Recently, SBWC’s Winona Winkler Wendth interviewed SBWC poet and writer Christian Reifsteck. Christian’s work has appeared in various publications, including Still Point Arts Quarterly, Ekphrastic Review, The Copperfield Review, The Wayfarer, and Written River. He is also the author of Turning Turf, a book of poetry about Ireland. He holds a terminal Master of Arts in English from the University of Vermont and has taught writing literature, and career development courses at multiple institutions nationally and in Europe. He has been with SBWC since 2014 and continued participation, even after moving to Pennsylvania in 2018.
Part I of the Interview: Becoming Involved with Seven Bridge Writers’ Collabortive
[Winona Winkler Wendth] Christian, you have been one of SBWC “regulars”— How long have you been attending SBWC writing and critique groups and workshops?
[Christian Reifsteck] I began attending SBWC programs in the spring of 2014, when I first relocated to north central Massachusetts. I had been a member of writing groups in the past and was searching for one in my new home. I stumbled upon SBWC’s website and reached out.
[WWW] Which groups did you join?
[CR] It was too late to join the critique groups, but I attended the workshops, felt very welcome, and found them interesting and beneficial. I participated in Winona’s Thursday evening sessions. Not only did my writing improve, but I also enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, hearing others’ work, and being inspired by it. When the critique groups began again in the fall, I was eager to join.
[WWW] In your experience, what is the primary value of having a consistent writing group to work with? How is that different from working one-to-one with another writer? How might these creative relationships complement either other?
[CR] Working one-on-one with another writer is also a beneficial experience that can help writers to grow and improve. I think having both another writer with whom you work closely and a larger critique group is a great way to expand your writing. You have both the benefit of someone you work with closely who knows your writing well balanced with the multiple opinions and perspectives of a group.
[WWW] You hold an advanced degree in literature and have published a collection of poetry—why would someone with those credentials and experience want or need to continue to work with writing groups?
[CR] Writing never occurs in a vacuum: we are always responding to other writing and writers, whether we realize it or not. Participating in writing groups makes that reality more concrete, and when we have a greater level of awareness of the interdependent nature of writing, we can approach our own writing with a stronger sense of purpose. The primary value of groups like SBWC is better writing, which is what we all want.
[WWW] One writer says that the full-time writer spends eight hours writing, eight hours sleeping and eight hours living—attending to social needs, community interaction, and the daily grind of everyday life, all of which provide “material.” You have a full-time appointment—how do you make this work for you? Do you divide your everyday working life into thirds, as well? To what degree are you “always writing,” in the sense that observations, larger ideas, and those wonderful poetic lines you produce are living in your head constantly?
[CR] It can be a challenge finding time to write, and while I have fewer commitments outside of the university than most, I still need to make time for writing. I’ve been writing at least a poem per day every single day for nearly eight years. Most days I have to force myself, and what often ends up on the page is downright embarrassing, but I keep showing up each evening because you never really know when you might write something worth saving or reworking or even when a line or a phrase might find itself repeated in another piece, even years later.
While working on my most recent book, I actually had that kind of 8/8/8 breakdown of my time for several months. I definitely made progress on the book, including finishing the rough draft, but I found that kind of schedule isolating and even tiring. Writers dream of writing full-time, and while I was privileged to be able to focus on my writing for such a concentrated period, I missed the classroom and interacting with students, so I don’t think that 8/8/8 writing life is for me. Besides, there’s more to writing than the writing itself, such as reading, research, and just simply paying attention—I think good writing starts with paying attention, and so in that sense, maybe I’m not “always writing” so much as I’m always preparing to write.
[WWW] What advice would you give a beginning writer about balancing a life between independent work and working with others?
[CR] Thank you for this question and the opportunity to offer advice. There are much better writers out there who offer great advice, but I appreciate the chance to advise beginners to make sure they do both. Many beginners will attend writing groups, such as workshops and meetings, and not write: they’ll use attending a group as a way to tell themselves that they’re a writer, when really they’re just talking about writing and not actually writing. Others will do the opposite: they’ll write, but then won’t want to work with others because they’re afraid to show their work, receive negative feedback, or that they’ll lose their voice or that their writing will change.
Part II, Becoming a Better Writer
[WWW] What other aspects of writing and the writing life must a beginning writer keep in mind? What do you tell these beginning writers?
[CR] First, know that if your writing changes, that’s a good thing. Remember, writing is a process, and it’s important to recognize that not only will your writing change, but that it should change. I hope that someday I look back on “Turning Turf,” my first book of poetry, and can easily recognize all of the ways I’m a better writer. What we write isn’t who we are, it’s where we are, and I expect that my writing will
be in a different place in the future.
Second, we need to view our writing as something we have created and not a piece of ourselves. We need to be able to look as objectively as possible at our work, which means being open to criticism. Too many beginning writers receive constructive criticism, get offended, and then never want to share again or get turned off by writing groups. If we want to become better writers, we need to be able to hear and consider opinions about our writing. For everything you write, there is someone who will love it who is not your mother, and for everything you write, there is someone who will hate it who is not your editor. I encourage beginning writers to recognize that there are as many opinions about your work as there are readers, to be open to hearing those opinions, to keep writing, and to remember that all advanced writers were once beginners. If you’re afraid to share your work, to attend writing groups, or even to write, know that we’ve all been there.
[WWW] You are now living “off-site” in Pennsylvania and sometimes “dial in” to a writing group—how has that affected your work? Do you stay in touch with writers in the
groups you have been part of on a one-to-one basis, as well? Does it make a difference to know that both of you have been part of the same group? What do you think SBWC can do to support writers who are now “remote”?
[CR] Even after I relocated hundreds of miles away in the spring of 2018, Winona has graciously allowed me to participate via phone when my schedule allows. Continuing my connection to this vibrant writing community has been such a nice surprise. I miss attending the workshops, which are always first-rate, and seeing everyone in person, but it’s been wonderful to continue with SBWC in some capacity and to still learn and grow from Winona’s sessions.
[WWW] What do you think are the necessary components of an effective writing group?
[CR] I think there are several—at least one that’s effective for me: 5-10 participants (too few and there aren’t enough perspectives, too many and it’s unwieldy), a facilitator (who can be the same person or a role that rotates) to keep the group on track, consistent meetings every week or two with a consistent structure, and a culture of engaged, active listening and constructive feedback from all participants that is honest, thoughtful, and respectful. There of course also needs to be a shared sense of purpose in terms of a commitment to improved writing. Out the 8+ writing groups that I’ve attended over the
span of 16 years, I have to honestly say that my SBWC experience has been the best by far.
What I appreciate about a critique group like SBWC is that it gives me an excuse to write. We have prompts that we write to, which always generate pieces that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. I also appreciate that the writing focuses on prose, while I primarily write poetry. It’s a great way to practice and improve, and I’ve even had a couple of pieces from the group that I’ve turned into poems and published, so prose I produce from the group sometimes turns into poetry. The prose also sometimes stays prose and gets published, too. I’ve found that I really enjoy writing flash, and I wouldn’t have had the impetus to create those pieces without SBWC. It’s also great knowing that the other group members are writing to the same prompt, and I look forward to hearing what everyone else has created. While I’m no longer in the room when we share our work, I still feel a great sense of connection to the members and the writing.
I also want to note that groups like SBWC aren’t just for writers who are writing. There is a whole business of words and numerous ways to be involved if you aren’t as invested in the act of writing. There are editors, researchers, and marketers who are essential to the literary world, but who don’t necessarily want to write. While critique groups might not be of interest to them, SBWC offers plenty of great workshops that would be of interest.
I’m thankful to have been an active member of SBWC for my four years in Massachusetts and to be able to continue to participate remotely. Thank you, SBWC for your wonderful service to writers and writing.