Greater New Haven Writers’ Group

Critical Mass

Every other Wednesday evening, Book Trader Cafe’s usual mix of ones and twos makes room for a six or seven.

The gatherers pull some tables together and borrow spare chairs. They shuffle papers and scribble notes. They utter words that may pique the interest of casual eavesdroppers. “It’s not shallow. It really draws you in.” “I just thought you could tighten it up.” “The description of the witch was really cool.” “I know you’re writing a blog post. Stop telling me you’re trying to write a blog post!”

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They’re members of the Greater New Haven Writers’ Group, and their purpose is to push each other, in a hard-nosed but good-spirited way. Open to “committed writers (published and unpublished)” who must first get voted in by the existing membership, the group, fluctuating in size and operating for more than 10 years now, tasks itself with “providing constructive criticisms of each other’s work, offering support, and discussing the publishing process,” as the Meetup page puts it.

At the regular meeting two Wednesdays ago, the group followed what I’m told is its usual format, with laughter and chitchat book-ending roundtable critiques of things various groupmates were working on. One member, Yale psychology professor Annita Sawyer, received feedback about an essay she was planning to submit for publication on Psychology Today’s website. Another, Albertus Magnus writing professor Sarah Harris Wallman, listened to comments regarding a chunk of pages from her forthcoming novel.

Among the evening’s other attendees were Scott Woods, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and a writer of medical thrillers; Susan Nathiel, of Hamden, a writer of literary nonfiction; Matt Light, of Stratford, a journalist and writer of young adult histories and mysteries; and Beth Miller, of Southington, a writer of what she says is decidedly un-cheesy romance.

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The seventh member there, Greg Greenberg, is a sociologist by training and the founder/unofficial leader of GNHWG, which Sawyer says “wouldn’t happen except for Greg.” Greenberg’s love for the craft began with an elective creative writing class he took some 18 years ago during graduate school, which “probably didn’t help my dissertation,” he quips. But it did birth what would become a lifelong passion. Now, to go with his career as a social scientist, he’s an avid writer of science fiction, extolling the virtues of consistent, fact-based “world-building” and treating “the environment a character.”

When it was his turn to critique the given selection from Wallman’s novel, Greenberg said, “I’m ashamed to say I don’t have any deep-rooted criticisms,” and he wasn’t joking. Tough love is what you sign up for with GNHWG, and it’s easy to get the sense that those who can’t take the heat don’t stick around long. Even those who do have had to acclimate. Nathiel remembers how she felt after the first time she was formally critiqued, which she characterizes as a drubbing. “My first reaction was, ‘The group is a bunch of ignorant, mean people who don’t know how to read good writing.’ My second reaction was, ‘They’re right. I’m a loser. I can’t write.’ My third reaction was, ‘Hmm. Maybe they have a point.’”

For her part, Sawyer initially came to the group for support with putting together a memoir. She came in writing too “clinically,” as she puts it, nodding when Greenberg says her initial written recountings read like the patient reports so central to her regular line of work. “I was such a beginner,” she says, adding that she joined the group before its more selective acceptance policy was adopted. But the group “really did teach me to write,” resulting not only in an award-winning book—Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir—but also in a raft of published creative nonfiction essays, some of which have won awards themselves.

She’s a testament to GNHWG’s central principle, which, if its members can forgive the cascading colons, goes something like this: Critical feedback: it’s critical.

Greater New Haven Writers’ Group

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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