The value of sharing the writing experience
By Dr Naomi Booth
Lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature, York St John University
firstwriter.com – Saturday November 26, 2005
Many people who begin writing do so with a strong concept of what a writer should be like. Perhaps it’s a serious novelist typing through the night, driven to insomnia by the urgency of their story. Or maybe it’s a dedicated poet, practising their verse forms to perfection. Personally, mine was of a woman living alone somewhere by the sea, utterly devoted to her artistic pursuit to the exclusion of almost everything except a walk on the beach to refresh her inspiration. And possibly the occasional nap, if her muse would leave her alone for a few hours. After completing a degree in English literature many of my peers took themselves off to attempt to become "writers" in the way they imagined writers should be. One went to live in a house in the middle of rural France to write a novel, barely seeing another soul – other than the boulanger at the nearest village – for almost a year. Another spent six months in a beach hut in Zanzibar. What many people’s imagined writers seem to have in common is that they undertake writing alone. The act of writing is so often imagined by aspiring writers as an intensely solitary, almost punishing, pursuit.
However, the communal aspect of writing is an important and often over-looked one. The strong relationship between many famous authors, their editors and other writers is well documented: T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; D.H. Lawrence and Edward Garnett; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, to name just three of the most important collaborations. But working collaboratively on writing can begin long before publication and can be highly rewarding for the professional writer as well as those who write purely for pleasure. Back as a 16 year-old aspiring writer I found myself constantly procrastinating and finding a hundred different ways to avoid actually writing anything. I never seemed to have the discipline to lock myself away, alone in a room, to actually put pen to paper. It wasn’t until I joined a poetry workshop at college that I discovered that one of the best ways to beat writer’s block is to write as part of a group. In the first workshop I went to there were quite a few people who had never written before. The leader of the workshop would often give us themes and structures to write around, and we would each read out our work at the end of the workshop for constructive criticism. I realised for the first time that writing didn’t always have to be about finding the discipline to take yourself away from all distraction and write alone. It could be initiated as part of an enjoyable social event, where the distraction of other people’s work could become part of the creative process. Being a member of the workshop also meant that the time and space to write were built into my calendar. I couldn’t pretend anymore that I had more important things to do that ate into my writing time. I had a social obligation to be there and to commit to writing there. Of course at first (writers often being shy creatures) the reading out of your own work can feel excruciating. But everyone is in a similarly vulnerable position and the benefits of the positive criticism you can gain from the group far out weigh any initial embarrassment.
Over the years I have been writing and editing I’ve been involved in many different types of workshops and writer’s groups, which have worked in different ways. At university I joined a writers’ group where pieces had to be submitted each week anonymously. We met once a week and different people would read out pieces at random. The writer’s anonymity was therefore preserved and the group would feedback on the pieces. This was a brilliant way to overcome any shyness about reading your work out and to get feedback on writing that was in progress. My favourite kinds of workshops have generally been the ones lead by other writers who have shared particularly interesting ways of working and ways of starting up when the dreaded writer’s block strikes. These have ranged from warming up exercises of free-writing (being made to write non-stop for a short burst of time, freely associating around a starting term like "birth", "shopping", "home" etc.), to writing short pieces with pictures or photos as their starting point, to pieces built around word games, where people have had to pass on their five favourite words to the person sitting next to them. At first different ways of working can feel contrived. It sometimes feels a long way from the romantic notion many of us have of a solitary writer, acting as some kind of unmediated conduit for "inspiration", which will flow direct from the ether through the writer’s pen to the page. And there’s always an element of surprise if the workshop is lead by someone you don’t know. I have been to workshops where the leader has decided we should turn our poems into a "sound performance". Let’s just say that warbling and howling are not particular skills of mine and I didn’t particularly enjoy attempting to hone them in front of a room full of strangers – but the experience of writing as part of a group has been overwhelmingly positive for me, as it has been for many writers I know.
If you’re just starting out, attending workshops can be a great way to build up the discipline to write and to meet people who will inspire you to write more. If you’re a seasoned writer it can be a great way to find different approaches to starting a piece and can inspire interesting new work. It can also make you comfortable with giving and receiving feedback, which can be essential in moving your work forward, particularly if you are working towards publication. Getting the feedback of someone objective whose opinion you trust can be an important precursor to the relationship you might then build up with an editor and other writers throughout your writing career. My two university friends who took themselves off to remote places to write both came back empty handed. One had written a detective novel over the course of a year, which, without feedback and input from other people along the way, had gone so far in the wrong direction that he decided to scrap the whole endeavour. The other wrote very little while away in the quiet of his beach hut. But when he returned to London and was surrounded by the busy clamour of city life and people constantly reading and criticising his work, he found that his desire to write returned and he has now amassed a sizeable collection of very good short stories. I rethought my image of a lone writer by the sea a long time ago. I now think that all writers can learn from the experience of sharing their work and from the processes of writing with others. If you’re interested in benefiting from this kind of experience look out for writer’s workshops near you, set up your own local writer’s group or submit your piece for constructive criticism by the team of editors at firstwriter.com.