I’ve been meaning to write a post about the importance of writing groups. You know, how as writers, we need the support of a community of likeminded and similarly inclined insane people (i.e., other writers) to occasionally pull us out of the imaginary worlds spinning around inside our craniums and tell us there is hope and reason to continue. There’s probably some other stuff they do as well.
Then I spotted a recent blog by an Australian writer on the same topic that more or less says much of what I probably would have said. The writer is Kelly Inglis, and the post was titled “Collaboration In The Writing Community.” Here’s the bit I find most pertinent:
Your spouse, sibling, parent or best friend is not likely to give you entirely honest feedback about your beloved manuscript, but a fellow writer and critique partner will. They’ll tell you what works in your story and what doesn’t. They’ll tell you if your dialogue is stilted or if your characters are boring. They can tell you why something doesn’t work, so that you can take their advice and improve your story.
It’s not that your friends and relations aren’t trying to give honest feedback, but rather that they typically don’t have the critical reading skills that as writers we must develop. And it might also be that those well-known to us—best friends, spouses—could be predisposed to like whatever we churn out so that they simply aren’t capable of seeing the flaws.
You need readers who can explain why something isn’t working—as well as why something does work. People with whom you can kick around ideas, brainstorm new directions for a stalled project, people who spark your creativity. Writers need to talk about the craft of writing with other writers who are engaged in the same pursuit.
Beyond the work of critiquing and getting feedback from others, writers need to associate with people who are involved in the game of submission and rejection and resubmission, ad nauseam—sharing viable markets for each other’s work, commiserating together when the whole process feels futile. Most writers probably would rather ignore this business side of being writers, but having a good support group in place can make it more palatable.
For years after I finished my creative writing MFA in 2002, I didn’t complete any new writing, although I occasionally reworked existing pieces or started new stories that I never finished. During those years, I was a writer in isolation. And I had never really thought much about the need for being part of a writing group. Why would I when I wasn’t writing?
Six years ago, around the beginning of the year, I was invited into a small ongoing writing group that met locally. It seemed like a good time for me, so I went. The night after the first meeting I attended, I had vivid dreams. Until then, I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t been dreaming memorably for years, and I blame that lack on not getting the appropriate mental stimulation. Since one evening of talking about writing awakened that part of my brain, I felt pretty good that I was involved with the right people.
Six years later and I’m still part of this great group, and I’m so thankful they invited me. Although it took me quite a while before I reestablished any kind of writing habit, I’m now able to present my own new work to the group along with providing feedback on all the projects others have going on. We might be small, but we are nonetheless a vital community of writers.
Blogging and Twitter and other social media open the door on a whole new world of community for writers to join, and I’m sure there are many useful online critique groups. The world changes, publishing changes, and writers need to change. The actual work of writing will almost always be a solitary activity—the cloistered hopeful banging ceaselessly at the keys, spinning out imaginary worlds into the surrounding ether—but being part of a community of writers can help keep the actual insanity to a minimum.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins