I have been involved in a few writers’ groups over the years, from Atlanta, Ga. to Portland, Ore. I also have several blogger friends who are heavily involved in their local writers groups. They receive constructive feedback and continued support from their fellow writers on a regular basis. Clearly, collaborating openly with other writers on a regular basis is beneficial. Especially if everyone pitches in for appetizers and alcohol.
That said, I have to say my experience with writers groups — based on the five or six I have attended over the years — has been hit-and-miss. Each time, I went in with an open mind, hoping for a true exchange of ideas and constructive feedback.
And on three different occasions, I found myself sneaking out the back door on my hands and knees under a veil of cigarette and pipe smoke. In each of those instances, one or more of the following members were present:
1) The Be Honest, But Only If It Means I’m Brilliant member: This person always arrives early so they can explain their brilliance ahead of time, thus ensuring everyone agrees with their brilliance before they read their passage — which is usually five to 10 pages beyond the allotted amount. But who cares when it’s that brilliant! Once this person is finished reading, they sit back with satisfaction and look into the confused expression of their listeners and ask, “Please be honest — what did you think?” They don’t ask this question because they really want to hear constructive criticism; they ask because they are expecting praise. Nothing more. They don’t want collaboration; they want validation. These writers will never expand their skill because they are more concerned with rationalizing their brilliance than they are with learning how to wield the tools needed to actually be brilliant. Plus they usually drink all the wine.
2) The I’d Rather Offer Excuses For My Writing Than Set Expectations member: These writers are the first to criticize their work, usually upon arrival. Though they have the least amount of pages to read aloud, it takes twice as long because they also offer a running commentary on why it’s terrible — sort of like Mystery Science Theater 3000, with the author sitting in the front row pointing out how the space ship looks more like a flying bed pan. In the same way being blind to your shortcomings is detrimental to your growth as a writer, so is having an instinctive need to make sure you point out your faults before anyone else can. Again, like the “Brilliant” writer, the “Excuses” writer stops growing because they are so busy being the first to identify their failures that they completely overlook those times when their work is actually pretty brilliant. Plus, they almost always drop something into the cheese dip.
3) The Everyone’s Writing Is Super Fantastic member: For obvious reasons, this person is the “Brilliant” writer’s favorite member of the group. That’s because whether you are reading a passage from Steinbeck or the ingredients from a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, this person will say things like, “Marvelous,” or “Look at my goosebumps,” or “Someone get my agent,” when in fact what they are really thinking is “I should probably get more wine before that blowhard who thinks he’s so brilliant drinks it all.” The “Super Fantastic” writer tends to see writing as a social activity. They take praise and criticism equally well because, let’s face it: they don’t take either very seriously. Plus, since the Bunko group disbanded, they’re just glad to have a place to go on Sunday nights.
4) The My Completed Manuscript Means I’m Better member: In most cases, this member’s 1,100-page manuscript has been complete for at least three years — which, coincidentally, happens to be how long it’s been since they started the group. This member has yet to submit their manuscript to anyone and is forever in the “final draft” phase because actually submitting it would mean risking rejection. They are content with their on-going identity as the group’s potential best-selling author. In truth, this writer’s growth stopped the moment the final key was tapped on their novel. Plus, they never have their own highlighter.
So, does this mean I don’t encourage joining a writers’ group? Not at all. As I said in the beginning, collaborating with — and seeking feedback from — fellow writers can be a terrific experience that not only fosters your development as a writer, but weaves a support network for yourself and others.
But if you join a group and recognize one or more of the members I’ve mentioned, remember to stay low.
At least until you’re outside.
(Ned is a syndicated columnist for News Media Corporation. You can write to him at [email protected], or visit his blog at www.nedhickson.wordpress.com)
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