On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
by Alexander Slagg
Writing Groups — or, Craziness Loves Company
“I wouldn’t join any group that would have me as a member.”
— Groucho Marx
Writing is a solitary business most of the time. We go off to write in our little corner of the apartment or maybe to a coffee house—some people are born with the mutant ability to write in pubs while downing a pint. While there may be people (or pets) on the periphery, most of us need some degree of solitude to tap into our creativity and write. You need to be able to concentrate, pick through your thoughts, choose the right combination of words to express what you’re trying to say.
So why on earth would someone choose to join a noisy group of neurotic, self-absorbed writers who get together every so often to jabber on about the books they’ve read and dismantle each other’s work? I’ve asked myself that question on occasion while driving home from some of my writer’s group meetings.
Over the years I’ve participated in three or four different groups with varying degrees of commitment. And with each group, I’ve reached that point where I question why I continue showing up. I’d complain. Comments on my work were often scattershot: some reviewers were on target in their feedback while others consistently revealed that they didn’t have time to read it in any great detail.
Every group had a member that dominated the comments portion of a review. Every group had a member that never participated in the comments portion of a review. Every group had a member whose comments, while ostensibly about your work, were really focused on their favorite topic—themselves.
Writing groups can be messy. But I think they serve a valuable purpose in the life of any writer. While we may write in solitude, our work cannot exist in solitude. A writer’s creative output is an extension of that person out into the world. It’s one end of a conversation that the writer is having with an audience. That audience could be the world at large or it could be a specific person.
And above all, it’s an optimistic gesture. As introverted and self-focused as many of us are, writing is a way of reaching out to others. It’s the yang to our ying personality. Participating in a writing group (ideally) offers a safe, neutral venue of like-minded artists to present your work and receive valuable feedback in response.
You may not like everyone in your writing group. You certainly won’t like all of their comments. But that, in essence, is life. Creating something and pushing it out into the world is not a guaranteed lovefest. It takes courage. Different people with different opinions about art will read your work differently—as they should.
But among the variety of responses, a writer is guaranteed to receive some feedback of value. Comments that directly point out a weakness; praise for a facet of your writing you weren’t aware was good—some insight that you can take away and think about as you continue working on that piece.
There are writers that can and do work in a vacuum. Many of our literary heroes did this (or at least the myths built up around them tell us so)—brave, locomotive souls that never shared their work with anyone until they were ready to be “discovered” by a publisher. This requires a great deal of fortitude and courage, more than I possess. And really, the process of writing is difficult enough as it is.
If you’re barricaded in your own fortress of solitude, maybe it’s time to step outside and meet a few people. You may or may not become buddies with everyone you meet, but you’ll certainly take something valuable away from the experience. And your writing will thank you.
Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at email@example.com.