It Takes A Village to Birth A Novel Part I: The Coven

My writers’ group doesn’t cast spells or do anything that real witches do, but the chemistry among the five of us has a magic all its own, and we’ve taken to calling ourselves the Coven.


Seven years ago when we started meeting monthly over dinner—eating good food being an essential Coven priority—I wasn’t sure how our group would evolve or if we’d even last. I’d been in a few writers’ groups before and for one reason or another, had dropped out. The first group I joined had a couple of members who slung harsh criticism like hash in a diner—a big bad no-no when it comes to fragile works-in-progress. Though I was lucky never to be a target of their blistering pronouncements, I fled along with some others. The next circle of writers I belonged to wasn’t mean, but I never felt quite at ease with receiving feedback from several people at once. It felt a bit like being on the wrong side of a firing squad. Besides, the timing for sharing my novel, What Jonah Knew, wasn’t right. I was still too deep in the generative phase of the novel, and it felt premature—and perilous—to get input from other writers so early in the process.


I was still trying to figure out how to tell the Jonah story when the Coven first met, and one of the things I loved most about our early gatherings was that we didn’t share our work. Instead, we took turns talking about what we were writing and what was happening in our personal lives. It wasn’t that we were rookies or afraid of criticism—we all earned our livings by our words and had been working with take-no-prisoners editors for years. But without ever making it an explicit policy, we intuitively decided that this writing business is such a tender enterprise, especially when it comes to new work, we needed to build trust with one another before revealing our nascent labors.


Eventually, as some of us got close to finishing important essays or books—in my case, What Jonah Knew—it felt natural to ask the others for feedback. This part happens informally, too. Rather than hearing from everyone at once, we reach out for other sets of eyes when we’re ready, then usually talk one-on-one—even if everyone in the group is reading our work at the same time. Somehow, getting feedback this way helped me absorb my friends’ comments and suggestions—without feeling defensive or wondering if I’d be better off applying for a job as a greeter at Walmart. Luckily, What Jonah Knew would not be the novel it is without the love, wisdom, and editorial chops of the Coven—especially on those dark days when I despaired I’d never get it right.


If there’s a single, unspoken covenant that guides us, it’s this: kindness. Truth-telling, for sure, but always in the context of deep caring and mutual respect.


I asked the other four members of our group to describe how they see us, and here’s what they said:


Ronnie: I think of us as a group of writers who offer each other smart, tender, and generous advice as well as unconditional support — in writing and all aspects of life. You’re a firefighting and cheerleading squad. You’re my bridge over troubled water.


Kathy: Were not so much a writers group as a group of writers who decided to meet over good food to touch base about our lives and work. Were there in a pinch for each other, from coping with COVID to adult offspring to unconscionable demands by editors.


Laura:  We’re a nurturing, loving, and laughter-filled group of women who I know will always have my back.


Ginny: As writers we have porous boundaries. We absorb the world and other people’s emotions. The blessing of this group is we know that about each other. So whether we’re offering feedback on a piece of writing or commiserating about a difficult challenge, we approach the task with a thoughtful mix of intellect and love.


I think we’re on to something. The Coven is more than your average writers’ group. It’s a close-knit group of women who write. The distinction is subtle, but meaningful. No matter what we write about, our words spring from our own deeply felt experience, which is inextricable from our life.


Barbara Graham is the author of the mystical thriller, What Jonah Knew, due out from HarperCollins in July.

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