We’ve seen the crowds that the Pygmalion Lit Fest readings can bring. Obviously, large contingent of people in the C-U area are interested in literature, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. We get swept up in the seasonal allure of college football or the reputation of the U of I as one of the best engineering schools in the world and we forget that the area is home to a vibrant writing community. Our hometown hero is Roger Ebert, but how many residents know that we live where David Foster Wallace grew up? How many of us even know who that is?
Thankfully a group called Champaign Urbana Creative Writers exists for those who enjoy writing and want to hone their abilities. “We like having readers come,” said Justin Lenoff, the group’s founder, “not just writers. That’s kind of a hard message to get across because people are usually like ‘Oh, I don’t have anything to share, should I come?’ We like having people come who are not writers to just read and critique as a reader because it helps out the writers more. It’s not just a writers’ group; it’s a reading and writing group. For anyone who appreciates the literary process or writing in general.”
Lenoff (pictured, right), who works in engineering and development with Xerion Battery, founded the group in April of 2012 as a way to receive helpful feedback on a novel he was working on, as he’d learned that a successful writer named Brandon Sanderson had benefited from workshopping his writing with a group. Lenoff spent four-and-a-half years as an Air Force officer, a period of time he used to his advantage as a writer. “Writing was always a hobby of mine; so, while I was on active duty, I was doing some writing and actually finished a book I’ve been trying to write for a while — a 300,000 word book.”
“One thing I wish I’d done when I was writing the book was get feedback,” Lenoff told me. “I’d looked at other authors and seen what they’d done. Some were successful because of writers’ groups like the one we have. So I decided to do that to get my writing skills up.”
CUCW meets once a week on Wednesdays, usually at the Champaign Public Library, but the venue is soon to change as reserving rooms is no longer free. “We have different kinds of meetups at least once a week,” Lenoff said. “Some of them focus on writing, some of them focus on critiquing. Some focus on short stories and some on long stories. They repeat once a week, but they all alternate. Sometimes we might get five people, and sometimes we get fifteen. The average is between eight and ten.”
One of the things Lenoff emphasized is that, while he’s the group’s founder and takes a leadership and organization role, CUCW belongs to everyone involved. “One of the things I bring to the group is organization. It’s not just my group, though; it’s everybody’s group, so everyone has to take responsibility for it. A lot of people help out. We get together and collectively decide what kind of a group we want. I’m just there to facilitate that. But it actually takes someone to pull things together and execute.” The group decides which direction to move in as a whole. “We got together recently and we tried to put together kind of a group charter. One of the things we want is diversity. We have a broad range of people. We have sci-fi, drama, poetry, memoirs; we’ve had all sorts of things. Recently we’ve moved towards the sci-fi fiction realm, and we’ve started to notice that we’ve lost some of the diversity, and we’re trying to do something about that right now.”
CUCW is currently planning to implement a wider outreach to pull in some more people. And for anyone on the fence, I got in touch with several members who attend meetings. Zach Williams, a longtime writer, said the group has been a benefit: “Through this group I’ve been able to get a lot of excellent feedback on my work including advice on copy editing, characterization, story structure, and plot. I’ve regularly attended meetings for over a year now, and I’ve found that it is an incredibly welcoming group of people with a diverse range of talents and specialties. I would recommend any writer of any skill level or preference to give it a try.”
Speaking of writers of any skill level or preference, take Jade Lee (pictured, left) or Barbara Myers for example. Lee, who has a seriously impressive career as a romance novelist, started attending meetings regularly and also gave a recent talk on characterization. She said she enjoys the workshops and the people involved. Barbara Myers, a Chicago native, runs a website documenting her own writing progress, as well as her extensive reading list. Myers said, “Over the past two years, I’ve received valuable feedback from group members on short stories and sections of my novel, and have also enjoyed meeting and socializing with like-minded folks who enjoy reading and the craft of writing.”
If you’re interested in the process of workshopping your material with other writers, you are the only obstacle in the way. From my personal experience in workshops at U of I, I won’t say it’s easy the first time. Putting yourself out there for everyone to scrutinize is nerve wracking, but often very rewarding after the first time. It only gets better from there. Lenoff explained that the writers who come into CUCW at a lower skill level have a perfect track record of improving when they stick with the process and regularly attend the meetings.
“Being on the fence about coming to a meeting is about overcoming the fear of sharing the writing with someone else,” Lenoff said. “Writing is very personal. And when you first start writing, people make the mistake of getting incredibly attached to their work. For most people, the process of getting feedback is difficult; even admitting that it’s difficult is difficult. The big thing you have to do is remind yourself that it’s okay to get good feedback and bad feedback. There are people who come who are good writers who think their writing is shit. You just have to prepare to objectively listen to what people are saying, don’t let it overwhelm you, but get to a point emotionally where you can share your writing.”
You can follow the CUCW group activities through their meetup.com site.