When I lived in Ohio I used to go to a writers’ group once a month.
There was always a large crowd of us on those Saturday afternoons, squeezing into the conference room of a local hotel. There were too many of us for the library or anyone’s home. We sat in rows like students, or like sales reps being trained in the latest techniques. Come to think of it, both of those terms apply.
At the top of the room five women sat facing us. These were (pause for celestial music and spotlight) the published writers. One of them had published four or five books, the others at least two or three each. I, and I suspect most of those assembled, was intimidated by their success. Not that they were unkind or unpleasant. Quite the opposite: they were supportive, knowledgeable and patient. I learned a great deal from them. I learned how to format my documents; how to approach a publisher; and how to keep working no matter how tired or discouraged I became. I always left those gatherings buzzing with enthusiasm.
That said, it wasn’t a flawless system. With at least two hundred members, the group was way too big. I never made any friends there nor even got to meet the same person twice. There was no chance to read my own work or have it critiqued. Even if there had been, at the time I was so shy, so intimidated by the success of the leaders, I wouldn’t have been capable of doing anything more than sitting passively and listening.
That group was good for me and it came along at exactly the right time. It allowed me to see other authors in the flesh and to learn from them. It invigorated my writing. It gave me plenty of practical advice which I still use today.
Last week I learned there is a writers’ group here in Kells. It’s small with fewer than a dozen regulars, and there are no stars. Thank God!
While they’ll probably never be able to bring a high-profile expert to talk to the group, as the Ohio group did every month, and their publishing aspirations are not lofty, they offer something much more enticing: a love of writing.
When you write for a living it’s easy to forget that publication isn’t the North Star; that it’s a bit of lunar dust, at best. Producing the best work we’re capable of is what matters. Exploring who we are through the subjects that interest us and the words we select to express ourselves.
People come to writers’ groups for any number of reasons: for the camaraderie, for the hopes of making contacts in the industry, and to learn something new. There’s no right or wrong reason. Well, so long as your goals are in keeping with the rest of the group. If you want to just make friends and have a chat that’s all well and good, but if the others want to have a serious discussion about structure or how to develop their plots, you might be better served with a different group.
5 Reasons why you should join a writers’ group:
- Writing is a solitary profession and it does you good to meet with like-minded people.
- Getting immediate feedback for your work is invaluable.
- You may learn or be able to teach something. Those are equally important.
- A group can help you set realistic goals and should motivate you to meet them.
- It’s a chance to get a different perspective on where you are in your writing.
And 4 reasons why you shouldn’t:
- When the group is more interested in socialising or drinking than in writing you may be wasting your time. Fine to go and socialise if that’s what you want to do, but don’t kid yourself this is a functioning writers’ group.
- When you leave feeling worse about your work and your ability than you did before you went in. A good group should inspire and motivate, not wreck your head.
- When the group’s skill level or goals are very different from your own. If you want to write silly limericks and the occasional funny story you may feel out of place in a room of people who just want to write the quintessential literary novel. By the same token, if you’re looking to produce literature and your group is happy writing greeting cards it may be hard (though not impossible) for you to mesh.
- When the group’s dynamics are toxic, either because someone is a bully and abusive, or because the members don’t listen to or don’t respect one another.
4 things to expect from a good writers’ group:
- People have a similar attitude towards their writing and the skill level between members isn’t too different.
- Everyone gets a chance to read, to speak, to participate. Everyone’s voice is heard.
- Criticism is respectful and constructive.
- You leave feeling positive about yourself and your work.
You sold me! How do I find a group?
Well, if you’re in Ireland check out the Irish Writers’ Centre for a list of groups in the country: http://irishwriterscentre.ie/pages/writing-groups
If you live somewhere else on the planet you can start with twitter, try looking up #writersgroups. (If you live on a completely different planet or satellite you’re on your own, I’m afraid!)
Ask at your local library. If there’s a group in your area there’s a good possibility that’s where they meet. At least the librarian should have an idea if there is such an animal and how to track it.
If there’s nothing locally, or if you live in a very isolated area, you might consider an online writers’ group. There’s scribophile, for instance, http://www.scribophile.com/ and I’m sure an internet search will turn up many others.
Failing all else, start your own. The Irish Writers’ Centre offers guidance for how to do this.
Writers groups aren’t for everyone at every stage of their lives. What works for you when you’re 35 might seem daunting when you’re 18 or vice versa. But I wouldn’t write a group off without first exploring the possibilities. If you’re put off because you’re scared then perhaps you should examine that fear. Writing is about courage and taking chances.
Is there a better place to start?