Writers’ Groups

DSC01321No, this street photo by the artist Marie-Louise Gay is not upside down. Strangely enough, she took it in Havana, close to the Callejon Hamel, an alley in the Havana Centro barrio completely taken over by mad visual artists and people eager to escort you to the far side of the spirit world — and possibly leave you there, to your own devices.

Which makes me think of writers’ groups. Many of us belong to them, but just how can you use your group to your own best advantage? Obviously, the group that decides to come together out of the members’ own free will is better than the workshop formed by random chance. Makes sense, right? But it’s not always true. Good groups are not led with a heavy hand, whether a particularly aggressive member or a group leader (a writer like me, for instance, in a Quebec Writers’ Federation workshop). And, of course, you have to give to get. Thinking of joining a group? You should have a definite project on the go, something you need help with, something to offer the other members. The more specific your needs, the better the experience.

And you have to expect the unexpected. I believe in the “stone in your shoe” phenomenon. Why does my neck ache? There’s nothing wrong with my neck, or my back — it’s the stone in my shoe that’s throwing off my whole body. Sometimes the problem is not where you think it is. A good group will help you see that.

I used to be a very superstitious writer. I was afraid that if I talked about a project I was working on, it would disappear into thin air. So I kept my mouth shut and worked away in obscurity. Not necessarily the best way, it turns out. At various times during the writing project, I’ve discovered that consulation with trusted people can be a Godsend. Of course, you have to have those people you trust, and not just yes-men or yes-women. Receiving heaps of praise is no way to make progress. Lately I made a long trip just to see a psychiatrist friend (but not my analyst!) with whom I often speak of important things. I wanted to discuss my upcoming project. I thought that the project was situated in one place; I had started sketching out the plot lines, the characters, the whole mechanism. Talking with him, I came around to remembering a dream I had in 1992 that actually held the key to the project.

Talking it out saved me from a false start. So much for my old superstition!


3 thoughts on “Writers’ Groups

  1. You are right about the opinions of others. Sometimes even an opinion from someone you consider ill informed might point out a problem area when the only indication of something being wrong is a vague feeling. I have a good teacher right now who is very helpful [and informed] with just the right amount of instruction at the right time. This is a painting class.

    I am inspired to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog in French, spurred on by comment by Michelle and her mom Lise. I am late to the task but shall shuck Sudoku and use the time more profitably and learn some French in the process.

  2. I like that photo. Connotations of mirrored dreams rendered topsy-turvy. It keeps you looking, but oddly enough the first thing I saw wasn’t ‘reves’ but ‘sever’, which is appropriate for the topic. For writers, it helps to sever our misconceptions about writing habits. Of course some are set in stone and no amount of chiselling will weaken them. I have the same problem Mr. Homel mentions. By somehow saying aloud in public just the concept of a story I might be working on, it would render it inert. Writers can be almost Gollumesque in the possessiveness of their ideas, but as I found out through a few years of writing groups, they can learn to let go. The slightest of suggestions on occasion nudged a story in a different and more effective direction.

    True, heaps of praise may not be progressive but once in a while, as a fellow writer once mentioned, some ‘ego stroking’ is helpful. You can’t live off of it but it helps you coast down those creative waters a little easier.

    Give writing groups a shot. At the very least go and listen. You’ll be surprised by the variety of voices and most likely, find your own.

  3. From David Homel…
    Thanks for your comments and reactions. I’m a little slow on this blog business, but learning, thanks to Mary Jane O’Neill from the Library. For example, I answered “Gwenmandl” to her e-mail address, but not on the blog! What I said, essentially, to her is that a person we might not care for in a group often gives the best criticism; “the truth lies in my enemy’s mouth” is an old saying (not that we have any enemies in our groups). Also, her expression about “the vague feeling” had me thinking about how I know when a piece of writing is really working. I feel, physically, a kind of energy, an almost physical excitement. And the opposite is true when the piece is flat. Writing is a much more physical pursuit than some people think

    As for “Deciduouslongfellow,” a great name, another good thing about writing groups is the chance to read your work aloud. Reading aloud in front of others is a completely different experience than reading out loud in your room. You can really hear what swings and what doesn’t. I myself write “out loud” — say the words loud and clear as I’m writing them. I can hear my mistakes as they happen, in order to correct them. Needless to say, there’s no one else around when I’m working.

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