Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writers' Groups, Part I

Writers’ Groups, Part 1

Earlier this week I visited a writers’ group I used to participate in regularly. The group meets weekly in the home of a fellow writer, and we observe certain rituals and practices developed tacitly in the first few weeks. This is the seventh group I’ve participated in since about 1990, which suggests a certain fickleness on my part.

Writers’ groups differ according to the personalities and needs of the members. Because most of the groups I’ve been in have been dominated by women, there is always the danger that we’ll become a support group rather than a critique group, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The first group I joined met in someone’s backyard in early August and comprised a mix of writers—fiction and nonfiction, new and well established. We had no plan, no format, no sense of where we were going, and as I listened to the others talk about what they wanted to accomplish I felt somewhat lost. I had no idea where I was going. I left and joined another group that focused on writing fiction, where I remained until it was disbanded one evening. During the several years I attended, we arrived at five o’clock, sometimes with coffee and something to nibble on but always with something to read. We were serious business. Only on special occasions did anyone bring food to share with the group, as a form of celebration.

After the group ended, two members got together and restarted it but I never rejoined, though I remained friends with many of the members. Instead I joined a group an hour’s drive away, and on the way to my first meeting was hit by a car, whose front end was demolished. It was raining and windy, and the driver was a young man on his way to a job interview. I wince when I think about it—he was unfailingly polite and heart-sick. His front end would cost him at least a couple thousand dollars to repair. I still think of him and his car. That too was a mixed group and all business—no food, no chitchat.

For many years I gave up on groups until someone persuaded me to try one in the next town but one. I did, and they were interesting but very unfocused, and one member asked me if I’d be interested in running for public office. I have no idea why except that she was political and I could write. I quit and drifted into another group with two men and two other women, who seemed to want a counterweight. Each meeting ended with a jointly prepared meal—a unique perk. My participation in that group lasted for a few months and I drifted off again. The last group I was in has been reconstituted at least once and its original members have dispersed throughout the country. This group had its own rituals—wine and munchies and catching up for the first half hour.

Most of the members of these groups have gone on to have some success in publishing. I come across their names on title pages of books, magazine articles, short stories. The title often brings back a discussion about a particularly knotty passage or challenging research, and I’m glad to see the writer made it through to the end.

Each group has been different, but they all had the same purpose—to give each of us the kind of moral support we need to get over the hump of our own self-doubts and excessive modesty. There is, after all, something arrogant about thinking that I have something to say and the rest of the world should hear it. That kind of thinking goes against all my socialization and upbringing. But the drive to write, to get it down on paper, to push it out into the world is stronger than any brainwashing or training. So my books are out there, in part thanks to the many writers who have listened thoughtfully to my work and offered comments and suggestions, but most of all thanks to the tacit support and approval for the mere act of doing the work.

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