Why writers’ critique groups disappoint

I’ve tried quite a few critique groups. You know, a bunch of folks who present written pieces for commentary. They vary in format and style and frequency, but typically grumpy old me finds them wanting and leaves. Why?

I can think of many reasons why I or any writer might find a particular critique group unsuitable. A personality clash with a group member is one possibility. A critique group mightn’t be well managed, with individuals grandstanding or lacerating. A group might meet too often or not often enough. The.culture could be poisonous.

But the issue I’ve personally encountered most is a simple technical one. For me it’s important that all the writers in the group are roughly “of the same standard.” Yes, I know that defining writing “quality” is subjective, but the issue to me is how I feel the group stands in relation to my own perception of how well I write.

Specifically, I usually exit a writing group because I find too many members are “not good enough,” a judgement that damns those who don’t write much and whose pages are, in my opinion, even more amateurish than mine.

So that’s why I’m so enamoured with the Inner City Writers Group. All of us are equals. All of us are producing real manuscripts. All of us will one day be rich and famous. Well . . .

Might you do some walking, a Big Year even?

Suppose you’ve let yourself go a bit, or maybe a lot, so much so that a tendril of terror rests in your gut whenever a shopping trip leaves you a bit exhausted. You tell yourself to “do regular walking” but each attempt peters out. Life “is too busy.”
What would a Walking Big Year look like? So many options suggest themselves! What if you were to decide to walk thirty minutes, on a prescribed route (let’s call it the Honey Blossom Road circuit) from home, every single day of 2017, from January 1 to December 31? Too easy, eh?
Plan out your Honey Blossom Road Big Year. Is thirty minutes exactly the right challenge, or should you go longer (surely you’ll grow in strength and confidence) or shorter (let’s make squeezing this in a breeze)? How will you measure progress – crossing off calendar pages or employing Strava? What about travel intervals – take a break or (you think not) come up with an equivalent walk wherever you are? What about 40 degrees or windstorm – be clear with yourself.
Over the rest of 2016 you walk now and then, tweaking the concept. You inform some friends, not others. What about Sunday, January 1, 2017, the day after the big New Year’s Eve bash, the day the hordes descend upon you for a BBQ? You steel yourself and actually set an alarm for 8 AM on the Sunday and drag yourself around Honey Blossom Road. Tick one.
As January melds into February and into March, the novelty wears off. You’d decided to walk in the best part of the day, just before lunch, but your busy life threatens and stresses, so you’ve switched to 7 AM. It can seem boring, except sometimes it feels transcendent, not often but maybe enough. In May, a family crisis derails you until 11:38 PM and the rain is pissing down – with the greatest reluctance, you amaze yourself by walking in the dark with a head torch! Can you believe it?
July stresses you because that Intrepid Tuscany tour in August surely requires a Big Year break. Instead your husband urges you to keep it up during the tour, so, quite ludicrously, on August 24th you find yourself setting a 4 AM alarm and walking half an hour from your airport hotel. That night, you reflect how much springier you are on your feet than the other tour participants (including your husband) and you turn down the tiramisu dessert.
In September you trip on your grandson’s tractor and bang the right middle toe. You limp Honey Blossom Road. The physio offers you the choice of a week’s rest and your truculent riposte startles you. With seemingly the greatest of ease, you add half an hour’s stretching to your routine – my God, you’re regularly rising with the dawn! Your original Honey Blossom Road loop amounted to only a little over a kilometre over the half hour, and you’ve steadily added little extras and detours, so by now you’re clocking up two kilometres a day. You began marking ticks on a sheet of paper, now you’re Strava’ing like a champ, and it tells you your accumulated 2017 kms are 467. After a lunchtime Prosecco on September 30, you suddenly aim to walk 800 kms by December 31 – Honey Blossom Road now means an hour on the road, sunshine or rain.
A funny feeling fills you on December 31. There’s nothing special about the walk – it’s a mild New Year’s Eve day and the fact that you need to cover an hour and a half to clock up the final 800-km prize is no imposition – but you’re simultaneously yearning to take a break from the yoke of the daily trudge and almost weeping with anxiety about tomorrow. You drink too much at a rooftop party.
January 1, 2018. The head pounds. You’re miserable throughout the BBQ. At 4:36 you sneak out the back, lace up your Brooks walkers (you upgraded), and enjoy the New Holland Honeyeaters (you know seventeen garden birds by now) in Honey Blossom Road.
After family has gone, sitting with hubby in front of the television, you pull out that embroidery you began in 1985. “2018 is a Craft Big Year,” you announce, almost apologetically.

Diet is the new sin

Yes, diet seems like how Catholicism treated (and still does?) sex – the taboo we lie about, feel most guilty about. For me, what I eat and drink has been a source of existential exploration for four decades. I’ve previously posted that diet is NOT something my Big Year folly can tackle well, so why raise it now? Because I’m still groping. So here are words of wisdom from my friend Shane:

How much should one worry about this stuff? Maybe the most sensible approach is to hove to the basics: exercise, don’t smoke, pursue a whole foods, vegetarian/vegan diet

More from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”

I continue to re-examine this wonderfully written book – can it teach anything fresh? He writes:

How do habits change? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

I find this sobering but realistic. After skipping sections on the “habits” of organizations and societies, subjects of little interest to me right now, at the tail end of the book I focus on his  “advice” chapter, but even then he counsels:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?

I first read “The Power of Habit” two years ago with precisely that hope in mind. “If only it were that easy,” writes Duhigg. “It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.”

I remain hopeful . . . more to come . . .

My jogging segments: How fast?

Sometime ago, I felt I was running faster than a plod, so I picked up pace over a riverside section that might, I reckoned, be a Strava “segment.” A Strava segment is a user-created route that invites Strava users to measure themselves against others. Cyclists seem to use them a lot, with work commuters trying each day to beat others on short road sections.

At the end of that jog, I looked up my Strava performance and, sure enough, I had a new personal record on a 1.9-km segment called “Yarra Boulevard to Burnley.” I’d run it in 11 minutes, 33 seconds. Hmm, how well do I compare? It turns out my outing that day was ranked 2,294th out of 2,833. I was deflated but then looked up my 55-to-64 age bracket. Refreshingly, not many old runners tackle this segment, for I was ranked 25th out of 38. Yes, the fastest old runner had done it in 7:32 minutes, 50% faster than me, but I was not the slowest, not at all.

How wonderful the modern world of data!

Writing Big Year: Blerggggh

York’s two-and-a-half days of Chapter 5 drafting: the left image shows plot points covered, that is, three; the right image depicts plot points undrafted, i.e. heaps. Not a grand result, though part of it is due to collapsing a big 1953 tale into a short aside, something I’m glad I’ve done. An empty feeling . . . not because I “underachieved,” but because tomorrow we start a seventeen-day trek across England, the Coast To Coast, and right now all I wish is that I could sit back down to write more, but I cannot.

Cycle? Read this?

To you, the perennial non-cyclist, does cycling seem imbued with romanticism, the allure of effort, speed, ascent, ground covered, the world all around? It does to me. David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile fictionalises Australia’s participation (with one New Zealander) in the 1928 Tour de France. Our book group Novel Men struggled somewhat with the feverish eloquence of the author, but the novel sure does convey the risks and sacrifices of long-distance cycle touring!