Who Needs Writers’ Groups?

Like Murakami, I tend to draw parallels between running and writing.  I did quite a bit of running when I was in school, but then forgot about it for years and returned to it fairly recently.  I am a long distance runner, not a sprinter (and I see myself as a novelist rather than a short story writer or a poet).  I am an avid consumer of magazines and books about improving your running and writing skills.

But, despite all advice to the contrary from these magazines, I do not have a running partner.  I prefer to run on my own.  Maybe it’s because I use running as a way to clear my head, maybe it’s because I am too embarassed that I may not be able to keep up with other runners, but I have steadfastly avoided running clubs. And the few wild stabs at running with a partner have ended in miserable defeat: one got pregnant, one fell and dislocated her hip, one ran off in the woods without me… and I have sprained my ankle three times on such occasions. Must be the multitasking (running and talking at the same time)!

Same with my writing.  I was doing fine on my own, thank you very much! No need to share.  However, in running, I did notice after a while that, if I did not have a race deadline or an accountability partner (a coach or a knowledgeable running partner), I began to slacken.  I began to find excuses for not running. I suffered from injuries. I stopped entering races.  You can see how this analogy is going.  I began to fear that my ‘ivory tower writing’ was making me self-complacent, self-absorbed and completely cut off from the realities of writing life.  A crippled, lazy, eternally unpublished, armchair runner/author.

I had been too afraid, too ashamed, hyper-sensitive and nervous to join a writing group.  Until I started this blog, I had hardly ever shown my work to anyone (and I made sure that I told no one how to find this blog at first).  Then the readers, the likes and the comments started coming in.  I began to think: ‘There, sharing your work with others is not that bad after all!’  Now, I know you are all nice folk out there, who bother to comment if you have something nice to say.  Otherwise you just move on to the next webpage or website. So it’s not representative of the ‘real’ world.

But I had made a start.  I was no longer quite so private, quite so timid.  I thought it was time to face my demons (and no, I am not referring to the other writing group members here). There is a rather well-established writers’ group in my area, one that organises conferences and invites well-known writers to run workshops, but I’m still working my way up to that level of public scrutiny.  Instead, I found a very local sub-set of this group.  We meet at someone’s house in idyllic conditions: a converted blacksmith’s cottage with a sunny terrace overlooking a stream. It’s a small group and each of us has about 20 minutes for reading and debating. It was my first proper meeting this weekend just passed, and perhaps they were all being especially nice and friendly, so as not to scare off the newcomer.

What I had feared most (other than being ripped to shreds upon reading the first paragraph or stanza), was that the experience would be useless.  In other words, that the other participants would be too polite, making all the right noises, nodding and agreeing, but giving me nothing to work with, no constructive feedback.  Or else that they would just like or dislike something at a visceral level, offering no reasons, no suggestions for improvement.

So, in other words, I feared blandness and rejection.

Instead, I discovered some interesting people, fascinating stories and poems, beautiful images and language…  and really helpful remarks.  Such as: ‘I’m stumbling a little when reading this line, is it the punctuation mark that makes all the difference?’  ‘How about breaking the lines down this way, would that open it up?’  ‘If you cut the first sentence out,  or even the first paragraph, would this story lose anything?’

Yes, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty advice that makes one leave with a (good) furrow in your brow and a sizzle in your belly.  Especially when it’s followed by a ‘I love the joy, the sound, the colour of this piece.  I want to read more!’  I look forward to reading and listening more.  Here’s to conquering your fears and to continuous improvement!