Methods: An Intention Group

by Jeff Oaks

Right now, maybe because I’m in the midst of one, I think an Intention Group is maybe the best thing ever for me. It was introduced to me by my friend Geeta Kothari, who found it, I think, in the course of her research about Writing Centers (she directs Pitt’s Writing Center).

Here’s the basic structure of an Intention Group:

It’s a small group, no larger than four or five people who are absolutely committed to writing, publishing, and generally improving their careers as writers. Keep it small.

You find a nice neutral space where you all can meet once a week for an hour. Keep it short.

Once a week you sit down there and you tell each other what you plan to do this week as a writer ( you can obviously do this as any kind of artist, but since I’m a writer, I’ll talk about it in terms of writing).

You write down your intentions, as do you your friends.

Everyone in the group tells their intentions for the week, and these are likewise written down.

You make a plan to meet next week.

That’s it.

Caveats: There is NO reading of each other’s work. There is NO critique. There is NO exchanging of work, except the kind of occasional one-on-one, personal exchange of work. There is NO making intentions for anything outside the work of being a better writer–therefore no intention to “grade all my students’ papers” because thats about being a teacher not an artist, no intention to clean the house (although you could “make a space for writing” or “buy a table for my office”). You keep it focused on your intentions for your art.

The next week you all get together, and you simply report what you did or didn’t do. There is to be no judgement or shame cast upon the person who doesn’t fulfill their intentions. You simply ask what they want to do next week. If the writer continually can’t do something, then you might ask her if there is something interfering, or if the intention needs to be broken down into very small steps. Instead of, for instance, I’m going to send out my manuscript to X Books, maybe the writer can only buy the envelopes necessary or even just print out a copy of the ms., or even I need to find a reader who will assure me I’m not an idiot thinking this ms. can be sent to X Books. One learns very quickly how to break down a huge expectation into small, do-able steps.

This kind of group is really for writers who feel like they pretty much understand their own work, who don’t need the immediate critical response a Writing Workshop can provide, but it’s also possible that one could be in an Intention Group at the same time as another kind of workshop. I recommend that they be kept separate though. The intention group is most useful for developing professional work habits, as opposed to developing your ability to read your own work or developing your ability to read other people’s habits of response.

There is generally a lot of information exchanged in an intention group–sharing calls for work by certain magazines or editors, tactics for submitting, organizing submissions, new apps to try, new ways of framing or approaching a particular problem.

I’ve been in one now for the last four years, and I can say that all of us have increased our publication rates because of it. It’s at the simplest level an accountability group. If I don’t do something I said I was going to do, I feel it keenly, so I now do the things I plan to do. Whether I feel like it or not. That was a large part of my problem before: I often felt a resistance to sending things out that what seemed emotional to me, almost a kind of despair, a sense of the futility of the whole process. But having people to report to helped change that. Because I started placing more pieces. And the other members of the group did the same. We gave each other courage, which lead to residencies, awards, grants, publications, and readings. And even a few, slightly cleaner desks.

(Some books I think you might look at are Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and Patricia Schneider’s Writing With Others. Feel free to add others that have been helpful in this regard in the comments. )