What If…

What if you threw a writer’s group and no one came? Is it still a writer’s group if nothing happens between the writers?

Last night was the regular meeting of a writer’s group I have facilitated for several years. I really didn’t want to go. It had been a long day, I was tired, and to be brutally honest, the meetings lately seem stagnant. Don’t get me wrong; I really like the people who come, and have grown to think of them as friends. But here’s the thing. I think they (well, we) have become too safe.

The group was started after an upsetting event at a huge writer’s conference. I decided writers needed a place to meet that was safe and non-threatening, more like a support group than a critique group. Many of the people who attend, and have attended, have gone on to be published. We have poets, screen writers, non-fiction writers, fiction…and yet it manages to stay a small, safe place to be.

Over the years I have tried to stir members up. We’ve tried exercises, guest speakers, contests, adding time for critiques, etc. I even tried to get members to rotate facilitating. These things appear as a brief candle flame flare and then burn out. We end up back where it’s safe, with members talking about writing.

When I bring up that I worry no one is getting anything out of the group anymore, that we are all talking about the same things we talked about last year, and the year before, everyone jumps right in to tell me I’m wrong. They insist they leave the group wanting to write, that they get support and they learn.

Well then, maybe it’s just me. Which brings me back to last night. I went strictly out of obligation and responsibility.  They’d manage without me, and have, and I could have skipped it but didn’t. And only one other member showed up. So there we sat, me drained emotionally, listening to familiar words, feeling like I had nothing new to add either. And then in comes a stranger. A young man who’d heard about the group, who is making documentaries and writing screenplays.

We had good discussions but it was hard for many reasons. I kept thinking, he’s not going to get anything out of this group. We’re all asleep. I don’t know that he’ll come back. I’m not sure I feel he should. I don’t think we’ll be any help to him.

So tell me. How do you wake people up, shake them up, move them out of ruts, challenge their thinking, make them quit speaking the same words, make them write? I include myself in those questions. How do I challenge myself as a writer? I no longer want to sit in the group and speak variations of the same themes over and over and over throughout the years.

I want my friends to soar as writers, but I don’t know how to help them, or me, find the needed wings.

11 thoughts on “What If…

  1. Something like this happened to me and the founding member of a support group I was in. Things fell apart after a year or so when everyone just wanted to list their complaints and the ways they’d been wronged. They went so far as to say the other woman and I were the odd people out because they felt better after they left and wouldn’t if we started talking too much again about how to get past our troubles and heal.

    That group and your writing group are different, I know, but each group’s goals were about doing the work to get to better and stronger places. I think too many of us have few people who will listen to us as we talk about certain things, so when we find that, many of us don’t want to give it up for the relatively solitary pursuits (and hard work) of writing something we hadn’t thought we could, or solving our personal problems.

    Maybe this is just something humans do. All I’ve been able to do on my own is try to keep restarting my own engine and put little obstacles in my way to exercise my writing muscles. I’ve wanted so much to be in a group like the one you want, where the point is test oneself and learn in a nurturing environment. But it’s hard to find. So hard that every once in a while, I just want to talk about that.

    • As always, you have great comments that I have to go away and ponder. You’re right that we need to start our own engines and not rely on others to do it for us. I am kicking around a story idea right now that will be totally different from anything I’ve written before and I know it’s going to be a long, hard project. When I get brave enough to start it, I know it will challenge me. And I know where to find my support system during that (includes you). I need to figure out what I want that group to be and move towards that somehow. Because, as you say, there seems to be a lot of talking and not much motion going on.
      Thanks. Oh, and enjoying your story, by the way.

      • A long, hard, challenging project, different from anything you’ve written before — I got a little chill just hearing that, but I’m glad you know I’m here if you need to talk about anything, blow off steam, or bounce ideas off someone.

        I’m glad you’re enjoying the story. (But I’m ready to hear the good and the bad). I swing wildly from liking it to wondering what on earth I was thinking.

    • Testing ourselves in a nurturing environment is so vital, I think, to growth as a writer, let alone growth as a person. And you’re right; it is hard to find. I do believe that I have been underestimating the value of having a safe place, and that even if I don’t see change, it doesn’t mean change isn’t happening.

  2. Wow, lots to think about here. I really feel your struggle to move the group to a new place, and that’s a real challenge. I’m also amazed that the group has been going so long — I don’t think I’ve participated in anything long enough for things to reach that same-old state. (I’ve joined, and then left, groups whose members were clearly in safe-zone, but I haven’t been part of any of these from the beginning.)

    Is it possible to wake/shake up people who don’t think they need to be shaken? I don’t know. I know I go through stages, like someone scaling a mountain: climbing to a new level, wanting to stay there safely for awhile exploring what that’s like, then moving on up to the next level. I think of when yoga classes break up for handstands: everyone needs something different, whether it be a wall, a partner, loving encouragement from the teacher, or nothing but their own focus. Someone could spend years just mustering up the courage to go upside-down; someone with more strength might want a more dynamic practice. Every approach is valid, but you wouldn’t want to consistently partner with someone whose needs are different than yours. You can all still practice in the same room, but in the end, it’s still your practice and you do what you need to do.

    • I think one of the key points in your comments is finding that space where you can partner with people who’s needs are similar. This group has gone on for a long time, for five or six years, and I guess I was feeling like we were staying on that same safe level too long, to use your analogy of climbing. I think I have crept to the edge and feel the wind that wants to sweep me away. I like your comment about feeling my struggle to move the group to a new place because now I think I’m wrong. It’s not my job to move them, but my job to move myself. How much easier it is to say they are too safe then to admit I’m afraid of heading out alone. I guess I want change, but I want them all to come with me to keep me safe!

      • That makes a lot of sense. It’s like any relationship, isn’t it? Sometimes you think it’s all your partner’s fault for holding you back, but it’s not. 🙂

  3. Not sure if this goes on your site, so just to let you know I’m sending you a personal e-mail as I wish to respond – I just want to “fix” this, to relieve you of frustration with us as writers, as I don’t think we are socially redeemable as a group, but in what we each do individually. I think we all are walking the walk, and talking the talk, which I for one cannot do well socially. I wabt your frustrations to NOT clog your own individual work!

    LOVE!

  4. I am very interested by this post. Partly because my writing group just disintegrated and I can’t find another, partly because I know that if I do find another, it will be a mixed bag of inspiration and frustration. I worry that I can never find the ideal group for me and worry that if I don’t try, I will never find it. I am so tired of writing alone and yet I know that some groups are worse than nothing. But really, my standard is not too high– but the idea that a group could actually be transformative is exciting. I look forward to reading more about what happens. (Please excuse my jumbledness– as you can see, I don’t ‘have this ironed out!)

    • I have found the perfect situation I think. The group that keeps me thinking, and a very small group, (only three of us) that challenge me a lot. So I have my scene of safety, and also my place at the edge of the writer’s cliff. I wonder if you could find one or two select friends to create your own group?

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