The MIT’s Writers’ Group has helped community members channel their creative energies since 2002.
Zach Winn | MIT News
They gather every Monday at noon from disparate corners of MIT. The group includes faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, alumni, and even spouses. Their discussions revolve around mythical dystopias, half-remembered dreams, and gripping personal dramas.
An outsider overhearing fragments of conversation might not know what to make of the eclectic group. Given MIT’s reputation for improbable innovations, they might guess the participants are scientists and engineers dreaming up some unrecognizable, far-flung future. In fact, they belong to the MIT Writers’ Group, which offers community members a way to channel their creative energies across a variety of writing formats.
Creative writing might not be the first thing people think of when they think of MIT, but the group has shown remarkable staying power since its inception back in 2002. The group’s size has ebbed and flowed over the years, but its general process has remained the same. When providing a writer feedback, members are always supportive first. They note the strengths in their colleague’s work, then give constructive feedback, often in the form of questions.
The approach has helped a lot of writers over the years. It is the brainchild of former MIT lecturer of writing and rhetoric Steven Strang, who has helmed the group since its inception.
“We try to be an encouraging group,” says Strang, who retired from MIT in 2021 after more than 40 years at MIT. “We’re not here to score points on other writers; we’re here to give advice and help. It’s mostly reactions: This really worked for me, this didn’t work for me and here’s why.”
In some instances, the writing serves as an outlet for community members engrossed in scientific work the rest of the day. In others, community members have incorporated science and engineering concepts into their work.
“When I started coming to Writers’ Group, I was astonished that MIT has this,” says Anne Hudson, who’s been a member on and off since 2002 and worked at MIT as an administrative assistant for many years. “People may not come to MIT to write a novel, but MIT has wonderful resources. I think of Writers’ Group and the literature that goes on here as some of MIT’s best kept secrets.”
Giving MIT’s community a place to write
Strang became a lecturer at MIT in 1980 in the Department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing. In 1981 he founded the MIT Writing and Communications Center (WCC). The WCC is open to students, faculty, staff, and spouses who want help with their professional writing and oral presentation skills. Over the years Strang has won a Levitan Teaching Prize for outstanding success in teaching as well as an MIT Infinite Mile Award and an MIT Excellence Award for “Going Above and Beyond.”
In 2002, Strang decided to host a creative writing workshop over MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) for nonprofessional writing. About 70 people showed up.
“At the end of IAP, everybody wanted to keep going, so we kept going and we never stopped,” Strang explains.
The meeting format has held ever since. A few days before each meeting, the presenting writer for that week will send other members their work. To start the meeting, the writer reads an excerpt from the work aloud, sometimes telling the group what kind of feedback they’re looking for. Then reactions come in.
“It sounds sort of simple, but it’s specific and extremely helpful,” says Rosemary Booth, whose husband worked at MIT. “It identifies where the problems are and boosts my confidence that I can fix those problems.”
Other members who have benefited from the format try to return the favor.
“I’m a published science fiction author and the group has really helped me,” says Janet Johnston, a senior export control officer in the MIT Research Compliance Office. “I figure since I’ve gotten so much out of the group, I should try to give back to the community. MIT isn’t just a job; it really is a community.”
Group members have written in just about every genre you can think of, including short stories, book reviews, poetry, creative nonfiction essays, autobiographies, and plays. Members have gotten a number of things published, including short stories, book reviews, and poetry.
“It’s gratifying [when someone gets published,]” Strang says. “I’ve taught creative writing for 51 years, and it’s great if you get published, but the basic reason for doing creative writing is to learn about yourself. No matter what you’re writing about, you’re delving more deeply into your ideas and yourself.”
Of course, because it’s MIT, science fiction is a well-represented genre in the group. But regardless of the genre or writing style, most members stick to writing about people — about friendship, love, betrayal, loss, and all the other juicy details of life.
The diversity in writing reflects the diversity of the group.
“We have people from a variety of backgrounds,” Johnston says. “People from other countries, who bring their own perspective not only to what they write, but to your work as well.”
The writing serves as a form of expression for members, but also as a form of introspection.
“I think self-exploration is the most important thing for writers,” Strang says. “If you’ve got a problem that bothers you, or a situation you’re not sure what to make of, and it keeps gnawing at you, you should write about it. If you have someone you’re having trouble connecting to, write about it. It really does help you understand things.”
Sticking with it
Well into its second decade of meeting, the Writers’ Group faced its biggest challenge yet when the Covid-19 pandemic closed campus, forcing the group to go virtual.
“The pandemic was really a jolt,” Booth says. “We had been gathering in classroom circles for so long. We wondered what it would be like on Zoom. But Steve managed it. He used the same format, and the process held.”
Many members have been with the group for several years; some have been attending for more than a decade.
“It’s endured because people are actually getting something out of it,” Hudson says. “People tend to come for long periods of time. Being in this group of talented people is an affirmation of yourself as a writer.”
Johnston, who’s been with the group since 2016, explains the group’s staying power more simply: “When you find something this positive and useful, you stick with it.”
To learn more about the group or to join, email Steven at email@example.com.