You’ve exchanged critiques. It seemed to go well. Maybe, you’ve had some conversations: about your families, work, writing process, favorite books, publishing. Now, your writing group member or partner is missing.
This is a problem for online and in-person groups. I’ll speak from the online vantage point, but these thoughts can be applied to in-person groups, too.
Online, communication is presence. When a group member stops communicating or participating, it is like they have disappeared. Often, the rest of the group is at a loss: how in the world do they reach this person they met in the vast universe of online?
Groups also worry. After writers have worked together for some time and become colleagues and friends, there can be a sense of loss and anxiety. Sometimes, people become frustrated or angry. Perhaps one writer has given critiques and just posted her work. Then her partner disappears, leaving the work untouched. This strikes at our notion of fairness.
After some time, the other writers may discount the missing writer and apathy can set in. If multiple writers go missing the group can disintegrate around that inactivity. If the group leader is missing, things are worse, because communication breaks down from the top.
You can see how this can set an entire group into a tailspin.
So, what to do?
Above all, approach this with kindness and a gentle heart. The overwhelming majority of writers who ghost out are not doing so to be mean-spirited.
Why people go missing
1. Life happened
The longer I work with writers and writing groups, the more I see the tough stuff people go through. Being sick or taking care of a sick family member takes an emotional and physical toll. Job changes, high pressure deadlines, and heavy loads for students can stress finances, family and time. Members of our community have lost parents, siblings and friends. I know it took me a few months after losing a friend this fall to feel remotely creative.
Life happens in such good ways, too. There are weddings, new babies, new houses, vacations, plans, adventures. We can get swept up in all of the activity.
We all carry so much on our plates, it is no wonder that things fall off when we get busy or overwhelmed. Including our writing.
Your writing partner may not send everyone a message to say that something has happened. He or she may physically be away from communication. Or the person might withdraw into themselves and go quiet.
2. Group Issues
Sometimes it is an issue with the group. Fit, fear and frustration are common reasons that writers disappear.
New group members may have realized the group is not the right fit, and either forgot or haven’t had the chance to excuse themselves. Long-standing members may find that the group no longer fits because of changes in their own goals or situation, or because the culture of the group has changed.
If the writer has not contributed to the group at all, it may be because of fear. Some have told me they think they are not good writers, or that they are not as talented as other writers in the group. Some are worried about receiving overly critical feedback.
Frustration with a member or a particular submission can crop up, too. Not knowing how to address the issue, the person goes quiet.
Check in to see what’s up and show you care
No matter the case, the first step is a friendly reach out. Avoid making assumptions about the writer as person, particularly if you are frustrated or angry that the person has been missing. Avoid assumptions about why the person has been absent, unless you have an idea from previous conversations and want to mention it in a supportive way.
If I do not know a person very well, I might invite them to submit to the group. I’ll also ask how they are doing, and if they have any questions or concerns about the group. If the person has gone missing for a more substantial amount of time, I might ask if anything has gone wrong with the group, or if all is okay in their world.
If I know the person more deeply and their inactivity is unusual, I’ll send a note asking if things are okay.
You can do this reach out whether you are the group leader or a member of the group. Reach out from a position of care and your writing partner is going to feel supported.
If you don’t hear back, you may want to get in touch with the group leader and let him or her know you are concerned. If the group leader doesn’t hear anything either, you may want to seek help outside the group. I know I am happy to check in on people—I worry when members of Inked Voices’ community go missing! I am sure that this would be the case, too, for other writing organizations.
When a person responds to your check-in, it’s a great opportunity to bring them back into the fold of the group. How to do this will depend on why they’ve been quiet. Here are some ideas:
- If the person is not ready to return, perhaps they communicate to the group that they are taking a leave of absence. Respect the person’s confidentiality and let them direct how much to share. If the person prefers, you can share in their stead.
- If there was a particular concern, discuss it with the individual to help them handle it. If you feel the concern may be felt by others, discuss group-wide on your discussion board or in your next meeting.
- If there is fear, you can offer to be a safe space in the form of encouragement and constructive feedback with your critiques. Or, you could see if the person would like to do a partner exchange with you before sharing with the whole group.
- If the person was temporarily over-busy, give them a summary of what’s been happening in the group and invite them to participate.
- Consider opening a group-wide discussion about the group. Revisit the way the group is organized and its goals. Use this as an opportunity to check in with the whole group.
- Sometimes it can be helpful to do introductions or re-introductions to help new members feel welcome and bring them up to speed. This is especially true for established groups with close members. It can be awkward to step in!
- A variation on the intro is a group check in. Ask each member to bring the group up to speed on what they’ve been working on, stumbling blocks, current goals, etc.
Open the lines of communication and situations like this can be an opportunity to make the entire group a stronger community.
Removing a member from your writing group
After a point, if a person is not responsive, you may have to remove them from the group to make room for someone else and/or keep the group to active members. Consider where that boundary falls; what feels reasonable to you and the rest of your group? The culture of your group, particularly expectations of participation, will largely drive this.
It can be helpful to have a written inactivity policy for these situations. I would recommend including a timeframe, what actions the group will take, and why. For example:
“Our goal is to create a close-knit, active community of novelists. Because our group is small, members who do not submit, critique or otherwise contribute to the group for 45 days will be notified. If we do not hear from the member in two weeks, he or she may be removed from the group.”
When I remove a person from a group because I haven’t heard from them, I like to let them know that the reason is to make room, and to contact me if they want to come back. You cannot force participation, nor can a group wait indefinitely hoping the person will come back. But you can leave the door open.
I hope that some of these thoughts have been helpful. Please feel free to share any of your favorite ideas, too!
Jessica Murray is a poet and children's writer. Her poetry collection Singing Without Melody is forthcoming from Galileo Press in spring 2022, and her poems are featured in journals such as AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Free State Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Memorious. A member of Inked Voices and SCBWI, by day she works in higher education, non-profit, and educational media production spaces.