Why join a writers’ group?
by Marianne Rosen
As Hay Festival gets underway and the summer line up of literary festivals spread their temptations before us, there will be many aspiring writers as well as readers traipsing the lawned hallways in search of encouragement. Do you long to be one of those authors whose events you attend? Do you write but dread the thought of sharing? Do you wish you could talk to someone about your writing but lack confidence? Have you ever wondered what value there is in joining a writers’ group?
Writers are often introverted people who prefer their time alone, either writing or reading, and preferably doing both in peace and quiet. Hands up, that’s me, I have been known to growl at my family if they disturb me mid-sentence. So, it might seem illogical to join a group of similarly introverted folks, in fact, you might even say it sounds truly hideous, but trust me, it’s worth exploring.
The step between being in the audience and being behind the podium is not as huge as you might imagine. This week, this elusive, lesser-spotted, secretive writer will be performing at the world-famous Hay Festival alongside other members of The Hay Writers. Joining a writers’ group was one of five steps I took towards my goal of writing for a career, and it is 90% rewarding, 5% frustrating, 5% indifferent. As odds go, in anything, that’s pretty impressive. But what is a writer’s group? What does it do? How do you choose the right one? Let’s unpack this.
Two years ago, I sat down in the twilight realm between Christmas and New Year and wrote out a five-point strategy to get my writing dreams on track. In January of 2017 I rang three local writers’ groups and made enquiries about joining. Here’s my first piece of advice. Persist. Writer’s are not necessarily the most organised of people and voluntary groups are not the swiftest mechanisms in the universe. I tried all three I approached, and in the end chose to join The Hay Writers’ Circle. This was not the closest, but it ticked my needs in the critical areas I list below: it met twice a month, in the afternoons, had a clear committee policy and a wide approach to material. It also emphasised performance. Having spoken with the Chair and Vice Chair, outlined my writing interests and tried a few meetings as a guest, I paid up my membership fees in the March of 2017.
Since then I have become Secretary of the group, proxy chair of the WIP group, organise their workshops and had my work performed at Hay Festival as part of the group, who have strong links in the community, as most writing groups do. Last year I performed myself, (yes, terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure) and will be doing so again this year. During my time with them I have written my first novel to a fourth draft, sent it off for professional editing, am currently working on my next project whilst building an author website and seeking representation. This is just my story. I’m goal orientated as both a person and a writer. But not all writers are, and the great thing about a writing group is that it has allowed me to value all types of writing for all sorts of motivations, and I have been enriched by every single writer in our group.
Some of us come for a social gathering of like minded folk, some of us write to have a laugh, some of us write to exorcise ghosts, some of us write to challenge ourselves, to keep our brains focused and functioning, and some of us write with a strong ambition. Some writers join for a year, some come back every year.
One common factor that brings us together is how writing gets side-lined. As Libby Houston points out, unlike children who need feeding or bills that need paying, writing can be ignored. And all too often it is. One of the greatest complaints I hear from writers is how they struggle to find the time to write. You have to commit, you have to say no to other things, you have to carve out your right to write with fierce determination, and a writer’s group is full of people who think this is the sanest thing you will EVER do with your time.
Frances Copping, our founder and still current member, emphasises the need for the group. How it was formed because like-minded people needed support and space to pursue their writing and how it continues to grow in strength because we still need that space. Every writer needs support to tell them what they are doing is valuable, to encourage them through the stumbling blocks, to offer feedback they can learn from, to encourage their next step. For some writers this is their truest friend, nearest loved one, oldest penpal, or family dog. For the members of a group it is the other members.
In interview with a former Chair of the group, Lynn Trowbridge, I asked what she felt was the most important thing she took away from being part of the group. She believes it made the difference between her wanting to write and believing that she could write. Lynn was 91 when she published her first book, A Life Is What You Get, after stepping down from her duties as Chair, and credits her time with the group for giving her the conviction she could do it.
Still not sure? Well, I can understand your reservations, it is scary sharing your writing, it is scary being pushed to see how you can improve. But it is fun too, we laugh a lot, and we always have cake. I have heard horror stories from writers who have joined writing groups, hoping to make it their next step in the process of owning their dreams, and been given such personal criticism they have retreated to their sanctuary and never gone out again. It’s normally at this point that I begin my efforts to convince them to try again. If you have had a bad experience at a writing group, try another. They all have a very different flavour to them. If you are tempted, these are the questions I suggest you ask yourself:
- How often do they meet?
Once a month, fortnightly, bi-monthly. What will fit in with you schedule?
- When do they meet?
Are you better in the mornings, afternoons, evenings or weekends?
- Where do they meet?
Do they meet in a neutral space such as the library or a meeting hall? Do they meet in member’s houses?
- How big is the group?
Do you want to hide in anonymity or are you brave enough to step into a small arena? Bigger groups can often be a good way to start if you are nervous. Plus, the size of the group will impact upon the diversity of age/experience/class/culture/genre etc of the writers available to you.
- What is their focus?
Do they focus on one genre? Do they emphasise longer projects or inspiration exercises? Do they have competitions, or include performance opportunities? Do they include a buddy system or a mentor system? Do they have a social aspect, and can you opt out of this is you prefer?
- Do they have a structural policy?
A written constitution, and regular rotation of committee staff, helps prevent the group from being overwhelmed by one or two individuals and their personal agendas. It also sets clear guidelines to how criticism is offered and accepted.
- What are the subscriptions fees?
Fees should be minimal and reasonable; pursuing your passion for writing should not involve spending a lot of money for validation. Make sure you know the cost implication before you join.
- What will you need to contribute?
Get an idea for what you will need to contribute back in terms of time and input.
Many writers will be nervous joining a new group, and there is nothing to prepare you for that stomach-plummeting, breath-stealing moment when you’ve innocently written your first shared exercise and realise you now need to read it. To a bunch of strangers. Like, out loud. Those raw, unpolished, straight from your heart and mind words. Like, right now. And there is no experience like getting to the end of that and knowing that the whole room has listened, really listened to what you wrote and shared. That other people have heard you, and you are not a fraud. This is one of the smallest, greatest, most oft-repeated, acts of affirmation that being in a writing group will give you.
It isn’t just emerging writers who can benefit from a writing group. Perhaps you have had some work published but been disappointed with its success and feel a little deflated? Perhaps you are a successful author who feels stuck in a rut of production and want to reawaken new writing avenues? Or a writer who has a project they can’t quite get off the ground. There are many reasons to consider joining a group as a way of revitalising your creativity. Now, let’s talk about cake.
Are there down-sides? Well, I said 90% rewarding, 5% frustrating, 5% indifferent at the start of this piece. Let’s think about that like a cake. 90% rewarding, absolutely. 5% frustrating? Every cake has a fat content. The bit you can’t avoid that sits on your waistline and messes with the harmony of your morning mirror. For a writer’s group this is the inevitability that you will not see eye to eye with everyone. This will be outweighed beyond compare by the strong friendships you do make. Friendships built across lifestyles, connecting you to people who value your writing life. 5% indifferent? The glace cherry on the top you leave on the side of the plate, still sticky with chocolate sauce. A group, any group, takes commitment, you have to attend, you have to contribute, you have to produce. And some days the intrusion of other aspects of life can make this difficult. Some days you fall flat, your work falls flat, the group falls flat. These are the days you wonder why you do it. Take a short break, miss a few sessions, refresh your life, and go back stronger.
If you’ve been thinking about joining a group there are so many options, do an internet search, find the ones nearest you, look at national organisations, and arrange a visit as a guest. I suggest you try between three and five groups before you settle on the right one for you. Groups will not expect you to share until you feel comfortable. Commit fully for twelve months and at the end of it decide how big a part you want the group to play as you move forward.
Twelve months from now you might realise the distance between your hopes and their realisation is only the ten feet between the audience and the podium.
Don’t forget to think about The Hay Writers’ if you live in or near Hay-on-Wye and look for the local writers’ groups performing at festivals near you. Oh, and if you were wondering what the other four points in my strategy were, I’ll be posting about it on my blog later this month, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.