A Short(ish) History of the Guild

So you want to learn about the history of the Guild. Well, this is the best place to start! While I plan to make regular updates in the updates section of the site as the project moves forward, much of the development over the last few years has already been compiled in a written capstone on the project.

On this page, I will share the core of that document with you to help you see where the Guild came from and where it is (hopefully) going to. Be aware that this was intended as a capstone and so is somewhat lengthier and more detailed than is strictly necessary. Feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of this document.

The Start of the Project

In September of 2012, I started writing articles about the writing craft on my blog. At that time, I was writing freelance articles to support my travels through the British Isles, but had grown tired of writing on topics I didn’t care about. If I was going to build a platform, a following, or a community, I wanted it to be based on something I felt passionate about. I continued writing these articles on my personal blog for the months that followed, and used that platform to start building an online community I called the “Creative Writing Collective.”

After I arrived back in Utah (in November of 2012), I started making plans for a related community at Utah Valley University: A Creative Writing Club. In June of 2013, I chartered the club and began work organizing people to make the community a success. This process was far harder than I expected it to be. People fell through on tasks and projects, it was hard to build up the core membership, my well-planned organizational systems were often counterproductive, and the club encountered a swamp of bureaucracy that proved difficult to navigate.

It struck me that other writing communities—including those at universities and those in the broader community—likely faced similar issues. Further, I realized that much of the work I put into the club, and many of the lessons I learned, could be shared with other community leaders to help increase their chances at success. The idea snowballed: I could combine this idea with the “Creative Writing Collective,” leveraging my existing work to build something broader and more ambitious.

The Website, Mission, and Manifesto

The concept of the project was fairly straightforward: I could create an online platform that had educational, local, and social components. The educational component would provide articles and other writerly content that simultaneously serve as useful resources and a marketing mechanism for the website; the local component would provide resources and advice to help others start local creative writing groups; and the social component would provide an online space for connecting with other writers. While my articles on the writing craft could establish a strong basis for the educational component, my work with the UVU Creative Writing Club (as the founding chapter of the Guild) would underpin the local component, and the website would serve as the starting point for the social component.

After discussing these ideas with members of the Creative Writing Club in the fall of 2013, the membership expressed their enthusiasm for the idea and helped me decide on the name of “The Creative Writing Guild.” Shortly thereafter, I purchased a website of that same name (CreativeWritingGuild.com, also found at CWGuild.com).

Thanks to earlier work (both my own work and the many contributions of those who helped me establish the club), I had substantial resources to get the website started. The site’s logo was based on the club logo (which was created by myself, Tom Memmott, Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen, and Heather Holland during the summer of 2013; it was used for the Guild project with their permission). I was able to import dozens of articles on the writing craft from my blog to the Guild website. Additionally, the Creative Writing Collective newsletter and UVU’s Creative Writing Club newsletter could be leveraged to give the Guild a starting push.

After importing the blog entries and implementing a design featuring the Guild logo, I established other aspects of the core website: A mission statement for the Guild and a manifesto that declared the specific values I wanted the organization to embody. The mission of the Creative Writing Guild is to build inclusive, productive, enjoyable communities that allow writers to connect in both the online and offline worlds; help writers refine their craft through exercises, lessons, and real-world opportunities; and create environments that challenge writers and stimulate creativity. The full manifesto was then posted to the Guild website. The members of UVU’s Creative Writing Club were approached for feedback at each step of the process.

The full text of that manifesto can be found here.

With this core content in place, I did a promotional push using my blog newsletter and the Creative Writing Club newsletter. I continued to write articles for the Guild site and guest posts for related sites as a method of promoting the Guild.

The Issue of Officer Organization and Motivation

As part of this initial version of the website, I added a small section that noted the Guild’s local component, shared my plans for its future, and invited people to participate in starting “alpha chapters” once the Guild reached that stage of readiness. Thus far, eight people have volunteered to do so. However, I did not feel prepared to give these people advice on running communities until I had a better grasp on how to effectively run such communities.

The central area where I felt ill equipped to give advice was in how to organize and motivate volunteers. I’d observed a fairly standard model for running creative writing (and other similar) communities: a leader emerges, takes on almost the entirety of the workload, and continues doing this work until they burn out. After the initial leader hits burnout, the community either finds a new leader to complete the bulk of the workload or the community crumbles. I believe this “standard” version was ineffective for my purposes with the Guild for two reasons: First, by putting so much demand on a single individual, it’s likely to scare off potential community leaders; and second, by burning through leaders rather than spreading out the work, it creates an unsustainable community. In briefer terms, communities using this approach are unlikely to form and unlikely to last.

To help build the sort of communities I wanted to see, it was imperative that I figure out how to get volunteer participation that was reliable and productive. In my early experience, I found that a lot of volunteer contribution was actually counterproductive: volunteers often put in less time than was required to find, train, organize, and follow up with them. Beyond making it easier to start and sustain these communities, remedying this issue would also give participants a greater sense of ownership over and commitment to the community.

I had a goal, but I was clueless on how to get there. I made a lot of stumbling attempts, ran a variety of experiments, but made no immediate progress. (For a full accounting of these experiments, see the next section.) I decided to focus on researching the topic while continuing my own experiments with the club using the best ideas I could find.

Research on Motivational Psychology

There was a great deal to investigate when it came to organizing and motivating volunteers, and much of it also applied to encouraging club members to attend events regularly. While I would categorize the research broadly as “motivational psychology,” its specific topics were somewhat more varied, as I’ll describe below.

I did specific research on the topic of volunteer motivations. There were limited studies, and many of them reached no solid conclusions, or concluded that different people are simply motivated by different things (without giving much information on what “different things” might be useful to try). I also searched for specific advice on starting writing groups, clubs, or communities, but found that most of the information was targeted specifically at smaller groups and that a large chunk of the advice was little more than common sense. Using a broader lens, I turned to articles, essays, and videos that discussed working with volunteers (many of which were coming from a religious or charitable volunteer standpoint), and gained a few insights.

During the 2013 to 2014 academic year, my independent study of this topic was supplemented by my work with Anton Tolman on a book that specifically addressed student resistance in the classroom. Many of the ideas contained in that book about the source of student resistance, as well as approaches for overcoming it, applied in the student-volunteer setting. Reviewing information on metacognition and reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset gave specific insights for how to encourage and train volunteers.

I read several books on behavior change and habituation: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal; The Now Habit by Neil Fiore; Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremy Dean; and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. These books gave me major insights on the importance of habits, ways to improve habituation for whole organizations, and the limitations of what to expect from members and volunteers.

I read two books on unconscious behavior: The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vendantam and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. These books, along with my study of the “social identity theory” of volunteer work, gave me a greater sense of the importance of personal relationships as a “currency” for motivating volunteers.

I also researched approaches to leadership, which gave me a broader sense of potential motivators: efficacy (having a sense that you’re capable of completing a task), mastery (a sense that you’re getting better at the task or role), autonomy (freedom to work as you’d like), and recognition (public, specific praise for tasks completed).

Hoping that additional aspects of workplace motivation applied despite the lack of financial compensation, I reviewed The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Getting Things Done and Getting Things Done FAST by David Allen, and Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun. These gave me specific ideas about how to structure teams and provide a better sense of efficacy and autonomy for volunteers.

Several works from positive psychology had worthwhile sections on the topics of motivation and productivity, with the most notable being The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Sections on how to respond to failure and how to help people learn were especially effective in figuring out how to train volunteers effectively.

On the topic of advertising, I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. On the topic of working with people and helping them feel appreciated, I read Just Listen by Mark Goulston. On the topic of forming online writing communities, I read You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins.

I also worked directly with a number of people as I explored these topics. I met with other club leaders at UVU and discussed the issues that seemed to face clubs universally. I spoke with Sir Ken Robinson on how to effectively instill creativity. I asked activist Robbie “Archie” Archuleta about how to keep volunteer-driven efforts moving. I interviewed Matthew Walker (leader of the Utah Valley “National Novel Writing Month” community) about what his time in that position had taught him. I spoke with leaders of creative writing communities at BYU, Weber State, Westminster, and elsewhere to identify and discuss common challenges. And, perhaps most importantly, I interviewed all of the officers who had volunteered for the club about what kept them motivated.

My time as the Managing Editor of the Touchstones literary journal, along with my previous experience with the U of U Poetry Club and the UVU English Club, gave me some useful experience and reference points.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to present alongside Anton Tolman and others at the International Consortium of Educational Developers (ICED) conference in Stockholm. While at ICED, I used my time to network with people I felt would be valuable contacts for the Guild. I also explored a number of topics that were presented at the conference that I felt would be relevant to my work: explorations of creativity, of play as an integral part of learning, of how gamification can enhance motivation in a learning environment, and more. In further diving into these topics on my own after the conference, I looked at various studies and a few videos that covered similar topics.

It is difficult to summarize the “core findings” of my work, as my approach was to study broadly. It was in learning from and making connections between a variety of specialized fields that I was able to come to a number of important insights on how to structure the club in a way that made for a resilient, productive community.

How I Applied My Research

The result of the research was a series of experimental structures for the club volunteers. Each of the failed structures was an improvement on the last, and each taught valuable lessons. Ultimately, they led me to a structure that I believe does a great job of organically accounting for several motivational factors while simultaneously mitigating the negative effects of any individual volunteer falling through. More importantly, it’s something I feel comfortable standing behind as I try to help other communities form. Here’s how it works:

Rather than having individual officers assigned to a given task or set of tasks, officers are instead assigned to teams of three to four. The team is then assigned a category of tasks. These teams meet once per week for 30 to 60 minutes, and complete the bulk of their tasks during that time (rather than simply brainstorming or assigning themselves tasks to complete later). These meetings are at a consistent time and location (though the time and place are up to the team), both to aid habituation of the meetings and to make it so others can sit in or send messages more easily.

The task categories are fairly straightforward. When first setting up a community, there would be only one team (which would potentially be larger, with up to five members) covering all tasks necessary to building the community. Once there are multiple teams (i.e., once there are six or more volunteers), there are really only two important categories to keep things running: “event coordination” and “advertising.” “Event coordination” takes care of planning and preparing for weekly events, reminding members of those events, making sure special projects like fundraisers or service efforts are taken care of, arranging for collaborations, and so forth. “Advertising” takes care of any number of the broad array of tasks designed to promote the club or retain members. Each team takes care of the bureaucratic hurdle-jumping for their own tasks, with the exception of budgeting decisions, which are made by the community leadership.

When there are enough volunteers for an additional group, they form a team we call the “mercenaries.” This team is responsible for helping support the other teams and taking on any special projects that it deems worthwhile. (Full credit for this idea goes to my team of officers this semester.) This sort of structural flexibility allows for groups to divide once teams are getting too big to be functional. When there are an even number of teams, “event coordination” and “advertising” can have their task set divided and distributed amongst the teams. When there are an odd number of teams, the additional team can simply be “mercenary.”

Another important characteristic of teams is that each team has an identity, and each member of that team contributes to that identity. Identity can form in any number of ways, but at UVU there have been specific trends that serve as excellent kernels of identity: each team decides on a team name, a team mission statement, and a team “fancy hand signal” (almost like a secret handshake, except minus the shaking hands part) that they do when the name of their team is called. In moving toward a “local kit” for other communities, I will be suggesting these quirky tidbits as a starting point. I believe these fun, small rituals are important in establishing the team’s identity, each officer’s part of that team, and each team’s place in the broader community.

The team structure incorporates several aspects of motivational psychology. It creates a space where participants can exercise autonomy and creativity, but also provides a set of specific tasks that allows for easier training (which bolsters efficacy) and more repetition of the same tasks (which improves the sense of mastery). It also creates an opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships with team members, and thereby strengthens each participant’s sense of social responsibility—both to the community as a whole and to their teammates. Importantly, the team size also builds in a fail-safe should an individual member fall through or resign. Additionally, because teams are more capable of fully taking on entire projects and bringing them to completion, this structure creates many opportunities for authentic praise and recognition.

To help connect these teams with one another, the club has used a few techniques. First, each team has time to present during our official announcements (see the details of the club events, below). Second, we hold a weekly “officer meeting” at IHOP after club events; this is a casual meeting open to non-officers as well, and it’s proved to be one of our best tools for recruiting new officers. And third, we hold a monthly “officer pizza pow-wow,” where all the officers meet together, discuss and celebrate what we accomplished over the previous month, and brainstorm ideas for what we could do in the month to come. Thus far, these pow-wows have lasted three to four hours each. It would be difficult for me to overstate just how productive those pow-wows have been. They have provided a vital opportunity to discuss concerns, generate new ideas, and get started on important projects.

I’m not trying to say that this is a perfect system that will work for everyone. However, it is something I feel does a good job of tackling many of the core issues, and it’s a structure I feel comfortable standing behind as I try to help others form similar communities.

Club Events and Collabs

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing how to motivate people to complete work, but the work itself deserves further exploration. For planning and advertising events, that work includes sending out email notifications, creating a Facebook event, doing any necessary event preparation (the amount of prep necessary varies wildly dependent on the event type), deciding on upcoming events, and promoting specific events through additional means (e.g., digital signage, tabling, flyering, etc.). Promotional work includes both recurring projects and special promotions. Recurring projects include attending Club Rush each semester, participating in special promotional events set up by the Clubs Office, visiting classrooms, and otherwise working to expand the reach and visibility of the club as a whole. Special promotions have included making t-shirts, mugs, and other branded materials; making a banner to hang in the hallway and use during tabling; running a six-word story contest at the beginning of each semester; and running a website, which can be found at UVUCreativeWriting.com.

In trying to get this work done, we often ran into issues created by Clubs Office or campus-wide policies. As just one example, we chose to have the club meet every week at the same time and in the same location (a choice made partially due to my research on habituation) and discovered that this process was far more difficult than we had originally anticipated. In response to these challenges, the club began advocating for changes to campus policies.

Between July of 2013 and March 16th of 2015, we held 70 events (each lasting approximately two hours, not including the IHOP officer meeting), and we continue to hold events each Thursday evening. A full listing of these events can be found later on in this document. These events typically fall into one of eight categories:

  • Creative expeditions, where the club attends a writing-related event in the area (e.g., a poetry slam, a presentation by a local author, etc.).

  • Word-nerd game nights, where the group gathers and plays games like Scrabble, My Word!, and Boggle.

  • Open mic nights, where a feature poet gives an opening performance and we then open the floor for any participant to share their own work.

  • Workshopping nights, where participants bring their in-progress creative work for feedback from their peers.

  • Film viewings, where we watch a film or other piece of media and discuss lessons about creative writing we can learn from what we’ve watched.

  • Prompt nights, where writers are given a number of writing prompts, write responses to those prompts, and then share their results.

  • Topic discussions, where we hear a brief lesson on a selected topic, then move into a group discussion on that topic.

  • And writing clinics, where experts on a given topic give presentations, provide exercises, or otherwise help participants learn about a specific topic in the speaker’s field of expertise.

Each event has a similar structure: We begin with a “soft starting time” at 6:30pm; during that time, participants are encouraged to play games, do casual workshopping, or just socialize. At 7:00pm, we do official club business and announcements. And, as soon as this concludes, we begin the event proper (which typically lasts until 8:30pm).

In addition to our standard events, we’ve also collaborated with other groups. We worked with the Breast Cancer Research and Awareness Club in October of 2013 to host a writing contest. We collaborated with the Utah Valley National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) community in November of 2013 and 2014, hosting special “write-ins” and a “desperation write” on the last day of the month; in 2014, Red Bull sponsored our “desperation write,” providing us with an obscene amount of caffeine. We got community sponsorship from Dragon’s Keep, Eborn Books, and Coffee Pod. We worked with the Speak for Yourself Open Mic at Enliten Cafe. We have upcoming collaborations with the Different Dimensions Club, the Illustration Club, the Psychology Club, and Spectrum. We were privileged to hear from a number of guest speakers at our club events, including local authors and slam poets. We worked to help promote the on-campus literary journals. We ran service projects to help with major events held by the UVU Writing Center and Touchstones. In short, the Creative Writing Club has worked hard to be actively involved in our community and have established relationships with a number of other organizations, including clubs, academic organizations, local businesses, and non-profit groups.

Articles

As noted earlier, many of the articles that are now housed on the Creative Writing Guild website were originally written for my blog (a project independent of both my academic and professional pursuits). These articles were moved to the Guild site and now serve as the gravitational center of the Guild’s online presence. I also wrote numerous additional articles specifically for the Guild site.

Beyond the articles posted specifically to the Guild site, I wrote guest posts and columns for other websites that focused on creative writing. While there were several outlets where this content was published, the most notable is LitReactor. Each of these articles serves as a major way to improve the visibility of the Guild, both in terms of garnering direct traffic and in terms of search engine optimization (SEO).

In all, there are 114 articles averaging just over a thousand words each. A full listing of articles written (both for the Guild site and for other outlets) can be found later on in this document.

It’s worth noting, as we’ve now discussed the local and educational component of the website, that the social component is still in its infancy.

Successes

Beyond the many events and articles completed, we’ve seen other notable success. The Guild has been viewed by over 7,000 unique visitors (with over 12,000 pageviews) since its launch in June of 2014. The Guild newsletter reaches over 800 people, and the emails sent for on-campus events (a roughly 400-person segment of our mailing list) is opened by roughly 20% of the list recipients (a wonderfully high open rate for newsletters).

After our first year, we won the “best new club” award at UVU. The attendance for club events has consistently increased. Our weekly events saw about nine attendees during the first semester, about fourteen during the second, about sixteen during the third, and thus far in our fourth semester we’ve seen an average of about nineteen.

Currently, we have eleven people (including myself) involved in officer positions. With the previously discussed system of organizing officers, everyone has been able to contribute and we haven’t seen much of any fall-through in teams fulfilling their responsibilities. Additionally, when we held presidential elections, five club members were nominated. The final race between three candidates was ludicrously close; club members seemed happy about any of the three finalists leading the club in the coming year. I felt this level of involvement from officers was a tremendously positive sign. Many clubs struggle to find a replacement president at the end of the year, so to have so many candidates was deeply reassuring—and felt validating for both the level of involvement and the level of sustainability of the community.