Saturday, 16 July 2011

We Like to Live in Groups by Dan Holloway

(I hope it's OK to sneak in an invitation. On July 28th I will be at Blackwell's in Oxford as part of a panel called "Rising Literary Stars" with Naomi Wood [The Godless Boys], Lee Rourke [The Canal], and Stuart Evers [Ten Stories About Smoking]. It would be lovely to say hello in person!)

My wife keeps rats. Well, I absolutely adore them but they live in her study to keep them out of harm’s way of our 5 cats. When we were first looking around and doing our research, we went into a pet shop and there was a label on the massive rat cage saying “we like to live in groups.” I was sitting babysitting our two boys this morning whilst my wife cleaned out their cage, and thinking how this site is feeling more and more like a homely community, and how I have a rather long (as I’ll explain but not at length, don’t worry) history of writers’ groups , and how the very most exciting work seems to come from movements not individuals locked away in their turrets – Bloomsbury, The Chelsea Hotel, Arts and Crafts, 90s Seattle, Fin de Si├Ęcle Paris, Dada, YBA, the list goes on. So I thought I’d ask, with some personal anecdotes – is it good for writers to live in groups?

As I said last time, I live to perform live. And nothing makes such a good show as a group (just don’t mention Priestley, OK – think more the vampire theatres of Anne Rice’s books). This year I’ve put together a show called The New Libertines, with twelve or fifteen writers and two or three bands. We’re touring festivals, fringes, bookstores and cafes all year. And it’s amazing fun. We all do different things, but we are pulled together by an ethos, a very simple manifesto – that art is about portraying life in its glorious, complex fullness.

It, and this wonderful place, is the last in a long line of writing “groups” I’ve been part of. They’ve encompassed online critique sites Youwriteon and Authonomy, the collective Year Zero Writers, and the literary project eight cuts gallery.

Last week I wrote on my blog about the personal issues I've faced working with others. This is more about the general issues.

It started, as it does for lots pf writers, with online critique groups. It was 2006 when I first decided I wanted to write for other people. By the end of 2007 I had finished – and discarded – one book, and had something I thought was ready to take to The Next Stage. Which, after seeing a note in the back of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, turned out to be the critique site Youwriteon. 9 months later I joined Harper Collins’ Authonomy. Both sites have attracted both love and criticism in equal measure. All I can really say is that my initial hopes of getting a publisher were wildly unrealistic. That’s not what these sites do. But within afew months I was no longer interested in attracting a publisher. I wanted to set out on my own with like-minded individuals and do “Something.” And both sites were absolutely perfect for meeting people like me.

(l-r Marc Nash, Christi Warner, Anne Lykken-Garner, me and Penny Goring at 2010's Year Zero show Open-armed and Outcast at Oxford's OVADA Gallery)

“Something” turned out to be Year Zero Writers. Which started with a long, angry myspace manifesto on January 1st 2009 and soon morphed into a Facebook secret strategy group, and then into a collective of writers putting out articles and short fiction and poetry on a daily basis. We were all sick of the lack of mainstream space for our literary fiction, had no interest in changing the focus of what we wrote, and through three anthologies, a live tour, some A-bomb level fights, write-ups in the likes of Writers’ Digest and style bible Nylon, suicide attempts, and more than two years pushed each other to levels we would never have reached on our own. At times our themes seemed to converge and the conversations between the pieces we wrote got so intense it felt like we were in some heady 21st Century virtual Chelsea Hotel. And what started as 22 writers from 8 countries who’d never met anywhere but online has spawned some of the closest “real life” friendships I have.

Collectives have their weak points as well, and are most definitely not for everyone. And I’d most certainly not recommend anyone *only* be part of a single collective. Aside from the inevitable personal squabbles in a group that size and that close (the closer you are the more and more bitter the fights, because you really care), the need for consensus is very alien to most if not all writers and can feel incredibly stifling (that was the reason I started eight cuts gallery, a place where I was in creative control), and once you hit a certain size and age it’s inevitable you’ll have differences over the existential biggie – Where You’re Going. That’s what happened with Year Zero. We’d reached a stage where we were getting 300-500 hits a day on the site, some of the bigger literary ezines were talking about and writing to us, and some people only naturally wanted to use that following as a way of selling books. Others of us didn’t. I have a feeling that will always be the biggest source of tension amongst indie-minded writers. The commercial success of many indie Kindle authors in recent months only emphasises more clearly that indie means different things to different people. To some it’s about the punk spirit, to others it’s about entrepreneurial freedom, and there’s a whole spectrum between. My strongest advice if you’re joining, or starting, a collective, especially a creative rather than a marketing one, is make clear exactly where everyone stands on that spectrum.

(l-r me, Lucy Ayrton, Sophia Satchell-Baeza and Anna Hobson at a New Libertines event last month)

eight cuts gallery is a different kind of joint venture. I established a very clear general manifesto about “overgrounding” – at its most basic taking the most incredible underground art, literature, music, ideas and presenting them as unapologetically mainstream, making the “mainstream” justify its place and practice whilst we took ours for granted) and artistic manifesto (life is complicated, messy, and glorious and it is the duty of the artist to reflect every facet of that with unflinching honesty), and built one-off collaborative projects around them. The one-offness of each project (be it a live tour like The New Libertines or our hyper-linked online exhibitions like Once Upon a Time in a Gallery) allow, rather like working on an anthology, everyone to maintain the focus and intensity and energy of the collective whilst keeping a horizon that makes it easier to accept differences.

Even so there are difficulties. And as always they increase the longer you’re around and the more you get known. People want to work with you. Often they’re people you really admire, whose work you love – but it’s just not quite a fit for what you’re doing. Venues are keen to host you. Sometimes they say lovely things like “what you’re doing is really exciting” and you say “great let’s do a show” and then they say “fantastic, can you just keep it suitable for our audience.” And you’re stuck in that “if I do it, it’s great publicity but the bit they want us to leave out is actually the bit that makes us exciting and if we don’t do it we’ll just be another literary evening” dilemma. I find myself consciously repositioning our work back towards its roots at least once every two months.

(Katelan and I with two of the guys we'd met during the afternoon's photoshoot for Lilith Burning)

So, are writers like rats? Well, yes, in many ways. But do we like to live in groups? That’s probably the wrong question. Do we flourish in groups? That’s the right one. All I can answer is that being in the wrong group, or in the right group for too long or the wrong reason could be the most heartbreaking and flattening experience. But I would recommend everyone at least consider it, and consider what kind of a group, from an anthology team to a local critiquing circle.

(and this was when we met them earlier that afternoon)
The most extraordinary creative experience of my life was a day I spent in Oxford with the New York-based writer/artist/model/photographer/publisher Katelan Foisy (she dressed as the mythological figure Lilith and we went round Oxford taking pictures of people’s reaction before making art from them and inviting everyone we’d met for an evening of readings about Lilith and viewing the art). Working with her that intensively, even just for a day, seeing how she worked, getting not just to hear about her philosophy and approach but to see her live it, has changed everything I’ve done since. Avoiding groups will keep you away from the heartache but, for me at least, it will also keep you from making your art the very best it can be.


JO said...

I think there's a limit to the groups you can be involved in and get any writing done. They can be hugely supportive when they work well - and then take over so much time that one's own writing is limited to left-over time.

So I think I distinguish between on-line groups and local writing groups. My local group meets monthly for a whole day - and I can keep the day free and love it. On line groups creep into my kitchen - are almost insidious in the way they creep into writing time. I find it much more difficult to contain those.

Dan Holloway said...

Especially when, like Authonomy, there are added elements that threaten to give you RSI from hitting the refresh button!

I've found that my online collaborations have become "real world" ones in many cases - even when, like Katelan, people live overseas. It's taken me places artistically I'd never have gone, but I still haven't learned the art of switching off the browser. I am, in fact, to illustrate your point, typing this comment whilst cooking pancakes :)

Debbie said...

I get together with a few writer friends every couple of months for an afternoon. Sometimes we talk about writing and read stuff out. Mostly we eat and put the world to rights. But it's a sanity-check more than anything else. I've known these people for 20 years and they understand that part of my life that my family don't share. Or does that just sound pretentious?

Rosanne Dingli said...

It depends on the stage your career is in, your personality type, and how much air-time you can stand to give to others.

Dan Holloway said...

Deb, that doesn't sound pretentious at all. That's how I am with Cody and Marc and some of the people I know in Oxford - the things behind a lot of my writing I just couldn't talk about with my family or many of my other friends.

Rosanne, yes absolutely. I sort of live for that Chelsea Hotel/Andy's Factory communal buzz but i know many don't

Civil War Horror said...


I spend the summers in Oxford and will get there a few days before your event. I'll be sure to put in on my calendar! I have my first Kindle book coming out in September so I hope you don't mind if I ask you a few questions about that in the pleasant surroundings of my favorite bookshop. I've had several books traditionally published but KDP is new to me.
As for writer's groups, I've had good and bad experiences. It's best if everyone is at the same level of seriousness. They don't all have to be published, or even good, if they're all serious it keeps it from becoming a drinking society. Not that I have anything against drinking societies. . .


Sean McLachlan

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Sean,
It'll be great to see you - very best with the Kindle book, and I'd be happy to have a natter about it.

I think you're right - what matters if you get off on that right foot is how you manage the changes that inevitably happen as people's aims diverge.

Enid Richemont said...

I've always worked alone or with a publisher's editor.Working with an editor, knowing that the book's going ahead, is so rewarding. I've dropped in on a couple of groups over the years, and found them very personality-led, but that's probably just me. Never tried on-line ones, but will investigate.

Joan Lennon said...

Ha - I just compared writers to flamingoes! Have a look here -
Thanks for the post!

Dan Holloway said...

Enid - there are some online groups people swear by - Absolute Write seems to be very popular.

Joan - as a filterfeeder with a preference for standing on one leg I'm not surprised but I'm intrigued to find out the context.