet'n'greet was really cool, because we got to bring together so many writers from the area. So many of our meetings have wonderful moments, but they probably only make sense to us.

AMJ: How can I choose just one? We've shared so much together, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. We've listened to each others' stories of brain tumors, former boyfriends, marriage struggles, vegetarianism, parenting, infertility, and kooky dreams. I can't think of a topic that has been off limits, while at the same time, there's always a deep sense of respect for one another running underneath it all.

Kirsten once hand-crafted dozens of marzipan pears to celebrate the publication of the anthology that she edited,Tongue-screws and Testimonies. Another time she prepared persimmon scones and jam from her own persimmon tree (bush?). I think it means something that we feed one another literally as well as metaphorically.

AJ: At some point over the past two years, the whole group passed over some threshold, and we began sharing some extremely personal things with one another in our writing. It is an empowering and liberating feeling to not have to self-censor for the group, and to be entrusted by other members who are making themselves vulnerable through their writing. We've all certainly benefited artistically from our degree of comfort with one another. But I've certainly also benefited personally by sharing writing with the group in which I've addressed all sorts of uncomfortable things: fear of growing older, strained relationships with parents, loss of faith, etc.

JP: Hmmmm...the first one I think of is entering Chad's man cave for the first time.

PM: One time, Chad was discussing his wife's dead bird collection, and said, "If Cyndi ever brings home a dead elephant, I'm leaving." I wrote that line down in my journal when I got home, and have plans to use it in a play. Best line ever. Writers are funny, in addition to being sexy.

About the Author

Andrew  Jenner

Andrew Jenner is a freelance writer and journalist who also moonlights as a barista. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College in Baltimore and is a 2004 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University. His writing has appeared numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor, BirdWatching and Blue Ridge Outdoors, and the literary anthology, Tongue Screws and Testimonies, a collection of creative writing inspired by the Martyrs Mirror. He lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with his wife, Rachel.