Chad is currently working on a novel-in-stories, with each story or chapter following a different member of a Black family across three generations, of which his short story “Maidencane,” which was in The Best American Stories 2017, is a part.
K.O. So, what types of writing groups are you in / have you been in?
Besides my MFA workshop, I’ve been in either self-started, informal writing working groups with friends, colleagues, and friends of friends, or writing groups organized by a local community organization, such as the D.C. Public Library’s wonderful D.C. Writes group
or the Writer’s Center
in Bethesda, Maryland.
K.O. How did you start one, or figure out how to join one?
C.B.A. The answer remains the same, whether I start or join one. When a creative project is “haunting” me, itching to get out, but I struggle to start or even finish it because of external factors—work, home and family obligations, social life—or just my own insecurity or lethargy, that’s when I personally find it helpful to join or start a writing group. Not everyone operates this way, but there’s nothing like the fear of potentially disappointing other people by not showing up or not submitting your story to get you to finish. My mother taught me to never show up anywhere empty-handed, so showing up to a writing group without a story to share feels like a faux pas. And if you start the writing group, you feel even more obligated to get that creative work done. Generally, I start a writing group by finding one other writer friend who’s interested, and then we put out feelers in our separate social networks to find others who might be a good fit. Make it clear when you’re sending emails or posting on social media that you’re looking for serious writers who will be reliable and considerate.
K.O. How do you build trust with the other writers reading your work? How do you determine what feedback is helpful?
C.B.A. Be honest about your limitations, gaps in literary knowledge, genre or style preferences, etc. You may not be their best reader, and that’s okay. Let people know the kinds of stories you gravitate toward and the kind you don’t. But be open to trying out new spaces, genres, and narratives – that’s key to being a good reader and writer. While you may not be a big sci-fi reader, for instance, that doesn’t mean you won’t have useful feedback about the development of character or setting, point of view, or issues of clarity and style. At the end of the day, a story is a story, whether it’s a family saga set in Cleveland or a futuristic conflict on a planet far, far away.
K.O. Has it ever been hard for you to sustain your connection to a writers’ group? What are some of the challenges you’ve worked through in this process?
C.B.A. For me, it’s about personal connection. If I can appreciate the group’s members both as writers and as people, that’s a group that’s sustainable. And people have to be just as committed as you are. No matter how busy, they’re willing to show up and read your story eagerly and offer feedback that’s thoughtful. With any group, I recommend creating space to chat about life—what you’re reading, where you’re traveling, what’s happening with your pets, spouses, friends, what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve lost. You don’t have to overshare or be the very best of friends, but if you can’t laugh together, if you can’t share a little about your life, then sharing your writing will feel merely transactional, and that’s not sustainable because people are busy, and they won’t have the incentive to invest in your work. People are more willing to read your messiest of drafts if they care about you outside of what you put on a page.
K.O. What advice would you give other writers about how to start, join, or sustain their commitment to a writers’ group? At what stage(s) of one’s career is it most beneficial and why? Is it okay to join and leave? How do you know when it’s not working for you?
C.B.A. It’s time to bow out of a writing group if 1) it’s no longer serving you, challenging you, or helping you to move forward with your work; 2) or if you no longer have the bandwidth to contribute meaningfully to the group. The latter happened with me with a couple writing groups I was in recently. I loved both—including DC Writes (shout out to an incredibly diverse, passionate, dedicated group)—but between an increasingly demanding day job, some minor but persistent health challenges, and an impending move, I just couldn’t keep up or give the groups—let alone my own writing—the attention they deserved. And while it sucks, that’s okay. I’d rather bow out than to offer half-assed feedback or only show up when it’s my turn to be workshopped.
C.B.A. What do you think of workshops where the writers may be exploring different literary or cinematic classifications, types, genres – people writing short stories, screen plays, nonfiction, etc? What are ways to make these work and feel productive?
K.O. I love workshops like this because I find it can help us stay creatively fresh, and compels us to think outside the parameters of the conventions we may be used to upholding in our work – especially if we’re used to working in one literary or cinematic classification – the novel or novella, short fiction, poetry, pilot or feature, essay and article and documentary. But storytelling is storytelling and getting outside your typical genre, or intended platform for distribution can be so creatively liberating.
I find these workshops to be most productive when the goal is to explore the artistic intent of the piece —and not so much the conventions of the classification. To ensure everyone’s on the same page for a productive working session, I think it’s essential that the writers “in the room” are comfortable with this sort of creative agility, and they need to have confidence in their own ability to apply their experience, expertise, and skillset to a genre or type of writing with which they may lack some familiarity. So, the key to ensuring we all get the most out of these workshops is to group ourselves with others that are comfortable taking creative risks, and understand how to openly/playfully apply what we know about the conventions and values of our wheelhouse genre, type, classification, and intended platform conventions to support the artistic intentions of the writer whose piece we’re workshopping together.
K.O. What have you found to be most supportive – either broadly to your artistic growth, or narrowly to your editing process of a specific piece in this type of workshop setting?
C.B.A. I think it’s most helpful when a reader brings their authentic self (forgive the cliché) to my work. Comments on craft—structure, character development, dialogue, pacing—are always wanted and appreciated, but some of my best breakthroughs and useful feedback have been when someone highlights a cultural or historical reference or phrase that they didn’t understand, or that they did understand, and it resonated with them. For example, as a Black writer from rural Virginia, my characters often reflect my background and experiences, and so it’s useful to know when their perspectives, ways of speaking, customs, etc. come across as clear, relatable, familiar, strange, distracting, confusing, or eye-opening to my readers. Some of the most interesting moments in workshop are when readers of different racial or cultural backgrounds interpret something from my or a colleague’s work completely differently. For instance, how Black parents and their children interact, especially in historical settings, may seem completely normal and relatable to Black or even white Southern readers, while it may be surprising to others. And it’s my job as a writer to know whether the confusion or discomfort that readers experience is useful and serves the story or whether it distracts and detracts from it.
C.B.A. What advice do you have for writers exploring other literary and cinematic disciplines? … For a writer who may be interested in, say, fiction but who might be interested in breaking into screenwriting?
K.O. My best advice to writers who tend to write fiction and want to break into writing for screen is to remember that screenwriting is a blueprint for a film. So, while I personally value the craft and art form for its literary qualities in the writing process—not everyone views it that way. Voice and sophisticated word choice matters—but not as much as economy of storytelling. I would recommend reading screenplays for movies and shows you know and love (and there are so many sites with free scripts available), and watching how they’re translated to screen so you can see just how barebones the writing on the page might be at times—and understand how much more other collaborators on the film/show (the director, the actors, and all the various departments) bring to the process. There’s a lot that you don’t have to say.
K.O. What advice do you have for people who write for film and television, but who may be interested in breaking into writing literary or genre fiction – short stories, novels, or novellas?
C.B.A. Many of the skills one learns from screenwriting – showing not telling, economical storytelling (especially for short fiction and poetry), compelling imagery—are essential to writing any good piece of fiction. But fiction also provides an opportunity to sometimes shrug off the “sparseness” of the script and 1) play with language and 2) offer even more interiority and complexity for your characters and the world in which they inhabit. Regarding language, if it’s not fun and compelling for a reader, they aren’t going to want to read it. Think of words or language as the same as angle and light and color in a film. If a film is messily done, no one is going to want to watch, no matter how interesting the story is. Same with a novel or story, if there’s no attention paid to the language, people will tune out. And to the second point, fiction allows the writer more flexibility to go deeper into a character’s psyche and motivations. You can have pages of beautiful rumination and inner conflict that just wouldn’t work in a film when a character reflects on their life while sitting on their couch or talks out their problems with a friend. There can be beauty found in the meandering narrative—as long as it enriches a character or plot. Also, while action is important to fiction writing as it is to screenwriting, merely watching a character act sometimes isn’t enough in a story if their motives aren’t clear. In fiction you can get as close (i.e., first person narrative) or far (objective third person narrative) from a character’s perspective as you need, move back and forth in time in a sentence, evoke smell and taste and touch in ways that a film just can’t because its such a visual medium. And it’s important to remember that you describe your setting and characters clearly, vividly, and consistently throughout your work so that readers can properly visualize them as they will have to imagine them rather than have those people and places already painted and presented to them on the screen.
K.O. Do you have any advice to share with writers navigating getting their work seen by the right people at the right time, and getting published?
C.B.A. My very good friend Ellie once told me, years ago, that “Nothing is wasted.” She was talking about time, experiences, and relationships, because we learn and grow from them, but I think that’s the truth for writing. You will have drafts that will be miserable and that you’ll never want anyone to see. Or, you’ll have drafts you want everyone to see but no one will want to. That’s okay. There is a grace and a bravery in letting things go. But DO NOT throw anything away or delete anything. Keep it. Because I’ve returned to stories that I thought were irredeemable after months or even years away from them, and because of time or experience or age, I discovered that I knew just how to strengthen them. Or I just could see anew its value or relevance in the current cultural moment. In fact, every story I’ve published falls into one of those categories. I wrote a story and didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t think was worth sending out, or it was rejected enough that I gave up for a while. But one quiet, curious day, I opened that story up, dusted it off, and saw more clearly its holes or snags and somehow identified a solution that I hadn’t had when I worked on it originally. Another friend of mine, Danny Nguyen, an incredible writer based in San Francisco, once said, “Make your old stories work for you.” You may not publish them exactly as you once imagined. Maybe there’s only a paragraph worth salvaging, or maybe it just needs to hibernate for a time, but there’s a reason you wrote that story in the first place, so give it time, remember nothing is wasted, and when you’re ready, return to it and see how that story can work for you.