I’ve been thinking this week about writer‘s groups and just how bad that little pursuit can go for you when you find the wrong one, as I have a couple of times. Usually as a writer you’re the most dreamy, inventive, eccentric, determined person in your little life circle, so when you get together in a group of writers and all your determination and eccentricities clash, the chemical reaction can be explosively awkward. Let me tell you a couple of my writer’s group tales of woe.
The first time I was ever invited into a writer’s group, or had ever considered being in one, I was an undergrad at uni. The guy attempting to set up the group had heard me reading my work out in a workshop class in the red-faced, hurried, stumbling way I always read my own stuff, and had decided I was ‘serious enough about the art’ to warrant invitation to his group. This should have been the first indicator of this man’s deeply rendered shitheadedness, but somehow this escaped me, and I was very keen.
At that time, he was the only other person he considered serious enough about the art to warrant inclusion in the group, so at the inaugural meeting it was just the plump and moustachey founder and I commenting on each other’s work. Baron Von Moustache’s only constructive feedback was that my work ‘was very much like a fine French patisserie: I walk by and I smell the bread baking and I’m allured, but something further needs to happen as the catalyst to my entry, some other inherent welcoming quality’ that he didn’t find in the writing. I asked what he thought I should do to make the work ‘welcoming enough to inspire entry’, swallowing the crude jokes dancing on the back of my tongue. He paused dramatically, fingered his moustache, squinted and said he didn’t know. Great. I told him that I thought the dream sequence at the start of his sci fi short story was intriguing, but that I found it odd that any type of emotion caused his main character to want to throw up. When she’s afraid, ‘bile rises in her throat’. Same when she’s angry. Or nervous. Or lost. Or excited. The sensation occurs again on page five when she sees the leading man for the first time. I wondered aloud with an easy laugh whether the character might benefit from consulting her doctor about acid reflux treatment.
Moustache ended the meeting politely and never contacted me again.
I went looking for my second writing group about a year later, and found them advertised in the back of one of those flimsy local rags wedged between ads for gardening and handyman services. A weekly meeting where authors heard each other’s work and met writing ‘challenges’. It sounded awesome.
I called and enquired and was met with much enthusiasm from the director of the group. He told me they had about ten regular members and that everyone was to bring a plate. I gathered up my best work at the time, printed and rolled it and carried it along with me to a local library, open after hours. When I arrived, I blundered into a room where eight or nine elderly people were sitting sipping hot tea. Before I could back out and find my group, the director, an ancient, liver-spotted skeleton in a massive electric wheelchair told me that I had indeed found it. I placed my Lamingtons on the side bench sat uncomfortably at the end of the table while the first member continued reading their work. Rhyming bush poetry. A jumbuck and a jackeroo and a sunburnt, dusty plain. I listened with my back teeth locked. There was applause and praise. The second lady, pushing seventy and trembling as she held her paper, read hers. More rhyming bush poetry. Magpies and sunlit kitchens, possums playing joyously in the eucalypts. Wattle. Bubbling creeks. I looked at my knees and tried to settle my stomach. The applause again. I clapped along, tried to guess how old the youngest member was. Sixty, from the eyeshadow and the perm. When it was my turn their watery, yellowed eyes fell on me and I tried to laugh off the fact that I hadn’t realised it was a poetry group. It wasn’t, they assured. They accepted all works on all themes in all genres, and they’d noticed I had brought something and wanted to hear it. I laughed again, wheezed, and said I didn’t want to. More cries of protest. I submitted and read a short story I’d written about a fidgety psychopath sitting in a cafe two tables down from the grisly, alcoholic detective investigating his very own case: a series of brutal rapes and murders, the bodies dumped in bushland. ‘So I got the bush theme,’ I chuckled when I’d finished. There was an asphyxiating silence in the room. The man in the wheelchair was clutching his chest and sweating.
It’s not often that I’ve felt myself ‘belonging’ around other writers, but when I do, it’s because I haven’t read their work and they haven’t read mine. I know a few writers, and what we really connect on is that seemingly biological craving to tell stories, to invent things, to turn life into narrative and narrative into life. I find the competition addictive also – I was raised in a huge, chaotic family, so the need to be ‘better’ than everyone else all the time is something that pulses in my every waking minute, like a neurosis. I have a pathetic need to be ‘the winner’ all the time. But around my writer friends it pushes me to write. I talk to other writers and play on their own one-upmanship, about a novel completed or an idea fully formed or a nibble on the line from a publisher.
Rarely have I found another writer who actually informs my work or even genuinely wants to.
I enjoy them merely for the fact that they share my love of the page – but more than a group of critiquers, we’re like a posse of reeking booze-hounds in the TAB comparing betting cards, cheering, glancing over shoulders, sneaking side-long glances, egging each other on with dripping sarcasm and congratulating each other with rolled eyes through clouds of cigarette smoke. A writer’s group might work for you, but I warn you against the desire of others to gather an audience for their own work rather than encourage you in yours, and the danger of bursting into a group (much like into a date) without sitting on the sidelines for a moment or two quietly gathering reconnaissance. I challenge you to limit your groups or partnerships to those who you itch to share your work with, whether their criticism will be cutting or thrilling, because your good writer friends will cut you now and then, as much as they love you, and they will understand you as much as they differ in their own style. If you’re not a sharer, like me, I implore you to hang out only with those writers who make you laugh, make your stomach clench with a desire to be better, make you rush home and wrench open your laptop and slam the keys. Because if you don’t feel this way, then it’s all just egos and coffee underneath all the laughter and the back-patting. And who the hell’s got time for that?