Should I go to a writers group?

by SJ Griffin

I don’t know. Do you mix well with others? Actually, I don’t so that doesn’t make any difference.  Yes, you should if you will enjoy it and it will make you write. No, you shouldn’t if you think you would rather die than read out your work at this point in your writing life. It really is that simple.

There are a lot of writers groups around. I’ve been to about seven I think. Eight if we count the awful one in that woman’s house, which we don’t.  We try not to think about it. Ever.  The one I go to now I went to many years ago, then I stopped going, then I started, then I stopped. And now I have started again.  The group has been through phases and so have I. In between going to that group I went to others.  In the end I don’t think it matters if you go to one that’s like a night class, one at a library or one that meets in a pub. Some people go to more than one at the same time although I think this is traitorous. The most important thing is that you enjoy it. And that might mean different things to different people. For me it means that I like the majority of writers there, I don’t dread reading my work out and no one expects me to comment on poetry. That last one is key because me and poetry – nightmare.

It’s pretty easy to shop around and find one you like because you can go once and then never go again and no one will mind. Maybe you’ll like a group with a teacher figure, maybe you won’t. I know I didn’t. Even though the teacher type was really nice and very funny, I always found it hard to not give his comments more weight than anyone else’s. Also, if he liked something everyone else would just agree. In my current group we disagree with each other all the time. I do it on purpose sometimes.

Let’s say you do go to a group. Here are three things I had to come to terms with:

Comments are never given without context. No one ever says anything that isn’t influenced by what they like and what they don’t like, what they’ve experienced and what kind of week they’ve had. If they give you a mauling or a drooling, bear that in mind. I know someone whose writing I really like line for line, but their book is not one I would ever read and it’s a genre I really don’t like. I limit my comments to the mechanics of the writing and I always try to make sure that I’m not giving feedback that’s just born of my dislike of the genre.

Learn whose feedback is useful.  And constructive. This revolutionised my experience at a workshop when we were going through a really lean time. There was a lot of turnover and not many serious writers, and by that I mean writers who write regularly and rewrite even more regularly. There were two people in that cohort whose feedback I just totally ignored.  One was the bitterest person I’ve ever encountered and the other gave uninvited advice.

There is a difference between feedback and advice. I think if someone opens their reading by saying I’m not sure about this… or I don’t like this but don’t know how to fix it…then you are OK to offer a suggestion as to how you would mend it. If they don’t then just say what you think. What didn’t work for you and why. Not what didn’t work and why and how you would write it better.  Besides, we wouldn’t write it better, we would write it differently.

So, to summaries writers groups: give them a try. You might like it and even if you don’t you’ll probably gain some very interesting anecdotes. Because writers? They are bonkers. Random and bonkers.

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