I always considered myself kind of a lone critter. I’ve never enjoyed group work, and I find it difficult to work without privacy… either the privacy of an empty apartment, or the privacy sometimes afforded to us in public places. It’s one of the primary reasons I now prefer to live alone, and possibly one of the reasons that I preferred for so long to live with roommates.
But if the only voice you listen to is your own, your work steadily becomes more and more self-referential, and eventually ceases to add to the cultural dialogue. This makes us creatively obsolete. What becomes obvious is that we cannot work in continuous solitude, a tortured soul hammering at a typewriter beneath the bare, swinging lightbulb of our own desperate inspiration.
Creativity exists not in the generation of ideas, but in the synthesis of disparate parts into new wholes. One must gather the parts, and one does this through a deliberate choice to participate in society. On the production end, it’s vital for us to understand that our ideas, narratives, and sentences do not spring fully formed and beautiful from our brains. Rather they stagger forth from our skulls like chicks from the egg, sticky, weak, clumsy, and weirdly ugly, but showing a kind of promise.
They need help. If you leave that little bird on its own, it will get cold and die. If you nurture it, however, it will have a chance to grow wings.
So we must enlist help from the outside.
The first group I tried was not a good cultural fit. Only two of the group of five got through the submission I provided. Some claimed it was too long, but it was the same length as the other submissions, and followed submission guidelines for the group. They weren’t interested in anything other than strict genre-based fiction.
The next group was a mistake altogether… they weren’t workshopping at all, just drinking wine and reading aloud what they’d written to a round of polite applause.
I was about to give up, when an idea came to me. I got in touch with a friend and colleague and asked:
Why don’t we start out own?
And we did.
And it’s perfect.
That’s one of the great things about writers groups, is they’re by nature small, because at some point the volume of work the group must get through in each session becomes impractical. That means your town or city can support as many of these groups as it needs.
So here are some of the things my writers group does for me, and your writers group should do for you:
They will help you workshop your writing. My group has literally had the punishing task of going through a novel of mine chapter by chapter, providing notes throughout each step. They will help you to realize that that sentence that you loved just doesn’t work and was never as pretty as you thought it was. They will tell you in glowing terms what part of what you’ve written really does work.
They will share in your frustrations and in your triumphs. They have either been there, or are all too aware that they will have been there at some point in their lives.
They are uniquely capable of understanding the trials of being a writer. When I was all fired up about a project, I tried talking to some of my civilian friends about it. I thought, these people are smart, they read, they’ll get it.
No. Nobody who isn’t a fiction writer is interested in hearing anything about your book until it’s finished and available for purchase. They don’t want to hear about character dynamics, or the structure of the narrative. It’s not that they’re not smart, good people, it’s that this is a conversation that they cannot participate in with you as equals. They cannot perform literary analysis on a book that they haven’t read. Moreover, they do not care, and honestly, they shouldn’t.
But your writers group will be interested. Or they’ll at least pretend to be, because the next time they leap from bed scrambling for a pad of paper to write a new idea down on, they’re going to need someone to talk to about it.
They will help you refine ideas before the first draft is even started. The writers group is a crack team of people who have experience creating stories, and if you go to them saying, “I want to do x, but I have a problem with y,” they will help you brainstorm a solution.
They are capable of the kind of brutal honesty that in strictly social circles would be considered rude. They will tell you if what you’re working on is a dead end, and they will tell you if what you see as a particularly clever conceit is just a tired cliche. They can see what you’ve produced without the rosy fog that sometimes clouds your own vision, and they will use that ability to help you.
Their most important role, however, is arguably that they will never tell you to stop. No matter how much mediocrity you put in front of them, they will encourage you to try again and try again until things are working.
So to those in my writers group, who have taught me more then the entirety of my formal education, I say thank you. And to anyone out there struggling in the directionless sea, I say, find yourself a good writers group. Or hell, just make one yourself.