What’s Wrong with Writers’ Groups

I know lots of people who belong to writers’ groups and love them (Well, of course they love them… If they didn’t, they wouldn’t still belong to them). Only one of them, however, is a professional writer, so one can’t really read about how effective these groups are. The amateur writers I’ve spoken with about these groups tell me that they’re a great place to get feedback on one’s work. These groups are also a haven for young writers who either have no support for their writing dreams among their families and friends, or have many well-wishers on their side, but no one who knows anything about the writing craft. Writers’ groups also provide a certain structure, so that participants feel more of an urgency to write than they might if they were working in a vacuum.

But as someone who is accustomed to working in a vacuum, experiences adequate support for my work, and is acquainted with a number of people involved in the publishing field in one capacity or other, I never felt much of a draw toward these word klatches… and many drawbacks. For one — and I’m basing all my observations either on the experiences of people who belong to (and love) their groups, or on my own limited first-hand experiences, which I’ll get to later — these groups tend to become “clubs”, with an unchanging core membership and a suspicious eye toward newcomers. The problem with these groups is that writing tends to become secondary to talking. Sometimes the meetings turn into therapy sessions, with members discussing their personal problems. Sometimes the atmosphere is just so comfortable that the members might as well be having an extended lunch. Either way, the problem is keeping the writing at the forefront.

The other problem is productivity. Invariably, meetings will include two sorts of members: attention-seekers, who want the group to focus all its time on them, and those who never produce anything. The attention-seekers (who are generally attention-seekers in any milieu) might not even bring in new work to be analyzed, but will offer up old poetry, college essays… anything to command the attention of the group. The non-producers might be willing (or even eager) to criticize the work of others, but never expose themselves to scrutiny. The worse offender, of course, is the non-producer who takes up the group’s time anyway, by talking about anything that will bring attention to himself.

Maeve Binchy, in her book on writing, saw as a pitfall the possibility that members might be too polite to one another. That was certainly not my experience when I sat in on three sessions of a local writers’ group. I thought that a group of like-minded individuals would be a pleasant way to work my way through the book I’m writing, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were like vicious dogs! Talk about a rude awakening… In retrospect (now that I’m as far away from those people as I can get), I think that the group was insular and “closed”, despite its claims to be an “open” group, and that I was regarded as an interloper. That, or else I just happened onto a particularly vile bunch of individuals.

The one thing I came away with, however, was a solid sense of what “constructive criticism” ought to be. It is this: “If you do __, it will make your story better because it will_____.” If you can put your comments into this form, they will most likely be more useful than things like, “I don’t know, I just think it ought to be better.

Incidentally, the one professional I know who attends a writers’ group is Mary Higgins Clark, who has been a member of her group for several decades, since before she was published.She likes her group, and good for her. As for myself, I think I’d rather work out my problems alone.

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