what a healthy writing group should feel like

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’

-Anais Nin

I love this provocative statement from Anais Nin & it makes me think of my writing group, because if we have a group aesthetic it would probably be one of emotional intensity (and killer imagery).  Which is not to say we don’t write intellectually stimulating work, more that we aren’t afraid of addressing our emotional lives in our work. Emotional intensity is something that is oft-derided in contemporary poetry scenes. The ‘fashion’ is for quiet, controlled, irony. The emphasis is on intellect over emotion. Well, balls to that. That’s not what I like to read and it isn’t what I write.

This Saturday I am meeting with my writing group. It is small – just three people, including me. I have belonged to many writing groups over the years but I love my current one best. We have an empathy and symbiosis which is powerful. Whenever I have writing group looming, I feel charged and excited, because I know I will come out of it invigorated and challenged in the best possible way.

Writing groups are tricky beasts. The members have to be sympatico enough that they share certain approaches to writing, certain elements of aesthetics, but rigorous and brave enough to honestly critique one another’s work, for the benefit of the work.

‘…for the benefit of the work’. That’s the key thing. I (like most writers, I imagine) have been involved in writing groups where there was ‘stuff’ in the way of talking about the work on the table. Personality clashes, or more subtle than that…passive/aggressive tensions, dominating personalities, sexism, subtle undermining, patronising. I haven’t experienced all that directed at me (although some of it) but I have seen it, in groups I’ve been in.

In a writing group, you need to feel ‘safe’ emotionally – by this I mean, confident that the members have your best interests at heart and are talking only about the writing, not about you as a person. (That might sound obvious, but I’ve seen examples of that not being the case.) However, you also need a group that is more than just a circle of mirrors, or ‘mutual admiration society’ where all you do is tell each other how brilliant the work is and how clever you are. In some ways, that is worse for the work than over the top nasty critique! Your work won’t grow by ONLY being praised and stroked. Presumably, the work is being presented to writing group because you don’t believe it is finished or has reached it’s potential yet, therefore, your group should work to help you realise the potential of what you have written.

In my current group, the members aren’t afraid to say when they love something and tell me specifically why, nor are they afraid to (with great skill and in a frank, articulate way) tell me what isn’t working and why, and what might fix it. (Also, now that I’m in a tiny writing group – I think small might be better. There is more space to pay detailed attention to the work and to build relationships. I’ve been in huge writing groups, and you can come out feeling like your work got a ‘once over lightly’.)

If you come out of writing group feeling undermined on a personal level – go with your gut, I think. There could well be other ‘stuff’ going on that isn’t about the writing. I say this to you as someone who has stayed way too long in groups where I came out feeling undermined and crappy. All writers need to learn to absorb and use critique, but this doesn’t mean people are allowed to bully, patronise or personally demean you. Often it is very subtle, too, so be vigilant! You should come out of a writing group session feeling stimulated, empowered and charged up to edit your work. If you don’t, something isn’t right in your group.

Leave. Start another one with people you can trust – for the sake of your own wellbeing, and for the growth of your work.

 

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8 thoughts on “what a healthy writing group should feel like

  1. I think specificity is the key, and working and reading to build up a base of technique where you can speak to subjects specifically. There may be an issue with voice, or Point of View, or say dialogue where characters aren’t distinguished from each other, or aren’t authentic. That allows you to speak directly to a facet or issue, so the writer won’t feel the whole story is rubbish, or they can’t write. It’s in the details. Also keeps it from being ad hominem, Things to watch out for, hidden agendas. And remember some people’s hidden agendas are hidden even from themselves.

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    1. ‘Some people’s hidden agendas are hidden even from themselves’ – I like that, thanks James. Yep, talking about details of the work is important, and another thing I bear in mind is, even if the piece is not to my usual taste, what are the writer’s aims for the piece and how can I help them to realise those…this helps me get my own tastes out of the way.

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  2. I agree with this post. It’s really well-written and I think it expresses exactly what I think about our group, too. It’s amazing, over the years, as an artist, how many people will try to dissuade you, either subtly or overtly, and I think that you have to be really suspicious of this. And know what you mean about other people’s agendas. I am always suspicious, yet, I hope, while remaining open to things. You learn the hard way: By taking a few low blows. Also it’s my belief that the artist’s path is so fragile, so fraught with difficulty; it is, by it’s nature, an almost impossible thing. Therefore, if you want any chance of survival, you need support, good support; support from supporters who are not so far up their own arses that they can’t help a brother (sister) out.

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