I’ve been to a few writing groups. If you’re a writer you probably have too. If you’re a very new writer, maybe you haven’t. Sometime, considering the web and resources like Meetup.com, webgroups, or old-fashioned networking, you will probably find your way to one.
Some groups are structured, and are run with discipline, more like classes. An organizer or facilitator may give out assignments to do on the spot or to bring back later; he or she may teach about certain aspects of writing. If you’ve never been to a creative writing class or if you like this type of structure, this may be for you. I’d say every aspiring writer should hit at least one of these groups. The downside is that you may end up eternally in student mode, ever believing that you have something more to learn before you can “be an author.”
Poppycock. Move on from that as soon as the learning curve flattens. Start creating.
Other groups, “read and critique” groups, are much more useful. These tend to have a mix of excellent to poor writers. By attending and reading your own work and critiquing others, you will get a rough but fair idea of where you fall on this scale of competence and creativity.
If everyone is applauding your work and no one has any pertinent critique, move on. Find another group. Unless your goal is accolades without improvement, you need to find a group that includes some people who are better than you are, and are willing to tell you how to get better. No one, from athletes to rock musicians, gets better at their art and craft without experts and good examples and role models and inspirations above them. Praise is like sugar, you only need a little before it’s too much and will make you sick – and you may not even notice it. Seek critique from those sadistic bastards that will whip your prose into shape.
If you find you fall into the middle or even the bottom of the group you are with, praise the writing gods and stay with that group and listen. Listen and learn. Write down what everyone says about your work and keep your mouth shut. Try never to defend your work – you may explain it, sparingly, but if you want critique, don’t fight back. If you think the critic is an idiot, smile politely and move on. Feel free to ignore all critique in your heart of hearts and your little writing room, but smile on the outside. And if you keep hearing the same things over and over – for example you feel it is artistic to start every sentence with a conjunction, but you are universally condemned – consider the fact that the critics may be right. Steinbeck or Hemingway or Zelazny or Stephen King may do all sorts of unusual style-bending things and get away with them, but you aren’t there yet. If you were, you’d be going to that group I talked about above, where everyone is applauding you.
If you find yourself, blessed be, in a group where everyone is good and they are at least as good as you are, who will praise your good pieces and kindly rip your bad ones to shreds – you have something special. Grip that group with your grubbies and go. Go forth and do, go forth and write, with the knowledge that you are where you need to be, for as long as you need to be there. Soak up knowledge and sweat it out for their benefit and bask in that rich sauna of creativity.
But never substitute groups for writing. If you find yourself writing to please the group instead of yourself, or not writing at all, you are going to too many groups or sessions, move on. If the group becomes your social club and not writing-focused, move on. If you feel like you have learned everything you can, move on.
Maybe you won’t be able to move on physically, but you may move on mentally and emotionally. Perhaps you will become a mentor to others in the group but stop seeking critique. If you happen to have risen above them, you will have to decide what your role should be. But don’t let any group, no matter how loved, interfere with your writing. Because if you are a writer, that wants to be an author, that’s what it’s about. It’s about what you publish, what people read, what your body of work is, and what legacy you will leave when you are gone.
Live to write. Write to live.