Recently, a few of my writing friends and I got talking about writers’ groups and our experiences with them. Some of us have been members of a variety of similar organisations and assemblies over the years, and we agree that finding one that works can be tricky. All the ingredients need to be there, and in the right amounts.
It should be the right size:
In my writers’ group, we have about six regulars with about 3-4 others who come when they can. Too few people and the gatherings become predictable and monotonous. Too many and people don’t get heard. You also need a group that fits the venue. You don’t want to be too cramped together, but neither do you want to hear an echo when you talk. What can I say? Size matters.
A safe and nurturing environment:
We don’t have any harsh critics in our group, thank goodness. Feedback is positive and constructive. We have all learned over the years that just one nasty individual can shatter your self-confidence, which for many writers is a fragile thing to begin with. Of course, it is important that feedback is honest, but how that feedback is delivered is important, too.
Sometimes we write short exercises during the evening, but not always. Sometimes I offer instruction on something related to writing: developing character, planning a plot, word choice, and so forth. As the professional writer who has, incidentally, taught creative writing classes, the role of tutor usually falls to me. I don’t do this all the time, though. For one thing, I don’t always have time to prepare, and also sometimes I prefer to be just one of the gang rather than the leader.
If someone has just written a piece, we encourage them to share it. If they are struggling to get a story finished, we’ll offer suggestions. It’s lovely seeing everyone trying to help a fellow writer. The point is, we try to keep things lively and slightly unpredictable. Just enough to make it fun. Creativity does not flourish in a routine and predictable environment.
Getting everyone to participate can take time and no one should be coerced into participating. By the same token, no one should be ignored, either. Some would-be writers like to listen to what’s going on for a few sessions before they are ready to share their work or comment on the writing of others. Until they’re ready to read, we try to encourage them to participate in the discussions, but there’s never any pressure.
Although I often facilitate, I’m happy to let someone else lead. If a decision needs to be made (about attending a function, for instance), everyone’s voice is heard and majority rules. I believe this works because our newest members seem very happy, and heard. It’s easy in any group situation for the old timers to dominate. We’ve been here longest so our opinion counts the most, seems to be the attitude. In fact, new people often inject new energy and ideas into any situation. Why would you want to stifle them?
My group meets in the library and the staff are great about keeping us up to date about local events or competitions we might enjoy. The members also share news and updates. Bringing our work to the outside world helps us stretch, gives us deadlines and objectives, and serves as a reminder that writing is meant to be read. We also share articles about writing and writers and the world of publishing.
All these elements–and I’m sure you can think of many more–make for a dynamic and supportive group. However, speaking broadly, here are some things that can scupper even your best efforts.
Listen, it happens. Friendships are fine, but beware of power struggles and hidden agendas.
Lack of focus:
Although my group sometimes takes forays into poetry away from our usual fiction, we never wander too far afield. One of our members reports that his previous group shattered when a few members decided they wanted to focus on poetry exclusively, thereby alienating the fiction writers. Our general attitude is, if you want to write it, we’re willing to read it and offer suggestions. That includes memoirs, articles, and plays. We are, however, a fiction group and that seems to suit us.
Hyper-sensitivity and hyper-criticism:
As a member, it’s important to accept criticism in the spirit intended. Only rank amateurs insist they need never rewrite anything. A good critique is the greatest gift one writer can give another. As noted above, the way criticism is delivered requires tact and a positive attitude, but how its received matters, too.
Why you need a writers’ group
Writing is a lonely job. Hearing only your own voice (or imaginary voices), can be limiting. Being able to bounce ideas off your peers is hugely helpful. It’s good, too, to remember there are others toiling late at night just as you are.
Motivation to keep writing:
It’s so easy to just give up. This is the comment I hear most frequently at my group: Without ‘homework’ to do, many fellow writers would have stopped writing ages ago. They also see how their writing grows and develops as a result of the feedback they receive. Sometimes, too, seeing the mistakes others make can show them how to avoid making those errors themselves.
Even the greats swear by them:
It’s not only amateurs who find writers’ groups helpful. Ursula K Le Guin, Chuck Palahniuk, and Louisa May Alcott all belong, or belonged, to groups. JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis formed Inklings. There are many other examples. Look for a writers’ group in your area. Or if there isn’t one, get one started. Just make sure to bring the right ingredients.