On Tuesday evenings, 12 writers sit around three long, chipped tables in the middle of Tsunami Books, sandwiched between woodworking guides and cookbooks. Many of them are shuffling papers or annotating the short stories they received the week prior. Alexis Humphrey Lanham, chairperson of the Wordos, a Eugene writing workshop, sits at the head of the table.
Established in 1987, the Wordos are a group of writers who meet weekly to critique each others’ stories and discuss aspects of writing, ultimately to help themselves and each other get published.
“Good evening, Wordos, glad you could join us,” Humphrey Lanham says with authority. “Who has writing news?”
Going around the table, each of the writers has something to say. A silver, ornate bowl is passed around the table like a talking stick. It is filled with small wrapped chocolates — “rejection candy,” they call it. A large majority of the writers share news of rejection from publishers; the sweets balance out the sting.
After going over various updates and prompts, they dive into critiques of one of the six stories on the table that night. They use the Clarion critique method, which essentially means they read a given story on their own time, annotate it, and come to the next workshop where they speak for one to three minutes, offering those comments aloud. They give their critiqued story back to the author at the end of the evening.
“Anyone who’s walking in and willing to put in the work is welcome to come,” says Humphrey Lanham. “But some people aren’t ready for critiques. The process of critiquing can be more helpful to writing than getting critiqued, so we need members to take critiquing seriously.”
Critiques can vary, of course, from plot gaps to unclear syntax. The group also goes over market information, advising each other on the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Desire and drive to get published is the foundational prerequisite to joining the Wordos. They also require a “jury piece” in proper manuscript format that the group goes over to affirm approval.
Over the years, the lives of participants ebb and flow, as does the size and composition of the group. Blake Hutchins, a former public defender and longtime author, has been with the Wordos since 1998. “When we have space at the table, new blood is always a good thing. Groups evolve over time, and we don’t want to become static,” says Hutchins.
The group approaches the workshopping process with constant attention to politeness. They are not allowed to speak in the second person when providing feedback, saying, for example, “page three was unclear” as opposed to “you were unclear here.” To the outside eye, it may seem a bit over-the-top, but for the Wordos, it likely encourages retainment.
Several of the Wordos have gotten work published since they joined the group. Hutchins says he’s comfortable bringing in almost any of his stories into the group for critiques, but finds most progress when he’s critiquing the work. His comments are thorough and color-coded. “When you’re giving critiques, you’re exercising deconstruction and actively engaging with the story,” says Hutchins. “You’re trying to pick it apart to see what works, what doesn’t work, and you start paying attention to things in the story so you can speak to them.”
This attention to detail that the Wordos learn can apply itself in other aspects of their lives, as well. The cautious and contemplative approach needed to give thorough critiques may lend itself to a broader appreciation to detail.
“With any practice you have in your life,” says Hutchins, “being able to notice how its going and learning to accept feedback and accept that you’re not being perfect — and moving your ego out of the way so you can improve — is a skill that you can take outside of the workshop.”