I always get slightly embarrassed about saying ‘I’m off to my writing group’. It seems to me to sound a little like ‘I’m off to group therapy’ or ‘I’m off to my flower-arranging class.’
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with either of those activities – I once spent a fabulous morning in a Dutch farmhouse learning to make a Christmas centrepiece, probably the ultimate Expat Wife experience* especially considering I don’t actually celebrate Christmas - but somehow I always feel a little defensive about our fortnightly 'writing' sessions.
Maybe it’s the way my husband raises his eyebrows and says ‘Did you do much writing at writing group?’ and then laughs. Could he be suggesting that it’s more of an excuse for a good chat?
Well, an outsider might get the impression that Writing Group is more of a talking shop. There’s the tea and shortbread, for a start, and the way we spend at least an hour out of our allotted two catching up on each other’s news. Then we give feedback on any work that’s been sent round in the last fortnight. And then we chat a bit more. We generally go off at several tangents. If someone’s having an emotional crisis then everything else goes by the board. It can seem ever so slightly lacking in focus.
However. That is missing the point. The focus is there, because we are the focus. Quite often the group’s main purpose is to identify what’s stopping any one of us from writing and find a solution. Or to get a reticent soul to admit that they’ve got the seedling of an idea, and then drip feed it with enthusiasm and encouragement until it bears fruit.
In the year that our writing group has been running, between us we’ve produced two YA novels, nearly two non-fiction books, a proposal for a series of non fiction books, a proposal for an animation series, some fabulous poems, a book for young children, a picture book and the start of an adult novel. One of us (Jennifer Gray! Yay!) got an honorary mention in the recent SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition.
The catch-up reports have been essential for setting our goals, celebrating our triumphs and sharing our pooled knowledge and resources. Most of all it’s helped the people with great ideas, who are mired in work, family and community responsibilities to hang on to their creative dreams and see that producing something – however sketchy - leads to producing a whole lot more.
The feedback is ferociously constructive, encouraging but honest. We care about each other and each other’s work. We fall in love with each other’s heroes (I'm passionate about a certain Mr H at the moment). And we help to provide perspective when the writer can’t see the trees for the leaves, let alone the wood for the trees.
Amanda Swift who runs the group was our tutor on the City University Writing for Children course (the group started as a follow up to the course, but some of the members joined subsequently and didn’t do the course). She sets the tone – she’s always postitive, acutely insightful and rarely sticks to her original plan. I’ve gained more from Amanda’s throwaway remarks than I would from an entire MA course in Creative Writing. ‘I’m not sure why I come to writing group, because I never write anything’ confessed one of our group last year, ‘I think it’s just because of Amanda.’ And since then she’s started writing too.
In fact, let's face it, Writing Group is a mixture of group therapy and flower arranging - with words and plots standing in for flowers and foliage. Who knows what beautiful bouquets (or even books) we'll create in the future.
(*Expat Wife Experience. I can feel a post coming on about being an Expat Wife, or Trailing Spouse as we were so delightfully known. For now it is sufficient to say that an Expat Wife Experience is when you find yourself doing something that you would never ever do in your home country, partly to have a totally foreign experience and partly to spend time with other people - it really doesn’t matter who, but it generally turns out to be other expat wives. Embroidering a patchwork quilt was one such EWE. I will return to this subject sometime.)