Writing is a solitary activity–which is probably why I have always gravitated to it. I’ve never been what one might call “social,” or “someone who has more than three friends.” Growing up, I tended to prefer my own company to just about anyone else’s.
I’m suddenly reminded of my not-so-wild high school days: While the other kids planned outings with friends, I ran home fast as I could so I continue work on my latest writing project. So as you may imagine, the term “writers group” felt like a bit of an oxymoron.
My first taste of a writers group came in college, when I took Intro to Creative Writing. All of a sudden, I was forced to sit at a long table with fifteen other young hopefuls, each of us dreading the inevitable criticism that would come each time we read a snippet of our work. I hardly knew how to productively critique another’s writing, nor did I know how to take and use criticism directed at me.
I can still remember when one imaginative young writer attempted to share a story about a private detective on a search for a magic crystal that had some connection to either space aliens or mystical creatures from medieval times (can’t remember which). As I watched the other students smash his plot to dust, I decided my best shot at survive the class was to stay quiet and hope that no one would notice me. So I can’t say I got all that much out of that.
My second taste of a collaborative writing experience came when a good friend of mine, also a creative writing major in college, invited me to write with her every Saturday morning. We were both college freshmen at the time, and I was no more social or popular than I was in high school, so being hung over every Saturday morning was not an issue for me. My friend and I established our Saturday morning writing time as mostly for our individual work. We also attempted to collaborate on a musical about a group of lonely people who worked in a diner, but when we found ourselves scribbling lyrics like, “A plate of eggs and a side of loneliness,” we decided it might be time to cut our losses. Anyway, this regular writing commitment actually did help me to produce work on a consistent basis for a while, but everything fell apart when the only other member of my group decided to change her major from Creative Writing to Psychology in our Sophomore year. Maybe it would have paid to have a few more friends…
In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate writers’ groups, even if I don’t seek them out as often as I should. We talk about the fear that drives many aspiring writers to abandon their craft, but that fear may often come from the loneliness and isolation of writing. A writers group may go a long way to alleviating some of that fear. When we, as human beings, sit down with other people and share common concerns, we tend to feel better about ourselves; this is, of course, part of why support groups can be so effective, and a writers group need not be any different.
Of course, it’s important that a group conduct itself wisely. When one of the group shares a new piece, the other members should not (A) respond with nothing but glowing praise, or (B) tear the work apart in a needless bout of cruelty. I have seen both of these happen in my writing career, and both are excellent ways to stunt any possible creative growth. Constructive criticism is key in collaborative situations like these. And of course, all of this will have no positive impact on you unless you know how to take criticism yourself. If you’re going to sit through every meeting thinking, “What do these losers know?” you might as well find something else to do.
Seek out writers groups that do not include close family and friends. The people who love you are the least likely to offer an unbiased opinion, nor are they necessarily the most knowledgeable on publishing and the ins-and-outs of the current writers market. Yes, I know we all enjoy sharing our work with loved ones who brightly tell us how brilliant we are (admittedly, I’ve spent many a glorious hour soaking in the praise of my parents and husband), but serious writers need to be realistic. Grandma may be your biggest fan, but is she really the best authority on whether or not your latest novel will work for a young adult audience? Can you trust her to call out the wordiness in the last paragraph of your first chapter? This is not to say that you can’t share your work with her, if you are so inclined; just make sure that reading your latest story over the phone to your grandmother does not take the place of an honest-t0-goodness writers group experience.
Some overly-sensitive writers (myself included) may balk at the idea of a writers group. However, if we can bring ourselves to take a deep breath and dive in headfirst, we may find that sharing our work gets easier each time. And this can go a long way to helping us overcome our deepest writing fears. If you are a lonely writer who’s been languishing in the dark for too long, consider stepping into the sunlight and joining a writers group that works for you.