Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Writing Groups

As a writer, you might might think that this profession gives you an excuse to be a hermit, cooped up in your room all day, writing your heart and soul out on a typewriter or something and then magically, you'll be done one day and have a best-seller on your hands.  This is an erroneous assumption.

Yes, you will spend some days cooped up in your room being a hermit, but you will also have to go out and do grocery shopping and on those days you might wonder why you've willingly sequestered yourself away from society.  Then you will see People magazine and have your answer.

Even if you do want to hermit yourself away to work on your masterpiece, the hard truth is that you can't do it by yourself.  There will be times when you don't think you can go on, when you hit writer's block so bad you want to take a bat to your typewriter or computer or hand and kill the object of your dissatisfaction.  There will be days when you want human company, even if you can't stand human beings.  There are days when you need an editor who is not the inner voice hanging out in the leftmost corner of your brain who alternates between saying that your work is amazing and beautiful and saying that your work is terrible and that you should go immolate yourself in a fire for thinking you could be a writer.

On these days, it is best to have a support system.  Friends and family might help, but do they really understand?  Or do they look at you as if you've sprouted three extra heads and ask you why you can't get a regular job and be a functional part of society?  Even if they still consider you to be a sane, normal person, do they really get that you're going through?  Or are you left with that lingering finger of doubt that whispers they don't really know what they're talking about?

What you need, my friend, is a writer's group.

You might think to yourself that you don't need a writer's group, that a writer's group is scary and full of people better than you, who will look down their noses at your work and set it on fire.  This might happen.  In that case, leave the writer's group and find a different one.  Look for ones that cater to your needs.  If you write crime drama, don't join a writer's group that's full of people who write non-fiction or fantasy.  Surround yourself with like-minded people.  Go to a couple of meetings and tell the person in charge that you are shopping around for a good fit, that you are testing the waters.  You are not beholden to them to continue going if you don't like the people or you feel that they are not helping you to become a better writer.  And if they do make you feel beholden it is because they are needy and/or need you to be a living sacrifice to Ba'al or something so that they will be successful.  If this is case, leave the group immediately and inform the local authorities.

Writer's groups are a helpful ecosystem to be a part of.  Chances are, there will be someone there who is a grammar aficionado and will go through your work with a red pen and fix all the little typos you didn't know you made.  One will be a literary genius who knows all the techniques to make you better.  One will be comic relief.  Another will always have something nice to say about your work even as (s)he shreds it to pieces in an effort to make it a masterpiece.  If you are uncomfortable with any of this, you need to join a writer's group and shed these fears.  They can only hold you back.

You might think a writer's group is all work and no play, but this is a mistake.  Writer's groups can be the basis of life-long friendships spawned over circling sixteen reused words in a single paragraph and pointing out verb-subject disagreements or using writing prompts as exercises and staring at a blank sheet of paper while everyone else scribbles away and guards his or her work.  Chances are, you will not be alone in your confusion.

I was part of a writer's group in college, over which I was the vice president somehow.  I'm not sure how that even happened, to be honest.  I was not fit for leadership, but neither was our perpetually stoned/drunk president.  He tried though.  He tried.  And he had dreams.

Our writer's group was not pretentious, or even professional for that matter.  We sat around and discussed each other's work and then we went out for drinks, which translated to the current over 21-year old going out and buying cheap beer and then bringing it back to my place where I wouldn't drink so that at least one person could keep order and keep "Bill" (name has been changed so as to protect his identity) from doing something stupid.  One time, after the 'we went official as a club' party, Bill and I had a very enlightening conversation about the existentialism of capital punishment on my couch.  He was drunk out of his mind on gin and tonic.  Bill, needless to say, did not remember this conversation the next day.  And I had a whopping mess to clean up.

This might not be an example of the greatest writer's group, but we were useful.  We worked on each other's writings and learned from one another and tried to get our magazine up and running.  We would enter into contests and hold one another when we lost.  Not really, but I want this to a romantic memory.  We had a lot of fun, even in the dark times when we couldn't write anything and lost hope in ever becoming famously rich and fabulous novelists.

We were friends, which is the important part.  Your writer's group should be friendly, even if you don't hang out outside of the group.  It's not like it's write or die at the hands of Ba'al while the other members chant in Aztec and light seven black candles while you're strung up on an altar with a copy of Asimov glued to your forehead.

I remember one meeting we had where we needed to figure out the name of our magazine.  We had too many suggestions, so we came up with the brilliant idea of writing down all the names on a white board and then chucking a bottle cap at it, the idea being that the words the bottle cap hit would be arranged somehow to make an awesome title.  Needless to say, chaos ruled for about forty minutes.

What we came up with was "The Ponce of Pangea."  It was unanimously vetoed and the meeting adjourned in favor of drinking and thinking up ways to fund raise money.

See?  This is what you're missing if you're not part of a writer's group.

7 comments:

  1. Great post, it really made me laugh! My first reaction is to be wary of writer's groups as I'm not very confident with my writing, until I remembered I was part of one at school. It was really good, as we were able to try out new things and it was good getting other people's perspectives on things/my work. I had completely forgotten about it, but now I've remembered it, I'm thinking about finding another one to join!

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  2. I was like that too when I first joined. I thought they were going to be really judgmental and not like what I wrote about.

    I'm glad you had such a great time with a group too, and I hope that you find another one that's just as great!

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  3. I have been in the same writers group for about 12 years now. I love each and every person in the group and they have helped me grow tremendously as a writer.

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  4. Kerrie, that is awesome and I'm glad you found such an amazing group to be a part of! Here's to twelve more years learning and friendship!

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  5. Sounds like THIS group was a winner! I smiled all the way through this wonderful post.

    I came over from Patricia Stoltey where you left a comment. She hosted me on Wednesday. I'm happy to meet you and become one of your first followers.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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  6. you are so right, you might think that you don't need one-- or someone else to look over your work-- but you do, a new set of eyes works wonders to improving a book, and your outlook on life.

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  7. Thank you so, so much Ann!

    We were definitely a winner all right, but a winner of what is the question.

    And yes, Rebecca, there's so much you can learn from other people. It's just incredible.

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