We’ve all been told that writing is a solitary activity. Writers must be left alone to able to concentrate, to hear and see and feel their words, so that their stories can be told. Writers are known to hole-up, disappear, hide away. For many of us this becomes a preferred existence. Cut off from distraction we are free to revel in our work and make some gains on the craft we have doggedly pursued for so many years.
But there is a very public aspect to the writing experience as well. Writers do not typically write for absolutely no audience, even if that audience is imaginary and never actually sees the work. Furthermore, we tend to talk about our writing, we tell people we write, and when we do those people become curious. They sometimes want to see what we’ve written. We climb out of a shell and think about the bigger world around us and where our writing fits. We may begin to desire companionship with other writers. We consider taking a writing class or joining a writers group. But then we ask ourselves whether this is wise. Should we risk exposing ourselves to other writers?
There are some very serious considerations a writer should make before joining any writing community. Whether in the class room or a private home, writer’s groups tend to follow all of the normal rules of social interaction: the group looks for a leader, guidelines are established for how the meetings will be run, how materials will be shared, and duties assigned. Very quickly a homogeneous community is established, with an energy and personality all its own. A hierarchy is formed, and those more advanced along the writing path become the darlings of the community, egos inflate and are sometimes crushed, and a style emerges comprised of the attitudes, preferences, and opinions of the group. This is especially dangerous in the class room where the instructor has great influence on the minds of her students. As writing students become familiar with the instructor’s likes and dislikes in the wider literary milieu they will often attempt to cater their style to the professor’s tastes. There are few environments more dangerous to creative spirit, in fact, than the academic setting. Creative writing professors themselves are often frustrated writers, and that frustration can be unwittingly taken out on the student.
Further hazards of the writing group include the general aptitude of the writers themselves. In the attempt to form a successful writers group novice writers of more or less the same level of skill can create for themselves a perpetuating quagmire of mediocrity. The members, being unfamiliar with the tools and importance of good critique, may offer little that is concrete, praising too much in their naive generosity and failing ultimately to provide concrete guidance to themselves or anyone else. Occasionally, in an effort to be helpful, one member may be overly harsh in their critique, and then the spirit of the gathering becomes tarnished. Without the benefit of a more seasoned writer whom everyone trusts, the group may falter or, worse, go on perpetuating mediocrity and inhibiting the growth of any member who is earnestly seeking to develop otherwise.
Still, in recognizing that writing is, after all, a social activity, there are at least as many reasons to join writing groups as there are to avoid them.
Writers need feedback, plain and simple. The most difficult thing next to writing itself is the ability to see clearly what one has written. Having a trusted and intimate audience to share with is invaluable so long as the writer can get viable criticism of the sort that engenders real growth. To this end the writer seeking a group must select wisely. Those experienced with writing groups generally agree that there needs to be a “fit” between a new candidate and an established group, and this is no less true of a completely new group of writers joining together for the first time. By “knowing thyself” a writer will be able to determine whether they are in the right position to benefit from joining any given group.
When considering creative writing classes, everything depends upon the instructor, but bear in mind that, so long as the student writer does not take the whole thing too seriously, there is always something to learn in these courses. For one thing the student writer is very likely to read stories they have never before read. The classroom is also a place to experiment with different genres, techniques, and a great place as well to learn how to properly critique.
The reality of writer collectives persists in every format. There is good and bad, risk and reward. By guarding against the danger of drinking too deeply from the personality of the group, a novice writer benefits from having an immediate audience with which to share their work and receive critique, as well as a place to take risks and overcome fears of “getting out there.” Even a limited environment can be beneficial to the novice because it gets things going. The accountability of deadlines, assignments, an expectant audience, and a regular schedule provides discipline – the most valuable tool of the beginner – so that the deeper growth of voice and style can occur.
So long as the writer can develop some level of self-trust, to know what to take and what to leave out in the criticism (and praise) of others, spending time in a writer’s group can be greatly beneficial.