Like many writers, I’m an introvert. You won’t find me at a party unless a close friend drags me there. It’s not that I don’t like people – I do. But I much prefer to interact with them one on one, rather than in batches. I don’t like joining groups or serving on committees or even being part of a class. I think this has probably put me at a disadvantage over the years.
As a writer I’m mostly self-taught. (Actually, I think all writers are fundamentally self-taught – but that’s another topic.) I didn’t major in English in college. And though I eventually earned an MFA to qualify me to teach, I didn’t do it until many years after I’d been published. As a result, I didn’t become part of a network of literary writers or spend time breathing the rarefied air of literary criticism. And I avoided writers’ groups like the plague.
It wasn’t that I didn’t give them a try. Over the years, I attended several writer’s conferences and workshops, where faculty and fellow writers almost all recommended writers’ groups. They’ll give you the support you need to stay disciplined in your writing, they argued. You’ll make yourself sit down and do it when you know you have a deadline.
But that wasn’t my problem. I knew that I had to write regularly, not because of an arbitrary deadline, but because if I didn’t I knew I’d feel hollow inside. When I did try joining writers’ groups I rarely found the feedback useful, usually because the other participants were being too kind or were beginners, still learning basic fiction-writing techniques. (I’ve also heard of some groups that are overly critical, which is far more damaging to the writer.)
When I moved back to Vermont a few years ago, I decided to try again. It seemed like a good way to get to know people in the area who shared my interest in writing. I was invited into a poetry group led by my aunt, a gifted and accomplished poet, and eventually was invited into another group as well. I also found my way into a fiction writing group of MFA graduates, including one of my classmates. All three groups have offered insightful comments on my work, and I’ve enjoyed giving my two-cent’s-worth as well.
But the fact is that I’m at a very different point in my writing career than I was back when I attended writers’ conferences and workshops. I’ve honed my skills through years and years of obsessive reading and writing, and I’ve found my voice. I’m no longer worried about being influenced by advice that points me in the wrong direction. I’ve also learned how to take criticism, how to see it as helpful feedback for the sake of the work itself rather than an attack on my self-worth. And for most writers that takes time and experience. Lots of it.
So, while I don’t avoid writers’ groups anymore, I still think there are limits to their usefulness. Especially for the serious writer. It’s important to remember that writing is, by nature, a solitary undertaking. And that the time spent reading and discussing other people’s work-in-progress is time that must be taken from something else – all too often, writing time.
None of this is to suggest that writers don’t need feedback. We do. In fact, it’s an essential part of the writing process, provided by agents and editors as well as close writing friends – often on an individual basis. But groups involve another, social, dynamic that can distract from the work itself, and even sacrifice rigor on the altar of social cohesion.
All of that being said, there is a place for writer’s groups. They can provide valuable support and reassurance. They can affirm a writer’s direction, and/or help a writer see where he or she has taken a wrong turn. They can offer a corrective for a writer who’s too self-critical of her own work.
But they can also become unintentionally and subtly tyrannical. A common problem can arise when group members come to know each other so well that they can predict what fellow members will say about their work. This “writing to the group” can actually keep a writer from exploring new forms and subjects. If you’re in a writing group and you find yourself hesitating to write something because you know one of the group’s members will dislike or won’t understand what you’re trying to do, it’s time to leave the group.
It’s also important for a writer to find other writers working at approximately the same level. If your experience and training have enabled you to master dialogue, for example, it won’t benefit you much to spend time reading and critiquing a work that doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the fundamentals of how to write effective conversation.
So here’s my advice about joining a writer’s group:
- Know why you want to join, and figure out if it matches the group’s main goal.
- Don’t expect a group to substitute for the demanding discipline of solitary writing.
- Don’t stay in a group where you feel your work isn’t respected.
- Don’t join a group where no one is working on your level.
- If, while you’re actually writing, you’re mindful of whether or not your group will like what you’re working on, it’s probably time to find a new group.
- Don’t take seriously the advice or critique of any group member unless it’s something that makes so much sense you wish you’d thought of it yourself.
Good luck! And happy writing!