Writing group: Stay or go?
I do not often join writing groups. I have never been group-oriented and after teaching group communication for years, I am well aware of how the group’s dynamic is shaped—for better or worse—by individual members. (In an early post, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I listed the types of difficult members sometimes found in a writing group.)
But I was interested when I read an ad about a writing group that operates from a local neighbourhood centre. Last Thursday, I traveled up the mountain highway through fog and mist to the group’s first meeting this year. My intention was to sit in on one session and decide if it would be useful and enjoyable.
If you are thinking of forming or joining a writing group, what important elements should you look for?
If a group is new, you must be prepared for a settling-in period, sometimes rocky, when more time may be spent on developing the group’s practices and not working on writing.
A group that has functioned a very long time may have its own problems. It may have become so structured or in-bred that it does not welcome new members or new ideas.
This group I visited has apparently been going for years. The first meeting seemed harmonious and new people were welcomed.
It often helps if a writing group has a formal leader, someone to set assignments and keep the group dynamics positive. Some writing groups pay for a professional to lead them. Others are founded by one person who then assumes leadership, for better or worse. And sometimes the ‘leader’ is a how-to book that the group follows for its assignments.
The group I visited has a long-time leader who was organised and also kept control of the group without being heavy-handed.
A group needs a critical mass. If it has fewer than 6 people, group activities may be difficult to continue on the days when only 2-3 people show up. A group with more than 10-15 members has less time to discuss each person’s work.
The group I visited usually has 10 regulars and 5-10 sporadics. The meeting started with a dozen people but by the end, 20 people had crammed into the room. On top of this, some people sent their apologies, which suggests even more people could appear at the next meeting. The number of people could be a problem.
Interests and aims
Is it important that a group includes people you like spending time with? Only you can decide. I believe it helps if people in the group share similar writing goals and interests, and also if they generally are on par in terms of what they know about writing and how motivated they are to write and improve.
Some groups focus on external recognition, e.g., winning competition and publishing. Other groups focus on support and creativity, and the emphasis is more on writing than rewriting.
On the basis of one meeting, I cannot say much about the aims of the group. The leader said people should enjoy writing on its own and not get hung up chasing the almost impossible goal of publishing. From this, I am guessing that most of the members use the group to explore their creativity, share their writing, meet new people, and have fun. I have no idea how many wish to do anything beyond this.
Some groups stick to critiquing each other’s work. Others try out writing activities and assignments.
The session I attended included some discussion about writing, two writing prompts we undertook in the session, and a writing assignment due at the next meeting. The prompts were stimulating, and it was fun hearing how different people responded.
Presenting material and getting feedback
In the last writing group I was in, we emailed our material so that others had time to read and reflect. In other groups, members never see the other members’ material but only hear it read out loud.
In this group, the procedure is for people to read out, plus provide a hard copy for everyone else. I like reading material on my own first, but can see how reading and responding immediately keeps a group moving along, rather than getting bogged down in intense feedback.
In providing feedback, the emphasis in this group is on what people like. If you do not like a piece or something about it, you keep quiet. In this first session, feedback was short and general.
Frequency of meetings
It was only at the end of the session that I realised this group meets weekly. My former group met monthly. Now I knew why this group is focused on poetry and short prose pieces (600 words max.).
Stay or go?
As I drove home, I pondered whether to stay with the group or not.
With the drive and session, it means 3 hours a week, plus time each week writing an assignment to read out. I asked myself these questions:
Do I want to write assignments that probably will not link in with my other writing?
Will I get new information? New ways of thinking about writing? Will it be a chance to learn? Or will it be enjoyable, comfortable—but not provide anything new or interesting for me?
The group apparently writes lots of poetry, from haiku to Elizabethan sonnets. Writing poetry again is tempting, but is this enough of a drawcard for me?
I am used to a critique-based writing group. Am I willing to to be in a group where members do not give this kind of feedback?
At this point, I don’t know the answer to these questions, so I’ve decided to attend and participate in another 3 sessions. After that, I will weigh up the advantages and disadvantages and make a decision.