“What I know now” is the theme for a writing contest I’ll be entering later this year. Interesting. I can write a short story, personal essay or poem. I’ll probably write one of each and bring them to my writers’ critique group to help me decide which to submit. I’ve learned a great deal from my critique group–about writing, and also about the human condition.
“Diversity” is a word that’s often slung around these days. Usually, it refers to ethnicity, and sometimes to sexual orientation or religion. A community certainly benefits from diversity, be it a school, a business, or a neighborhood. We’re enriched by exposure to smart, kind, creative people who are different from us in some significant way—such exposure humanizes the “other” and chips away at prejudice. Besides, the world is in such a mess that we need everyone’s talents to patch it up–everyone’s, not just the members of our own tribe.
My writers’ critique group is diverse in the usual ways, but also in a way that’s particularly important to me: diversity of age. I’m young for a retiree, fifty-three, but am living that lifestyle thanks to some good fortune—and a lot of hard work, thank you very much. And I’m already encountering ageism in surprising places, as well as from the usual suspects: the beauty industry, the fashion industry, smug thirty-somethings who’ll never, ever be old.
But back to my critique group. Lately, we’re about evenly split between young writers and older writers, which is really heartening in a culture that tends to self-segregate by age. We range from early twenties to early eighties. The group is open to new members, who come and go, with a handful of core members like me who usually show up. Sci-fi is probably the most popular genre in our group, evenly split between the young writers and the over-fifties. We also see historical fiction, folk tales, romance, contemporary fiction, military fiction, short stories, blog entries, poems… Sharing our works in progress teaches us about the common struggles of writers—and the feedback we give and receive increases all our knowledge about writing.
At the risk of generalizing, I’ve learned that most younger readers prefer stories with lots of tension up front, whereas older readers are willing to let the tension build more slowly as long as the concept and characters are interesting. I’ve learned that kind, perceptive insight can come from surprising sources. I’ve relearned the importance of making criticism more palatable by sliding in some praise, even if I have to look very hard to find something praiseworthy. (I knew this from my many years of teaching high school English, but one sometimes forgets.) Don’t get me wrong—most of the material I’ve seen in critique group is good, and much of it is excellent.
I’ve learned a lot about story structure by reading genres that I would not ordinarily choose to read. I’ve learned about tightening a narrative to make it more impactful. I’ve learned about publishing opportunities. And I’m heartened to meet smart, creative young people with a genuine interest in the world around them and the world of ideas. I know a lot about writing and language, but I don’t know it all, and these young writers are helping me to learn more. It would be ageist of me to dismiss their input simply because they’re less experienced: good story is good story, and smart is smart.
I won’t say that connecting with younger writers “keeps me young.” First of all, that’s a ridiculously ageist cliché based on the idea that young is good and old is bad, which is false. Young is good; old is good; middle-aged is good—any age a human being happens to be is good. Working closely with writers of different ages reminds me that, at heart, we’re all (writers and fictional characters) motivated by the search for excitement, challenge, achievement, and love. I hope, I believe, that the younger writers are also learning from us older ones—that we’re just as human as they, and just as interesting.