Saturday, 16 September 2017

Writing Groups - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I've been attending writing groups since I was in University doing my first degree, so for around 25 years. For me they are a necessary tool of creative writing. No matter how much time I spend writing on my own, editing and refining a piece, I need feedback to really see if it works. 

Writing in isolation can blind you to obvious mistakes. I read my pieces out loud and this helps point out a lot of weak areas, but speaking to others about my characters, my intentions and my process helps me know when a poem is ready to fly out on its own and when a chapter fits into my greater scheme of a novel. 

But finding a group that works for me is always a game of trial and lots of error. When I was in University or in a big city in Scotland I was spoiled for choice. If one group didn't work out, I could always hunt around and find another. I've done the gambit of different groups, in pubs, libraries, community centres, through courses with total beginners and experienced writers. I've had great experiences and total failures, but they haven't put me off trying to find a new one when I need it. 

Each group has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some can lean too heavily towards one genre: fiction, sci-fi, poetry and if you don't share that interest, it won't be a right fit for you. Nothing worse than being the only poet in a group full of fiction writers who insist they don't understand poetry and have nothing to say about it. Some focus on group critiques, lots of sharing of work and giving feedback. Others prefer a more practical approach with prompts and writing exercises, discussions on craft, guest speakers. If you can find a group that combines these two, you're doing well. 

But there's also the atmosphere of the group to consider, built-up by the main participants, the loudest voices. I've been to groups where they never wanted to hurt the writer's feelings, so there it was less critique and more of a love fest. Anything that suggested the piece wasn't perfect was immediately smothered with flowers and candy. This doesn't help the writer improve their work. 

Other groups can be too negative, too full of 'fix-its' as a past fiction mentor of mine used to say, the readers totally rewriting the piece in their image. The writer then lacks confidence in their abilities and doesn't trust their own gut. You need to be able to speak up in defence of the lines of poetry you love, the characters who you understand more than anyone and not be shouted down. You need willing ears as well as vocal critics. 

A group should be able to maintain a balance of positive reinforcement on what is going right in the piece and neutral critical feedback about what isn't. Neutral in the sense of not telling the writer that something is wrong, but that you as a reader are not getting the impact of that section, mood, character, line. The critic shouldn't tell them how to fix it, unless the writer asks, and shouldn't insist that it is wrong or needs to be changed. It's hard to do as we have opinions we want to share, but they need to be aware of the writer's needs, not to have their writing which is often very close to the bone torn apart, but understood as a fluid thing that is still developing with a lot of the writer's hopes and ambitions attached. 

The writer should always have the chance to explain their intention, answer any questions and ask their own or if they prefer just accept the feedback and go home to ponder it. 

Finding a writing groups in Finland has been much more difficult as I'm much more limited in my choices. The language barrier is the biggest issue, writers here work in Finnish or Swedish and I just couldn't keep up. And poetry is hard enough to understand in your native language, I wouldn't get in-depth feedback unless their English was pretty impeccable. 

I did try and start my own English language writing group, twice. But as my main pool of writers were immigrants who were not permanent to the country, both groups fizzled out when the members moved on. I also disliked being the only leader, I felt I couldn't bring my own work too often. I prefer to be a participant. 

My mentor from earlier in the year recommended a private online poetry group which I was quite keen on. I've never been in an online group that wasn't connected to a course or in a group just made up of poets. I had high hopes. I've been starving for connection with poets, reading others work and sharing mine with people who can understand. 

I've found that sharing work online is too loose. There's no deadlines, no show up at a certain time and give feedback, so people dip in as they please, comment on what they want. They have the good policy that you had to respond to two other poems before you could post your own, so I jumped in commenting on new posts and eventually adding my own poems. 

I know I'm the new guy but I felt my work was just not considered. The site has this annoying function where you can see how many people view a post and how many comment and the discrepancy between the two is frustrating, especially in the summer when you think no one's commenting because they're not around and you then see that they are looking at your post, just deciding for whatever reason not to comment. I just haven't felt part of the community yet, but I plough on. I may just need more time to find my fit. 

I've also started last week attending the local university's writing group organised by the English Department's students. They say that they have that nice mix of submitting work and more practical sessions that I mentioned earlier. There is also seems to be a good mix of fiction, screen and poetry (I'm told, I haven't heard any yet) writers. I'm a lot older than most of the writers, but it's nice to part of a real life group again. to discuss writing in a passionate way. I've really missed it. 

So test the waters of your local group. If that one doesn't fit, try another. It's a great way to build your confidence, get personalised help with your writing and to make friends with the same interests. And if you're interested in publishing it can be a good way to get info and build contacts. 

Writing groups take the writer out of their lonely attic and gives them a community. Do give it a try.