Writer’s Groups and Other Worm Bags

Walt_Whitman_by_Mathew_BradyA little while ago, I spouted forth on my experience of writer’s groups. On that occasion I did so from the point of view of being a member of such a group, however, the other bag of worms I mentioned in that post referred to the one held by the person who runs the writing group. So how do things look from that point of view?

Captain, my Captain, thrill me with your acumen…

Apologies for the Walt Whitman/Hannibal Lecter reference (an early poem of mine), but the idea that ‘teacher knows shit’ was a popular opinion during a couple of writing courses I facilitated some years ago. One of the recurring rants consisted of students explaining how their badly-executed piece of prose was simply a reflection on their ‘style’ and should be appreciated as such. There was no reason (they argued) why a writer of their stature should concern themselves with such niceties as spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like.

In these cases, I would point out that good writers tackle such issues as a matter of course, in the same way a plumber ensures a washing machine is properly connected, rather than simply leaving the pipes gushing water all over the floor. This view, naturally, did not always elicit a positive response, and I have found over the years that an awful lot of people who call themselves writers, will continue to trot out the ridiculous ‘it’s the way I write’ mantra as if it will somehow cover up their creative inadequacies.

This horse goes into a bar and the barman says, ‘Why the long face?’

Another theme that regularly prompted histrionics , particularly with flash fiction writing, was how novice writers will often come up with what they consider to be ‘hilarious’ stories. They’d read them out and guffaw like hyenas at their (apparently) side-splitting prose, clearly expecting everyone else in the group (and especially, the tutor) to demonstrate his or her appreciation in the usual way.

It was always hard to know how to react to such examples of unwitty drivel, since humour is a very personal thing, but my fall-back position tended to be to offer gentle encouragement, citing relevant books etc that might help with this type of writing. In other words – avoiding the issue.

Those that can – do, those that can’t…

Since those merry days of leading expectant (and occasionally, very talented) writers towards what I hoped would be a higher standard of literary creations, I rarely give my honest opinion on another writer’s work. While I do write the odd book review (when I generally feel I can say what I like), those times I have given my opinion, it has rarely been warmly received. The last occasion I succumbed to the ‘I’d really like to know what you think’ line, I offered what I thought was honest, though encouraging advice. The writer hasn’t spoken to me since.

So, anyone interested in my opinion on their work, should perhaps first ask themselves if they really want my opinion. And if they do, beware.

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