Writer’s Group From Hell
In the confused and often frustrating world of the writer in embryo, the most commonly given piece of advice is ‘join a writers group’. It appears in every ‘How to Write’ book. It also features in every ‘How To Write’ workshop and, inevitably, it comes as a cry from the fibrillating heart of every writers group.
I am not suggesting for a moment that this is totally bad advice. However, it is worth considering the source of this automatic, almost robotic, response to a perceived need. Taken in isolation this recommendation is at best incomplete.
You can’t take this advice at face value. Life is not that simple. For the sake of sanity and creative survival you must test it rigorously. When you do, you will discover that the term ‘writers group’ is a very broad one, and that it appears to embrace every level of consciousness from calendar quote readers to rocket scientists. Somewhere within this assortment a small handful of the valiant try to write. Your task is to find, and join them.
My experience of writers groups to date indicates that the calendar quote readers, known as CQRs, are in the ascendancy. Step carefully. There are traps here for young troops.
If the ‘How to Write’ book you are reading for guidance is the only known work of the author, and is published by Oblivion Press Inc, or is self-published and printed by Garden Shed Printers Inc, the question marks hanging above it are quite large ones. Ask the authenticity, experience and achievement questions and challenge the answers with zeal.
If the ‘How to Write’ workshop you are attending is handed down from on high, by a very special university friend of the organiser, invoke suspicion and vigilance but try to avoid overt scorn. Even when you discover that the presenter’s only claim to fame is one or more short anthologies of incoherent, Vanity Press printed poetry.
The discovery that the birth traumas of this self-indulgent tripe are the central theme of the workshop will test stamina, tolerance, and good manners.
The announcement that the presenter’s works are on sale, at cost price to members, will often generate ribaldry and will always add an element of black humour to the occasion. Write off the pain and the time and money wasted to experience. Don’t get caught again.
If the head poltroon of any group assures you that everyone has a novel hiding inside just waiting to get out, treat this person with withering contempt. This often-used statement is absolute balderdash. The universities, at the introduction of ‘Creative Writing’ courses, invented this obnoxious piece of sophistry to inveigle the hopeful and gullible into parting with their hard-earned cash. Any institution making this discredited claim is simply demonstrating the greed and the moral bankruptcy that has permeated so many of the hallowed halls we once held in high regard.
The knock on effect of this sad situation occurs because of the parrot fashion repetition of poseurs who claim literary expertise and who mislead and misdirect the groundlings.
When the urging to ‘join a writers group’ comes from a ‘writers group’ evangelist, be prepared for an invitation to ‘come to a meeting and see if you like us’. Trust your instincts. You are in the presence of one of the most potentially dangerous creatures in the literary world, run like a rabbit, hide in a deep hole, and consider the options very carefully.
If, after due deliberation, you decide that you would like to join a writers group, but on your own terms, establish what you want to get out of it, and what you are willing to put into it to achieve your desires. Make a list and set a time line. This objective, effort, time target approach will allow you to create a critical path. It will help to keep you focussed and sane when all about you start going round in ever decreasing circles.
Choosing the right group for you may not be all that easy. So compile a register of target groups. Library notice boards, local papers, magazines, radio, word of mouth, and World Wide Web will all provide names, places and dates of interesting happenings. Plan to visit several. Always record your impressions. Make your judgement call sooner rather than later, but don’t rush into commitment.
Too many writers groups, and I write from experience, exist in a fog of parochial paranoia. They are, by nature, self-focussed, short-sighted, narrow-minded, politically riven and ravaged by internecine warfare. This type of group soaks up energy and neutralises creativity.
The questing writer, assuming a modicum of sensitivity, will immediately recognize this group for what it is. The head honcho will be a hyper-delusional cross between Attila the Hun and Maggie Thatcher, and will brandish a gavel or tinkle a bell at every opportunity.
The words: tyrant, megalomaniac and control freak come to mind, but I suppose ‘President’ will work just as well. Autocratic inconsistency will be the mode of management. There will also be a core group of long-serving members. They will rule the roost, maintain the status quo and will, with an intensity of dedication difficult to understand, anchor the group firmly and unassailably in the past.
These lost souls are rat-cunning and predatory. On first acquaintance the newcomers will be welcomed with open arms. This warm reception signals the start of the honeymoon period, and at the same time prepares the new recruit for the kiss of death.
The politically active members of the group will pay particular attention to the visitor, and to the visitor’s work. It will always be ‘so wonderfully well written’ and ‘enthralling, captivating, riveting, confronting and exhilarating’ to listen to.
There may be a couple of minor, delivered with a patronising smile, criticisms; a cliché here and a slightly too long sentence there, but nothing to diminish the primal, textural, blood tingling originality of the work, darling.
The more cynical members of the group will watch this charade with rye amusement tempered by mild desperation. The experts are playing the visitors with tiger-smiling skill. Two or three meetings will probably be enough to spring the trap.
‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’.
The hope is that the visitor, flushed and flattered, will become a serving member, embrace the cultural mediocrity, and sink into the warm, brain-numbing mush of intellectual moribundity.
This method will trap a few of the mildly bamboozled, but that’s all. They will not add value to the group. They will simply embrace it as an alternative to flagellation with barbed wire and wet rope. It’s a deliciously rewarding pain thing.
At the point of their empiric victory, the movers and shakers will glow with self-deluding triumph. The cynical will sneer, and the apple-polishing hangers-on will shrug and mumble. They have neither the energy nor the will to change anything, even if they could. The on-going and pathetic cry of the few, ‘Oh why can’t we keep new members,’ will rise and fall like dead leaves on the autumn wind? The answer will, somehow, elude them.
The news, however, is not all bad. Most sensitive visitors escape from this kind of group quite quickly. They do recognize it for what it is and they leave the sad and sorry faithful to their own wretched devices. Then they continue the search for the ‘right group’.
Sometimes the searchers are truly fortunate and discover and settle into a rewarding association, embrace challenge and synergy, achieve rewarding creativity, and quickly forget the pain and discouraging frustration of their bruising but broadening encounter with ‘The Writers Group from Hell’. Prophet on the road, your writers group is waiting for you, all you need to do is find it. Good luck with that.
The Writers Group From Hell – Albert Abercrombie (c) The Screw Soapers is published by permission. Any persons or organizations wishing to reprint this work, in whole or in part, are invited to contact The Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org