The Writers’ Group

Yesterday evening I set off cross-country in the autumnal darkness to one of the small villages that are dotted about the local fens. Inevitably I reached the point in my journey where I came to a crossroads whose signpost lolled drunkenly to one side, one arm stuck into the hedge, the other suggesting flight was the only option. This was relatively easily negotiated as opposed to the next crossroads that didn’t have a signpost at all. We Brits are rather proud of this sort of thing because we like to think it’s one of the reasons that Hitler never invaded. People on the South coast went around actively removing directions and it’s heartening to think that as far up the country as East Anglia, no one has troubled yet to put them back. But despite the obscurity of the route, and the fact that my sense of direction is usually so blunt I get lost in the aisles of the supermarket, I managed to make it through the network of small roads without error and reached my destination: the writers’ group meeting. Afterwards it struck me that the experience of getting there could stand as a fine metaphor for creativity itself, but at the time I was too nervous to be feeling insightful.

What is it about me and a roomful of strangers? I kept on telling myself that they were going to be perfectly nice people, perfectly civilized, moderately welcoming. They were all those things and more. But it seems to me that there is in infinite gulf between people you don’t know at all, and those with whom you have spent a couple of companionable hours; they even manage to look completely different, as if knowledge transfigures them in enigmatic ways. I knew that the local writing group is quite a big affair; it’s split into two in the first instance, long prose and short prose, and the long prose meeting which I was attending had itself been split into two groups meeting simultaneously in separate venues. This happens whenever more than ten people want to read from their work, as even ten minutes for reading and five for discussion can add up to one long evening and a certain dulling of the powers of concentration once the second hour has passed. So I was ushered into a small but neat-roomed cottage that sat low and squat on the road, with the sort of ancient plasterwork that looks like a bad channel crossing and screams hundreds of years of authenticity. Lots of people were already there and with the kind of pitiful judgment that has accompanied me to many a lengthy meeting, I hastened to sit down in the first available chair; a carved and brocaded affair, aesthetically very pretty but, alas, tortuous on the spine. Once seated the amassed crowd of writers turned out to be only six other people, two men, four women and somewhere, shut in the distant regions of the house, a dog trying desperately to add its canine criticisms to the evening.

Business was initially swift and we moved around the group, listening to people read. There was a novel in the style of Jasper fforde (wonderful concept, woeful clichés), a romance novel set in a racing stables (easy on the ear, rather predictable), a mad parallel world thing that might have been tremendous if the passages read out hadn’t been wholly without character, then some scenes from the domestic life of two men who had both walked out of the same company (well-written, but what the book was going to be seemed a mystery to its author as much as to us) and finally two passages of stream of consciousness from the minds of young men supposedly in love with the same woman but which veered off wildly into fantastic scenes of a medical nature that left us all rather disturbed. Never has the phrase ‘you never know what people will come out with next’ been more appropriate. It just made me so glad I don’t write fiction because it is such a difficult thing to do well. I was left with one definite piece of advice to pass on to all would-be novelists: if you are going to write a scene, any scene at all, make sure something happens in it. One thing, preferably, that is memorable, and that is clear. Actually, I felt ready to write a whole treatise on what fiction writing ought to do by the end of the evening, but I’m sure it’s like listening to other people’s troubles in that they always seem so much easier to remedy than one’s own.

Anyway, once we’d got through the reading talk became more general and out came the fascinating gossip about the writers’ group. That’s the good thing about being the new girl; people are ready to tell the old stories all over again. Only a couple of people there seemed to have been attending the group for a really long time but they remembered the evening that preceded the splitting of the prose group, when eighteen people wanted to read (can you imagine?) and they were full of tales about authors who had managed to get published despite inauspicious starts. They recalled the elderly gentleman who had lightly fictionalized his war experiences and had the unhappy effect of sending everyone to sleep with terminal boredom, but best of all, the group once produced what I thought must be the most unlikely marriage in history. The bridegroom was a gentleman (although that might be a misnomer) who had the dubious accolade of being the only person ever asked to leave because of the degree of obscenity and misogyny in his writing, but he had nevertheless won the affections of a very prim and proper woman novelist who, at ninety-four years of age, was the oldest person ever to belong to the group. What a combination! What a novel waiting to be written! Except of course in fiction, you’d have to wonder at its plausibility.

I was invited to read, but not liking to presume on my newness, I hadn’t brought anything with me. Instead, I mangled my way through the concept of the motherhood book, which, kind people as they were, they greeted with encouragement. I find it very hard to talk about something I haven’t yet written, mostly because I think through my fingers and have no idea what I’m going to say until I’ve typed it. They meet once a month, which is more than enough as it was all quite exhausting, but I think I might go back. I don’t know, I’m undecided but it might be interesting to see whether I got any useful feedback. Of course it all depends on whether the roads will guide me to the destination of the next meeting. Perhaps next time the drunken signpost will lead me astray and the bramble hedges will rise in solid ranks and obscure the chosen cottage from my view. But the experience would make for a fine opening to a story, don’t you think?

19 thoughts on “The Writers’ Group

  1. What a lovely story. I can imagine the slightly embroidered version where the heroine (you) reads a challenging passage from the book that she wants help with. The writers all provide gentle and rather odd encouragement, all based on their own books. Could be very funny.

  2. I really liked your description of (a) getting to your writers’ group and (b) the writers themselves – so astute, amusing, insightful and still, kind.

    I’ve recently joined a writers group – actually, I tried earlier but the group fell apart. (I’m probably the one who’s writing “the book …[that]seemed a mystery to its author as much as to us”). I’m oh-so tempted to write about the group, but can only think of nasty things to say. So, best not to say anything at all.

    Go back! Your insights will be very helpful to the other members.

  3. Oh, I can picture them all – the novels and the writers. What images you paint. Please keep going and then provide succinct rules for what novelists should and shouldn’t do – that would be very helpful to me.

    As for those Fens villages, I know and love them. I’m lucky enough to have relatives from both my side and my husband’s in that area, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time there.

  4. I love this rendering! I left an absolutely wonderful writing group back in Michigan and I doubt I’ll look for another one anytime soon as I just know none will be able to live up to it! It might be worth you returning once or twice…i think by the third time you will know whether or not the group is for you…

  5. What a great group! You have to go back if for no other reason than to describe them to us again. And you are right the woman and the gentleman pairing would certainly be criticized as unrealistic if ever written into a story.

  6. You were terribly brave – I am so impressed.

    “Perhaps next time the drunken signpost will lead me astray and the bramble hedges will rise in solid ranks and obscure the chosen cottage from my view. But the experience would make for a fine opening to a story, don’t you think?” Indeed, I think it would, and you would be a wonderful fiction writer.

  7. Pete – LOL! Yes, what a funny scene that would be! I suspect it might be very accurate, too. Have there been many novels written about writers’ groups? It’s such a tempting subject, you’d think. Oanh – I remember reading a line of dialogue in a novel that went: ‘If you have nothing nice to say, just make sure you’re sitting beside me.’ You could always write it and then do a teeny bit of editing. And I thought the person with the novel that was a mystery probably had fewer problems than some of the others! Good luck with your group – I hope it’s full of entertainment, if nothing else. Bluestocking – never was a truer word spoken! You should see how in the middle of nowhere that village is! Charlotte – you really do not need my advice. I think you know exactly what you are doing! But now nice to think you know the Fens – they can be beautiful sometimes, but stark and hauntingly desolate at others. Spooky country, I always think. Well, you must visit if you are ever in that part of the world again. Courtney – how fantastic to have had the experience of a really good group. This one is okay – I think I will go back a second time, if only to hear some different people and marvel at what they have written! Anne – LOL! Do you think it’s something in the East Anglian water?? Hugs to you. Stefanie – that was so funny. It was like the group were used to the story and took it quite calmly and I was saying ‘Excuse me? They GOT MARRIED???’ Well, it tickled me. Qugrainne – aw, what a sweetie you are. Perhaps magic realism is the way forward? Well, if I ever write fiction, my blog friends will be the first to know!

  8. Wasn’t there a writing group in Kate Atkinson’s ‘One Good Turn’? I’m so glad to see that these things exist in real life too – and are so quirky.

  9. I agree with the other commenters — I want to know more about this group and what it is you learn about fiction writing from them! It sounds like a good experience, but I can very well imagine how exhausting it would be — so many personalities and egos and stories to deal with!

  10. Yes, this would absolutely make a fine opening to a story!

    I adore the way you write, like this quip: “…if you are going to write a scene, any scene at all, make sure something happens in it.”

    Truer words were never written!

  11. Sounds like a memorable experience. I hope you will go back, if not just to see how the experience will develop and then hopefully influence your writing or your thought processes about your motherhood book. Is everyone else writing fiction? That is the only drawback I see in terms of your writing being critiqued in a group like that. Not that fiction technique and non-fiction can’t speak to each other, but some times the processes are at cross-purposes. I look forward to hearing how this evolves! I meet weekly with another writer and it is the absolutely most wonderful, most exhausting and most challenging part of my entire week – so I’m all for writing groups and what they can offer.

  12. Pete – I haven’t read that one, but I’m looking forward to it! I possess a book called Famous Writers’ School by Steven Carter that I also haven’t read, but I do remember a Caroline Graham crime novel that centred on a group and I enjoyed that very much (got to hope my own experience doesn’t end in murder…) Dorothy – I do agree that it’s the people that make it all very fascinating. I’ve been telling students all week how we listen with a different part of the brain to the one we use to passively hear. The prefrontal cortex, in charge of planning, organising and strategy does the listening for us, which shows what a full-on, tiring activity it is! Chartroose – what a darling you are. Thank you for such a lovely comment which has perked up my day no end! Verbivore – I was indeed the only non-fiction person at the meeting, although the longer-standing members said that there were more non-fiction people in the group overall. It would be good to meet them, and another reason to go again. How interesting that you should have a one-to-one meeting that way. But if you find someone who really can comment usefully on your work then it you should treasure them, I agree!

  13. Your story made me realize how much I miss the writing group I used to go to (had to stop with the baby, any free time is for writing and blogging right now). The feedback is great and it may boost your confidence or even open new doors on your project that you haven’t considered before! I wrote a short story once about quirky characters you meet in such groups😉

  14. Smithereens – I’ll bet that was a wonderful story! So sorry that you can’t get to the group right now, although I remember that period of new motherhood very well and all the sacrifices it demands. Hopefully, in a few months time, you’ll find that things calm down a bit (my son slept from 7 in the evening until 7 in the morning from 6 months or so – that helped a lot!). Take care of yourself – you know I’m thinking of you.

  15. I love the way you’ve written this. It is redolent with the slightly strange nature of the fens – that other worldliness.

    I went to a writers group once, and had much the same experience, except we had to write things there, and then read them out. I thought this would be impossible – but it was fascinating to hear the same material (or similar) in different voices. I enjoyed it, but I think you’re either the kind of person who likes short bursts of talking about a range of topics, or you want to go deeper.

    One of my children at school put it well today when asked to talk about learning – when you learn you either go in circles – around a topic, or in spirals – ie going deeper into something.

    Best wishes,

    Tricia.

  16. Tricia – oh I don’t think I would be able to produce something on the spot! I’d seize up with performance anxiety! You were very brave to do that. I do like what your pupil said about learning – that’s very insightful and spot on. It’s lovely to see you here, btw, thank you for dropping by!

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