The group think method for getting a novel finished

You could struggle on with your novel in isolation, but I found a writers’ group is the best way forward

Fri, May 31, 2013, 01:00

It’s eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, and there’s a bottle of wine on the table. But this evening is not about relaxing – rather, it’s about risk, perseverance, and accountability. The doorbell rings: It’s time for my writers’ group.

We’ve been meeting for six months now, exchanging pages from our efforts at the short story, the screenplay, the essay and the novel. We are friends, yes, but tonight we’ll try to be something before that: editors, audience, first receivers.

Writers have been seeking the society of other writers for as long as writing has existed. Great things can come from such associations. The Inklings were a group of writers based in Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s. They met regularly at their local pub to read from and discuss their works-in-progress, and look what that produced: JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.

Portland, Oregon-based author Cheryl Strayed has been a member of a writing group for six years. It counts among its members Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, thriller writer Chelsea Cain, memoirist Lidia Yuknavitch and novelist Monica Drake. Their group originated 20 years ago – it grew out of writing workshops led by Portland author Tom Spanbauer. Strayed says that over the years, the meeting format has remained relatively unchanged. She describes it like this:

“You bring the pages to the table, up to seven. You pass around copies and you read them out loud. As you’re reading, people are marking up the pages, and after you read them you discuss them.”

The members meet every Monday for what can be an “excruciating experience”, according to Strayed. Putting your work out there for group criticism can be embarrassing and hurtful as much as it can be affirming. But it can also help shape your work. “It’s just really helpful on a technical level to have a group of people give you a response,” says Strayed. “It functions as a kind of chorus – if most people in the group think that this thing [that I’ve just read] is great, I believe them, and if most people think it isn’t really coming through as I’d hoped, I believe them.”

It’s not just the instant feedback that she finds valuable. “For me the distractions of life can be tremendous, and I think that’s even magnified when you have two little kids like I do, and there’s sometimes this feeling of ‘Why bother even trying to make the time to write’,” she says. “That’s true even though it’s now my job, it’s actually the way I make a living. And there’s something about the writers’ group that keeps me on track.”

Strayed brought to the group parts of what went on to become her bestselling memoir, Wild. She even credits fellow member Chelsea Cain with the book’s title.

The ideas and assistance don’t all flow one way: “I’ve always thought that having to deeply consider another writer’s work was incredibly beneficial to me as a writer as well,” says Strayed. “I really enjoy that.”

Not every group will give birth to a published work, but all labour at the same craft. About 10 different groups currently meet at the Irish Writers’ Centre, according to its arts administrator June Caldwell, and there are countless others around the country. Caldwell used her time as a member of the Sapphires Writing Group “as a deadline maker for getting stories written and off to competitions”.

It also combats the lonely nature of the work. “Writing is something you have to grapple with alone, but being part of a group is a great way of taking the ‘i’ out of isolation, of pushing you to write something, anything,” she says. “[It’s] hard, lonely and frustrating, but it’s also a compulsion that refuses to go away, so getting together with others can help make the experience real.”

‘The same kind of madness’
Ink Splinters is a writers’ group born from a weekly workshop at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Members bring writing prompts, one of which is selected for that evening’s work. The members then write for half an hour, after which they share the results with the group. They are also encouraged to bring other work to share.

Alan Owens, a founding member, finds the experience helps focus his writing, as well as providing a community of people who share his passion. “A lot of the time you’re writing and you say to people ‘I write, and I have a blog’, and they don’t really get it,” says Owens. “So it is great to see there are other people who have the same kind of madness.”

Although the groups may differ in size, style or process, their members list the same benefits: technical help, a sense of community, feedback, focus. There are, however, limitations, as Caldwell points out: “The unsaid thing about writers’ groups, though, is that it’s a pain in the arse if everyone’s not at the same level, and you can end up babysitting or editing a lot. They’re only useful as an anchor for a while, then you just have to write.”

When my Thursday meeting draws to a close and the other writers disperse, I’m left with their notes scrawled across my printed pages. Caldwell is right: the experience has been invaluable, but now I’m on my own again. I just have to write.


Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is published by Atlantic Books. Alan Owens’s blog Worth Doing Badly can be found at tinman18.wordpress.com. Ink Splinters has a blog at inksplinters.wordpress.com

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