Last night I attended a murder mystery play that was written by a member of my old writers' group. Many friends from the old group were there to show their support, and most urged me to return to the monthly meetings. I haven't been to a writers' group meeting in over a year for a variety of reasons, one of the most significant being that I'm conflicted about how helpful they are.
One of the problems with writers critiquing the work of other writers is that each writer has his own voice and style (if you don't have your own voice and you're hoping to be successful in this game, good luck!). Whatever voice we write in is the one we like the best - otherwise, we wouldn't use it, and we certainly wouldn't be able to endure it through the writing of hundreds of pages. When we hear or read the work of other (especially unpublished) writers, it stands to reason that we are usually hearing a voice that is not our own, that we don't like as much. There is the temptation to try to change another writer's voice into something we like better - to have him tell his story the way we would have told it. That's why agents often complain that manuscripts they receive from writers' group members are a hodgepodge of different styles and voices.
This leads to another problem with writers' groups. While they are probably most helpful in polishing second or third drafts, many writers share their works-in-progress, which can lead to disaster. The first draft is when most of our insecurities and self-doubt come to the forefront: is this good enough? Will anyone care about this story? Will they like my characters? Do I even like my characters? It's difficult to stay invested in a story before you've spent the required time and effort to finish it. Once you've written 500 pages about Ike and his dog, you know Ike pretty well and you're more apt to stand your ground if someone insists you need to change his personality. During the first draft, things are a lot more tenuous.
My old writers' group is filled with immensely talented people who mostly write for fun. The majority have never tried to get their work published, but if they put their minds to it, they certainly could. Every group attracts a few bad apples, though, and in our time we've experienced our share of egotistical know-it-alls who recite high school creative writing rules as if they're the holy grail. The man who used to lead our group was a kind, soft-hearted gentleman. He cared a lot about what others thought, which made him especially vulnerable to the group's critique and feedback.
At one meeting, he decided to share the first chapter of the new novel he was working on. His protagonist was a nurse who'd just discovered that her husband had given her AIDS. As she reels from the news, she immediately suspects that her husband is gay. One of the more opinionated members of the group (thankfully she moved to another country soon after) had a conniption. How dare the protagonist assume her husband is gay, just because he has AIDS! The critic then proceeded to lecture the writer on all the ways people can get AIDS, how prevalent it is among heterosexuals, etc. All the while, the poor man seemed to shrink smaller and smaller in his chair. A few of us argued for the protagonist's right to think anything she pleased, even if it wasn't true or unbiased. She could be completely homophobic, and that would be her right. And even if she was, that didn't mean that the same went for her creator. Both sides argued their point passionately, with the end result being that the writer threw his manuscript in the garbage when he got home. He might have had a great story there, and now we'll never know. In this case, the writing group was not helpful.
In my experience, you'll meet three types of people at writers' groups. There's the Nice Writer, who is sweet and supportive. She will love everything you write. This feels good until you realize she loves everything everyone else does, too, which makes you start to question her honesty and/or taste after awhile. Then there's the Know-It-All, whom we've already touched on. This person is also The Best Writer Who Ever Lived, except he's not published, or if he is, it's with a very small press. Perhaps a vanity one. He is there for three reasons: to get the ego strokes from The Nice Writers; to give the poor lesser writers the benefit of his wisdom; and three--to hear himself talk. The third type is the most rare. This is the Helpful Writer. This person usually has more experience than you, or just a really good eye for editing. She can help you make your work better without making it sound like her own. You may find one of these Helpful Writers in your group. If you're lucky, you'll have two or three. Rarely are there more than that. If you think your entire group is comprised of Helpful Writers, chances are you're mistaking Nice for Helpful.
However, there is another great advantage to being part of a writers' group. It's the simple camaraderie that comes from being with like minded people. Writing can be the most isolating, lonely exercise in the world, and being able to discuss the challenges and triumphs with people who truly get it is priceless. Some of the closest friends a writer will ever have will inevitably be other writers. It makes all the Know-It-Alls and bad writing worth it. Hmm...maybe I will attend a meeting next month after all.
How about you? Ever been a member? And if so, what has your experience been like?
***My parents are in for a brief visit for the next four days, so it will most likely be next Wednesday (April 28th) before I post again. Unfortunately, the novel will be put on a brief hiatus as well, but I'm hoping this break won't derail me too much.