Finding your own voice as a writer is a huge part of the process of developing your own style. One of the best ways to gauge how you’re doing is to get feedback, and one of the best ways to get feedback is to join a group of writers.
Or at least, I used to think so. Until I met – The Brood.
Okay, they weren’t really called The Brood and they weren’t an actual threat to my existence, however, while there were positive elements to group, there was also a downside. Although I haven’t been a regular member of a similar group since those early days, I’ve come across comparable examples in other creative groups. Here’s a few of the usual ‘types’
This is the person who runs the sessions and, if you’re lucky, is also a published writer – ie someone who actually knows what they’re doing. If you’re unlucky, it’ll be someone who thinks they know what they’re doing, but actually exerts a rather negative influence over the others. This is particularly noticeable in how they tackle the type of criticism allowed within the group. More of that later.
This will be the one person in the group who has actual talent and whose work overshadows everyone else’s like a great big shadowy thing. Their stories will be scintillatingly good, will leave you on the edge of your seat and may well gift you a complex along the lines of ‘I’ll-never-be-able-to-write-like-that. They’re also (usually), extremely pleasant people – talented and nice. Tch.
This is the person who thinks they can write and who insists on foisting their appalling drivel on everyone else. If The Leader is doing their job properly, they’ll allow this person to share some of their work, but not all of it. In the first writers’ group I joined way back in ’92, The Leader was a little too forgiving for my taste and we often sat for long periods while the demon writer poured his filth on our innocent souls.
This is usually someone of the ‘those that can – write. Those that can’t – criticise’ variety. They will often tear a writer to pieces without a thought for that individual’s feelings. Even the incredibly famous are not immune: Mark Twain slagged-off lovely old Jane Austen in this manner:
“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.”
Admittedly, Janey wasn’t alive at the time, but it’s fair to say that criticism is best received when it’s given constructively and without malice, and ideally with a preface along the lines of What I loved about your writing...
So are all writer’s groups a bad idea? Of course not, but some definitely are. The Leader in that first group was perhaps a little too ‘nice’ and tended to let people ramble on when she really should have been telling them to shut the hell up (though obviously using more positive terminology).
My early experience of having one of my scribblings torn apart to the extent that I couldn’t bear to return to the group, probably didn’t do very much for my self-esteem. Consequently, my only membership of such groups since that fateful time, has been in the role of The Leader. Which comes with its own bag of worms…
NB Since writing this, I’ve joined a proper writers’ group – one where enthusiasm, useful criticism and actual talent are in abundance. (Arbroath Writers Circle, if you’re interested).