I can’t be the only writer who drags their feet to every session of their local writers’ group, wholly apprehensive, forcing themselves to believe that this meeting will be better than all the others, after all of which they swore they’d never go again? Oh, the temptation each month to just go home after work and order a pizza, but no, I say to myself every time, if I’m a writer, I should act like a writer and go along: these resources are, after all, provided for my benefit. Within five minutes of getting through the door, however, I’m desperate to run off and never return, as earlier anticipated. It’s not just me who feels this way about their local writers’ group, is it?
It’s such a good idea in theory. Writing is a lonely craft, characterised by frequent, hand-wringing solitude and small achievements, hard won and little appreciated, so it makes sense that occasionally it would be good to get out of your house and head and into the company of some like-minded people. Maybe you could even try your stuff out on others to receive their useful, constructive criticism, and bond most glamorously over how hard yet rewarding it is to be an artist in the modern age? You could sit together in a haze of cigarette smoke, debating the issues of the day, whilst bolstering the confidence and optimism of the collective, and then all go off and achieve great things, so people can look back and go, ‘ah, yes, and here’s a photo of the XX Writers’ Group in 20XX; there’s this well-known-writer and there’s another well-known-writer…it’s amazing to imagine that they were once friends.’
As you may have guessed however, this is not my experience of the writers’ group.
First, I must give you some context. I live in a small city on the UK’s south coast, which is marooned upon an island, only connected to the mainland by a small, tributary motorway. This city is wonderful, I imagine, if you like boats, industry, sea-faring and almost being able to see France across the water, but it is not big on culture or the arts. Efforts are made, but no. Not now. Not yet. This is not a place that people move to ignite and further their writing careers. This is a place that people end up in, get stuck in, have to move back to (FYI, I live here because my husband is in the military.) It’s an island in every sense. This means, of course, that there is only one small monthly writer’s group, which generally goes a little like this:
One arrives on time, which is late, because the leading members of the group know each other so well that they assemble half an hour beforehand in the pub opposite and then come over to the venue en masse, so when you arrive alone, you are, by default, late. The initial welcome is minimal as most outside-clique communication is non-verbal: for instance, there might be an up-and-down gaze taking you in, assessing genre preference and commercial threat, or the movement of a bag for your benefit, so the writer’s magazines sticking ostentatiously out of the top might be better seen; also, it’s not unusual to wait five minutes for your complimentary cup of tea because a group member is chatting at length to the bar staff to subtly remind everyone that the venue we’re in once put on one of their plays. All initial interaction is designed to establish a scale of success, of artistic merit, of artiste’s anguish, and to nurture the idea that everyone else there is doing much better than you. Which is what makes it all rather entertaining, of course: this little island city, this vortex of energy and ambition, is a place where artistic dreams seldom begin, occasionally malinger and often die. There are no Booker Prizes winners here.
After initial assessments have been made, we normally settle down to an enthusiastic welcome from the group’s organisers, which usually total around a fifth of the session’s attendees. This welcome all but drips with the casual notion that they’re wildly successful – the reason that providence has chosen them to lead the group, you understand – and that they know everyone’s name and raison d’être except yours. The guest speaker then begins, which is more often than not my reason for continually attending the group, in spite of my experience. Once we had a poet who’d done a residency in a prison (fascinating), another time we had an agent who looked very confused when asked at what point writers should stop doing work for free (umm…). This takes up maybe half of the session. Then comes the meat of the meeting: the ‘social’ time.
I believe the idea is that we might mingle like grown-ups, building relationships, contacts and collaborations in a mutually beneficial fashion, but in reality this is the moment the snake pit starts to writhe in anticipation of young and naïve blood. You see, if you’re new to the group, you have not yet answered the three questions most sacred to all ‘socialising’ writers, which are as follows:
- ‘So, what are you working on right now?’
- ‘Do you work in the arts?’
- ‘And, are you published?’
All are asked with raised, sceptical eyebrows and an air of disinterest and utter disdain.
In my experience, one can go one of two ways with this: one can brazen it out with honesty and self-respect, looking the questioner in the eye and exuding equally disinterested self-assurance, or one can officially ingratiate oneself into the clique by belittling any and all achievements of one’s life to date, opening one’s eyes wide enough to imply that only the help of the more talented (here the questioner smiles) will enable you to succeed. It’s also helpful to look about the same age as the person asking the questions, as any years of negative age advantage make you all but completely unlikeable to everyone in the room. Satisfied with their superiority, presuming you took the low road, you will then be introduced to the next person, who will do exactly the same, until you’ve circumnavigated the room, discharged at the end of it assessed and unharmed. If you don’t comply, however, one is left to die by the coffee machine until tears are shed or the room booking ends. Really, the choice is yours.
To any budding writer though, the guest speakers are not the only reason to keep going: the characters one finds there are a gift. A gift, I tell you, of Dickensian proportion and exquisite horror and charm.
Off the top of my head, this small writing group contains: a middle-aged lady who comes each month rolling-eyed-drunk, heckles the speakers and then lumbers around like the Ghost of Christmas Past, wafting bitterness like the most stale of perfumes. Once, after heckling a self-published author to the point where he felt compelled to sit down and not take any more questions, someone felt compelled to explain to me that this woman had once had a manuscript accepted and then unceremoniously dropped whilst in her twenties, and that she’s never gotten over it. I present to you, the Miss Havisham of writers’ groups; I’m sure she’s not the only one.
Also, there is a chap who talks at length about the creative advantages of hypnotism, and a recent retiree who writes such violent erotic literature that he’s been asked not to enter into certain competitions again, and told me once (standing very close) that he thinks women don’t know what they want sexually until a man tells them, so women don’t think they like his writing, but then realise that they do…
As my friend Amber succinctly puts it, ‘a writer without a sense of humour is a terrible thing.’ There is no humour here. Also, very little sharing of work goes on – I certainly have never read anything that anyone else has written, and have never been asked to submit – which I imagine is because everyone is just too damn insecure to stand up and face it, and that if a key ego was wounded, the whole house of cards would fall.
So, I despair. I was talking to someone at a party the other day, and she told me, much to my alarm, that her writing group in London is the same, and that the writing world is divided into writers’ groups that are excellent but impossible to get into, and the writers’ groups who take everyone else. My writers’ group is one that takes everyone, and it seems, so is hers.
But is yours? That is the question. In fact, this is where all of you come in, lovely Side B readers: is your writers’ group like this? Is it better? Is it worse? Is work shared and criticised in a way that helps you progress and build creative relationships?
Or are all groups like this?
Honest opinion would be most appreciated, for the sake of either nurturing a small hope for me in groups elsewhere, or for finally putting away my childish things and accepting an incontrovertible truth…