The following article, while not an interview, is an interesting and frank reflection on writing groups by Lorraine Jones.
After years spent working in the business world, I am now an aspiring writer. Although my journey along this path has been relatively short, it’s been interesting – my boots have scuff marks to prove it.
Writing groups make me twitch. The idea is great – like-minded people with similar interests, a chance to learn and grow with each other, companions in an occupation noted for its isolation – but the reality . . . I’ve poked my nose into a few groups from time to time, sometimes against my better judgement, always cautiously and more often than not, uncomfortably. Invariably, I end up feeling like Goldilocks trying out the chairs in the three bear’s cottage – this one’s too small, this one’s too tall. I’ve yet to find one that’s just right. Is it me? Is it the groups I’ve tried? I wouldn’t presume to say, but trying to picnic in these woods can sometimes be uncomfortable.
Perhaps it’s because the art of creation is so personal. We do after all, tend to write from our hearts, those notoriously delicate organs that seek connection and mutuality above all else. It’s not that I want to marry a writing group, but I do feel the need for a certain level of compatibility if I’m to maintain hope that something positive may germinate from my regular sowing of time and attention and the risk I take putting forward my ‘darlings’ for review.
The first time I joined a writing group it was part of a community adult education endeavour. We had a published author for our tutor and a group of ten enthusiastic pencil pushers. Surely that was a recipe for success? Apparently not. Within a few weeks our numbers had halved and those still brave enough to show up had become a hesitant herd of shuffling sheep cringing awkwardly in cramped and uncomfortable desks. Unfortunately for us, while our tutor may have been published, she had yet to gain any tutoring skill or an understanding of the importance of respect. I watched as she slaughtered the stories of members I most admired and dripped condescending encouragement upon those with least skill. My own hesitant first offering, the beginning of a fantasy story, was met with a snort of derision and a terse ‘Why don’t you just write the real story instead of hiding it behind this other stuff!’ I was stunned. What was wrong with fantasy? What did she mean - write the real story? I thought I was. Not surprisingly, this group failed to run the next term – not enough enrolments. I put away my pen and looked for other more rewarding hobbies.
A few years later, after unearthing some of my earlier attempts, I dusted off my pen and tried again. It started out well enough, as groups often do, but before long the rot began to seep through the cracks. As always, it began with an incompatibility of personalities and expectations. Subgroups began to covertly form, power plays erupted more frequently and before long critiques were more a reflection of what one person thought of another than a genuine response to the writing offered for reflection. There was talk among some members of breaking away and forming another writing group, but before long the entire endeavour fell apart and we all withdrew to the comparative safety of our own writing desks. It was easier to wrestle uncomfortably with our internal critics than risk involving ourselves in another fiasco. The hardest thing about groups of any sort it seems is building trust, respect and the ability to stay focused on a common endeavour.
A bit later, I tried again. A small group of quite experienced women, some already published. It showed promise and I began to feel excited. What I liked about this group was it seemed to have a better handle on what productive critiquing involved. The members were more adept at combining genuine encouragement with helpful suggestions and observations. They readily owned, in a good way, feelings of envy when someone produced a particularly good piece of work. Perhaps it was simply experience and a strong sense of their own voice, despite moments of frustration that gave them the confidence to willingly offer help to others. Feedback was something they reflected on, rather than reacted against, picking and choosing what resonated for them. Being a small group meant there was plenty of time for everyone, so it was quite relaxed. Then one ended up in hospital for an extended time, the venue became unavailable and despite my own successful efforts to secure another, this group also fell apart. Forget Goldilocks, now I felt more like one of the three little pigs, tailed by a persistent wolf huffing and puffing and blowing my house down.
I toughed it out alone for a while and managed to achieve quite a lot. A small burst of professional mentoring gave me the impetus to keep going and I began to enjoy my writing. Then, an opportunity arose to give it one more go. Like many prospective relationships, the possibility of getting it right this time was sufficient for me to set aside, albeit hesitantly, my hard won caution and stick my toe back in the water. Time would tell.
Every group seems to have a personality of its own. Sometimes cautiously welcoming, other times self-important and controlling. I suspect only a few get it just right, and maintaining that rightness probably requires adjustment, especially when new members join. Each has its own way of trying to generate the sense of safety their members need. Inevitably, we’re all looking for a good fit – our own version of writing happily ever after. Perhaps finding it is no different from other areas of our life, sometimes you get lucky, other times you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.