I was sitting in an absolutely fantastic novel-writing seminar yesterday. The kind of seminar that you leave with goosebumps, all fired up, ready to write the novel that you haven’t dared to in all the weeks and months before that. I left that seminar reassured that taking the time out of my life to do this MA was the best decision I could have taken for myself, despite what anybody might have to say about it.
Being so inspired by that class got me thinking about all the other ways and means there are for practising writers to get the support of a nurturing community that understands and values their work. The writers’ group is one of them.
If you’ve never heard of a writers’ group (where have you been living?) or you’re not sure about why joining a writers’ group is a good idea, have a look at this article from Writers’ Digest for a concise statement of all the reasons why a writers’ group might be just what the doctor ordered. Assuming you’re already sold on the benefits, and may even be in the market for a circle of like-minded scribes to give and receive feedback on works-in-progress, I thought you might like a few pointers on when to run from a writers’ group. That’s right. RUN.
I remember all too well my first hopeful visit to the twilight meeting of a certain writers’ collective. I should have gotten a clue from the moment I walked through the door and saw the solitary microphone standing on stage, the clutter of assorted chairs in front of it, the donated hor d’oeuvres in the corner. For the next few hours I endured everything from the first tentative limmerick of the neo-scribe to the angst-ridden, alienating rant of the hopelessly academic. At the end of every offering, the super-stoned and motherly moderator would take to the mic to encourage more applause for whatever had just been offered and more assistance in devouring the hor d’oeuvres on offer, with which she battled the munchies during open mic. For those few hours my manuscript stayed undercover, along with an overwhelming desire to get up and just …..leave.
Surprise, surprise, I never visited that particular writers’ group since. Here’s my take on when to run:
1. When you have no idea what the goals and ideals of the writers’ group are, its objectives aren’t clearly defined, or there aren’t any. Rule 1 of finding a good writers’ group is knowing what you want to get from it. ‘Good’ here means ‘good for you‘. Are you at the start of your writing journey? Then perhaps you’re more in need of support than detailed criticism. Already published and working on something new? Then you might need a group with more dedication to honest and detailed critiques. Does the group sit in a circle and discuss your work in a serious and engaged manner or are you ushered towards a mike with the enthusiasm of a group of teenaged boys at Hooters? The point is, you won’t know what type of group you need until to assess where you are and what you’re after. And you won’t be able to tell if any particular group is it, if the group is unable to give you a clear statement of its purpose, objectives and expectations for its membership. Ground rules about giving and receiving criticism are especially important to know. Point is, if the group appears to be as free and fluid as an Angela Davis dashiki? RUN.
2. When the group dynamics are off or the group is run by a wanna-be therapist. Let me explain. You go to a meeting and there’s this one exceedingly bossy, sensitive or conceited person to whom everyone else panders, caters or bows. It’s established quite early on that X’s work is not to be criticised too harshly or in too much detail, and the chatty travel-writer sitting next to you lets on that she always calls X after meetings, just to make sure that X hasn’t made good on his threat to off himself because he can’t get Chapter 8 right. Worse, the apparent group leader doesn’t just want to hear your poem, she wants to hear about your day, your dog and your date. Who has the time or the inclination? Not you. RUN.
3. When everything you do is magnificent. Alas, it will take a few meetings before you decide whether to put on your Nikes and make like Usain Bolt for this one. There is nothing more annoying (or damaging to your writing) than a group of sedentary cheer-writers. Get a clue if the chapter you’ve been mud-wrestling with each morning at 6 comes back from successive group critiques with nary a scratch. According to the group, your characters are wonderfully complex and complete, your setting descriptive and metaphorical, your language and delivery inspired and assured. So why the bleep isn’t the chapter working then, folks? Worse, your sincere, heartfelt and polite deconstruction of a colleague’s free-verse earns you the kind of looks best kept for paedophiles and puppy-killers. If you’ve found yourself in one of these groups, leave well enough alone. Emphasis on ‘leave‘.
I found this useful article with some answers to questions about writers’ groups. And you might find some useful pointers about giving feedback once you’re actually in a group here. Yes, I was talking about book reviews, there, yes, it’s still relevant.
And now I need to get to that novel I was inspired to write ……