Some years ago, a poet friend who had moved away was back in Cambridge for a visit and invited a few friends to meet up at a local restaurant. There were six of us that night, all women, sitting around a table in Harvard Square, eating pizza and drinking wine. Since all of us were writers—with memoirs, novels, poetry volumes and short stories either published or in the works—our conversation naturally turned to our writing projects. The youngest of us had just returned from an MFA residency, and as she told us about one of the craft talks, we found ourselves in an exhilarating back-and-forth concerning sentence syntax and its influence on rhythm, mood, and meaning.
It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in a wonky technical discussion about the nitty-gritties of written composition, but the energy and caliber of our conversation was striking. It had to do, my poet friend and I decided afterwards, with our varied genres, ages, backgrounds, and experience. At the same time, the fact that we were all women allowed for an uninterrupted ease and intimacy.
It struck me that this could be a great, casual way to keep learning and working on our writing issues, beyond the usual swapping of works-in-progress. When I happened to mention the idea to a friend who is an urban planner, explaining that I wanted to create a focused, sustained roundtable about some technical challenge of writing, he said, “You mean, a charrette.”
In his profession, charrettes are public meetings where people from different fields—engineers, planners, architects, townspeople—come together to discuss a project or find a solution to a design quandary. The idea is that when everyone is personally invested in a resolution to a problem, the varied points of view aid brainstorming and foster creativity.
Online I read that the term originated in nineteenth-century France. The literal translation, “cart,” probably refers to the carts used to collect architecture students’ completed drafts at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; the word then came to be associated with the intense final push at the end of a project.
With its historical flair and feminine suffix, “charrette” seemed to me a perfect name—fanciful, artistic, French. Now that I had the word for it, I was determined to make my literary charrette a reality.
In a town of literary events held almost every evening, I chose a Friday night, not only because there would be fewer readings, but also because it was a better night for those writers who were mothers. The email I sent began with a definition of charrette, which I had crafted to best fit my vision for the evening I wanted to create:
- An intensive group enquiry into a technical issue or design challenge
- A collaborative meeting focused on solving a problem through a diversity of ideas
In the case of definition number one, I wanted to signal that our charrette was an inquiry: that we were to show up with open minds and honest questions. By “design challenge” I meant matters of composition that arise when we write. By “technical issue” I meant that things might get nerdy.
In the case of definition number two, I wanted to signal openness to everyone’s ideas. One of the things that had made that first conversation great was that we were all at a different stages in our careers. Of the women I invited to the first charrette, the youngest were taking writing classes and just beginning to publish, while others had multiple books under their belts. Not everyone had an MFA. Two of us had PhDs. Two ran their own businesses. I wanted to be clear that we all had something to contribute.
Rather than rely on serendipity, I proposed a topic (dialogue issues). That way we would have time beforehand to mull the subject and maybe even bring materials—not our own work, since this was not a workshop, but published examples to discuss.
I quickly learned that the email chain was itself an important part of the process. As has continued to happen with each announced topic, there came a flurry of emailed responses. Questions (“Can we talk about no quotes vs. quotation marks?) and web links and “Have you seen this great article…?” This online back-and-forth meant we could begin pondering the topic ahead of the game, and even those who couldn’t make it to the actual charrette were able to be part of the preamble.
Eleven people participated that first night. Since some had never met before, I allowed thirty minutes for introductions and catching up; by getting the chit chat out of the way, we were able to stay focused. An architect friend had mentioned using a timer to ensure that no one person monopolized the conversation, but I decided to let things be spontaneous and simply pointed out, as we began, that a charrette was a roundtable in which no one monopolized the conversation and everyone had something to say.
We stayed on-topic for two hours straight, moving easily from one question to another. People were whipping photocopies out of their bags, passing them round; I tugged books from my shelves to share, while others had bookmarked pages they read aloud from. Everyone had a chance to speak, and no one shut anyone down.
Since then, our group has continued to meet once a month. Those writers early in their careers infuse a freshness of perspective while even the most experienced of us, encountering new challenges in each new project, continue to have issues of our own. In fact, our brainstorming often includes specific questions from our own work, leaving us with a victorious sense of having fixed something together. For instance, on the night we devoted to the topic of artful ways to move back and forth in time, Jane Roper (author of the memoir Double Time and the novel Eden Lake) had a question about a prologue she had been writing for her new novel, while Rishi Reddi (author of Karma and Other Stories) had concerns about the broad span of years in her own novel-in-progress. Novelist Mako Yoshikawa (One Hundred and One Ways and Once Removed) was trying to figure out effective, creative ways to reestablish point-in-time in each new chapter of the debut memoir she’s working on.
The more specific the topic, the more successful the discussion. For instance, though we had a valuable conversation on the night we decided to think about genre conventions, the topic was so broad, our discussion remained quite general. In contrast, on the night we devoted to “elements of mystery,” our talk stayed centered and substantial. In each case, the charrette has offered an inclusive and loosely structured way to share our questions and our knowledge, free from pressure to share or read our own work.
Want to have your own charrette? Here are some tips:
Pick a focused topic & announce it in advance: Selecting a topic ahead of time allows questions to percolate while participants share and peruse suggested reading. Choosing a specific subject gives the conversation a clear starting point rather than having to narrow things down.
Be prepared & bring examples: This is not to say that people can’t just show up; the idea is to be free and spontaneous. Yet it helps when some in the group have been considering the topic ahead of time. Sharing examples from published work often raises the level of discussion.
Keep it casual & flexible: Unlike a workshop, a charrette is a conversation with no one in charge or in the hot seat. Go where the discussion leads you; that’s how we learn.
Consider using a timer: If you worry some people might go on too long, set a time limit and keep to it.
Invite a diverse group: A variety of personal and artistic backgrounds, as well varied stages of career, broadens and strengthens the pool of ideas.
Get critical mass: Find a way to ensure you’ll always have a core number of participants. I think between ten and twelve is optimal, so I invite twenty or so, with the idea that at most two thirds will be able to attend.
Keep everyone included: Since there are always some people who can’t make it, I send out a casual recap the next day, with a few main takeaways and suggested reading. It’s a way to keep everyone in the loop and share what we’ve discovered. Also, if you’re choosing a date as a group, make sure no one feels their availability is being disregarded. One option is to pick the same day each month—say, every first Thursday—to keep it simple.
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DAPHNE KALOTAY’S books include the award-winning novels Sight Reading and Russian Winter (Harper) and the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories (Doubleday). She has written for the New York Times Book Review and Poets & Writers, and her interviews with Mavis Gallant can be read in the Paris Review’s Writers-At-Work series. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and for the 2017-18 academic year is teaching at Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.