After many years of avoiding the issue and finding excuses I finally bit the bullet, took the plunge, climbed into the saddle, put my best foot forward, hit the road, got on the bus and joined the Figurative Language Society. Actually, that’s a lie, what I did without hesitation, prevarication or deviation is finally join a writers’ group.
To be honest I’ve always had reservations
about the concept, is there benefit in discussing something so hard to pin down or define? I still have a sneaking suspicion that writing is something that you can either do or you can’t and discussing the process will never get you any further forward with what you’re trying achieve, especially if you have no clear idea yourself either.
I suppose I largely believe that writing, like many creative activities, cannot be taught, you either have it or you don’t. Although, Malcolm Gadwell has highlighted there is no such thing as genius, simply intensive practice which then forms the foundation for genius. He does make a convincing case and the scientist within me can see the strength of his arguments. But then that scientist is always being harangued by my starving artist, freezing in his lonely garret wondering where his next meal will come from and when his flighty, mysterious muse will return to guide his hand across the page. I can tell you it’s not easy being me.
However, over the course of the summer I’ve been re-evaluating my position on writers’ groups and thinking a little bit more about the real reason for avoiding them. At the heart of it all is fear, fear of being forced to discuss my writing and, oh my god, having other people read my efforts and passing an opinion. This has always been the stuff of nightmares for me, waking up in a cold sweat, standing by the side of the bed screaming kind of nightmare, your PJs shredded at your feet; you’ve never had those kind of nightmares? Really? It’s just me? Well ok, let’s move on because clearly there’s nothing to see here.
So this revelation then led me to think about why I write. There are lots of reasons; because I enjoy it, because I think I can do it fairly well. But the big driver I realised was I wanted other people to read what I write. Well, if this is the case a writers’ group is surely the best place for this to happen, unless I’m somehow discovered by a publisher after a heated argument with a stranger (the publisher) in the pub in which I, with élan, humour and intelligence, defend the status of Ulysses as the world’s greatest piece of literature, and a stranger is forced to ask me if I am by any chance a writer. Sorry about that, my starving writer escaped from his garret again, I’m going to have to improve security.
I have now been to a writers’ group four times I believe. The first occasion was a little fact-finding mission, a commando raid behind enemy lines to assess their strength and develop a plan of action. I was surprised to find that the group was made up of fairly normal people who just happened to have an interest in writing. What I found most disconcerting about my first experience was the fact that all everyone was talking about was writing. I know, I know, I was attending a writing group so what did I expect, knitting tips? What I meant was writing has always been a private thing for me, like a perversion or sexual peccadillo, not something to be discussed in polite company. And here I was in a public space, under full lighting, being asked what I was writing at the moment, what do I write about, what genre do I focus on? I had found my people! This must be what coming out of the closet feels like.
My second visit was slightly more nerve-racking because I jumped off the high board into the deep end and read something out to the group! And guess what, no one laughed and there were even some words of encouragement and a little bit of discussion. Now there’s no holding me back, I am a fully paid up member of a writers’ group, I discuss my writing, its problems and strengths without embarrassment, and I am beginning to have constructive opinions on what other people have written. And this last thing has been the most unexpected benefit, it’s simply not enough to say you like or dislike something, the group expect more, just as I expect more if I go to the effort of putting something out there. Forcing myself to analyse other members’ writing has started to give me more of an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of my own writing.
Although, I’m not yet ready to give up on my romantic lonely artist beliefs, all in all it has been a positive experience. I’ve met new people, been assured that what I’m working on isn’t laugh-out-loud bad, received some helpful advice and seen some improvement in my own work.
What has been your experience of writers’ groups, have they helped you to find your inner genius, or have they left you colder than a polar bear’s nose?