Two's Company? - Debbie Bennett

Writing can be a lonely business. Whether you live alone or are married and/or have a large family, the act of committing your imagination to paper or computer is highly personal – just you and your words against the world. Of course I’m discounting all the people that live in your head and whisper to you at odd hours of the day – if I admitted I talked to imaginary people, I’d have even less of a social life than I do already!

It’s slightly different in the 21st century – the internet helps us connect to other like-minded people, sharing ideas and offering support across the world via facebook, blogs and even sites set up specifically for writers to share their work. These can help even the most isolated of writers to talk to people who understand what it’s like to sometimes feel you are living two lives at the same time. But you can't beat physically meeting up with other writers. Whether it's to share work in progress or just socialise, you know you are with people who have similar values – who appreciate how hard it is to shut yourself away in a room for hours on end and ignore friends and family.

I meet up regularly with my writing friends. Some of us first met more than 20 years ago at what was then the Southampton Writers' Conference (now Winchester), which in itself is a great way to network and meet fellow-writers. Now there is a small group of us who get together at one couple's house (how nice to be married to a fellow-writer!) to eat and put the world to rights. Sometimes we talk about writing and sometimes we even read stuff out. But even if all we do is chat, it's comfortable being with people who appreciate the same things. We're not a proper "writers group". We're not open to anyone and we don't have rules and constitutions – if we ask somebody else to join us, it's as a result of a discussion and us all agreeing. We like the group dynamics exactly as they are.

I've been to other writing groups. I went along to one many years ago when I was living down south and I swear there must have a been a camera somewhere filming, as everybody in the small group was a stereotype. There was the man writing an exposé of a famous personality – it was so secret he refused to say who it was or read any of it out. There was the loud horsey woman in the green Barbour jacket writing Jilly Cooper-esque romps. The woman writing Christian poetry who couldn't possibly read or listen to anything else. The man in the mirror-shades writing spy fiction. I forget the others but it was sit-com material, it really was, and I never went back.

You need to get something out of a writers group, even if it's just coffee and cake. I've seen groups that are little more than mutual-appreciation societies with pats on the back and whispers of "that's nice, dear". That kind of feedback can be useful very occasionally; if you're going through a bad patch, an ego boost can be a wonderful thing, but it's candyfloss feedback – light and insubstantial and gone within minutes. I've been to writers groups where the writers tear into one another like rabid dogs and it's not for the faint-hearted to have every tiny fault pointed out in excruciating detail. Far better are the groups that can find a middle-ground – tell you the good bits and bad bits, what works and what doesn't – and why. Join a group like that, with writers whose work you respect and you've got an instant audience on which to try out your ideas. And quite possibly you've also got friends for life.


Lee said…
I have trouble understanding this desire for writing groups - this blog, and perhaps one more, as well as a couple of beta readers (whom I've never met in person, fortunately!) are as far as I'll go. The last people I want to meet socially are other writers. Probably I need to get out more, but it's got to be among those who live as differently from me as possible.

I also suspect that our very best writers don't do writing groups. Somehow I can't see Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel in such a group. But of course I could be wrong.
Guernsey Girl said…
If the members are genuine - and their comments are too - they can be really worthwhile. But you need like-minded people - ie those who want and intend to get published. As you say, you have the basis of a sitcom here...
Enid Richemont said…
Writing always remains my private sin until I'm published - sorry. But I did find one writing group in North London invaluable when I was working on an adult novel many years ago - I managed to con myself into thinking of each session as a deadline, and it worked.
I'm a very private person and I've gone through long stretches in my life when I have no real-life friends at all. I don't miss having them, and I have no desire to meet other writers in the flesh. I simply don't need that kind of feedback or association. Some of us are hermits by nature, and happy as we are.
Susan Price said…
As a fellow hermit, I'd agree. I've never shared my work before publication: but I've met many writers who have found it helpful.
And there was a very good sit-com a few years ago, called The Book Group... Was that you, Debbie?
I do share my work -- online -- specifically, on my blogs. Sometimes it's for feedback, sometimes to promote an upcoming book. I enjoy the back and forth of discussion, but I wouldn't want to do it anywhere but online.
Debbie Bennett said…
Unfortunately no, Susan. But I do remember it!

I don't think I'd join a writers group of strangers. But our cosy little group are all good friends who just happen to be writers too. And I love my days away from the house in the company of people who 'get' me in a way my family don't

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