Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing Groups—Be Afraid, Be very Afraid

Recently, I got into an argument with a writer who was raving about her writing group. She waxed poetic about the support she felt, the valuable input (though some advice conflicted), the feeling of connection she felt and all the other warm fuzziness that comes with being with like-minded people.

So, what was there there to argue about? Well, my response to her was, "Quit the thing immediately."

That kind of set her off and so the argument began. Now, granted, I can be a bit snippy and self-righteous when I get all in a tizzy about something. I tried to cool my jets, but her effusive love affair with her writing group pushed too many of my buttons. So, we argued, and in any such argument, there are never winners, just losers. She wasn't bad or wrong in her devotion, nor was I in my cynicism. But, that got me thinking ... was there some happy medium between her "true-believer" status and my "file for divorce" mindset? What was the bigger picture here?

I found myself reviewing all the reasons why I hate writing groups. In a nutshell, I find them to be anything but helpful to writers. Most of the participants are bad writers to begin with and have no real experience or expertise to offer other writers. Members typically are unpublished, unschooled in writing craft themselves (that's why they're in a group), and they almost never know how to give constructive criticism. Input from group members usually falls into three categories: empty praise, vicious critiques, or banal suggestions. I also find that, over time, familiarity within the group, between members, begins to undermine any real advice that might be offered, as cliques form, power struggles arise, and rivalries fester as the "good" writers battle against the "bad" writers. After a year or so, the group inevitably resembles more "Rome before the fall," rather than some harmonious group of supportive and objective writers.  

And then there is the simple logic of it:  members of any writing group are normally on the same level, when it comes to craft, as other members.  It's rare that you ever get one or two members who are "stars" and know more than the group as a whole.  So, what is the point of being there?  Do you really want to get story feedback from people who are at the same level as you, when they don't know substantially more than you, or don't have any more expertise than you?  Again, what is the point?  If you're looking for positive feedback, call your mother.  If you want real story feedback, call a professional; groups won't deliver what you really need: insightful, experienced, and objective input. (Now, obviously, there are writing groups that work. But, I believe these to be rare and anomalies of freak chance.)

There is, however, an even more fundamental reason why writing groups should be thought of as crimes against nature. Writing is not a group sport. Writing is a solitary and isolated process. Every writer I know who has any success in the field has complained to me, on their Face Book page, or through other public forums how miserable they are during the writing of a book; how lonely, how despairing, and riddled with fear and doubt. Well—welcome to the writing life! Joining a group to avoid this reality is simply not going to work. Writing process, as I have often said, is the literary equivalent to water boarding. A writing group will not save you from the sensation of drowning that awaits you when you leave its warm and fuzzy folds. Just deal with it and know that it will not kill you and that you will come out the other end. The group will only give you misdirection, premature or undeserved praise, and ultimately prolong your torture.

So, I guess, for me, there is no middle ground, no bigger picture that might serve as a basis for feeling okay about writing groups. For me the issue is productivity and process. I think you are just on your own when it comes to both. What should you do instead, if you are truly looking for useful input and advice? There are several more productive and realistic alternatives to writing groups:

  • Readers: Develop a group of trusted readers who will not tell you what you want to hear, but who will tell you the truth. Preferably people who love to read and who you don't know, or know very little. Give them specifics on what you are looking for with input and let them go at it. This will be real-world advice you can use.
  • Editors: Find a great line editor and a great developmental editor. Line editors clean up your basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. they also conform your text to Chicago Manual of Style conventions (or whatever style guide you use). Developmental editors give you the story and structure feedback most writing groups are clueless about. These are people who may not be good writers, but they are great storytellers and they will help you become a better storyteller. Worth their weight in gold when you find them.
  • Classes: Read everything you can on how to write and take every class you can afford. This can be a black hole of your time as well, if you are not careful, but there are some great story and writing teachers out there who can arm you with new tools and help you with learn how to survive the water board. Listen to everyone, follow no one! As I always say, you are your own guru and teacher, ultimately. Many poo poo classes, but I say try them, you might like them. How are these different than writing groups? Classes end!
I know that there are many writers who will read all of this and feel compelled to come to the defense of their writing group. Feel free to do so. I have great respect for loyalty. But, consider that for all the time you will wast driving back and forth to group meetings, kibitzing before and after meetings, listening to other peoples stories and self-absorbed criticisms you could be writing at home and getting pages done. Maybe bad pages, but so what. Your first draft is always shit anyway. Everybody's first draft sucks. Join a group if you must; just know that it will take more than it gives and, when all is said and done, leave you feeling like you need a shower.

Now, go be brilliant.

No comments: