The idea of a writer being ‘born in a cellar and living in a garret.’ was coined by English writer Samuel Foote in the 1700s. But from Socrates to the present, many writers do emerge from their garrets to congregate in groups.
I wonder how many writers submit to agents or publishers without having their work read by non-friends and family? There are also countless agent blogs on why they hate ‘my family love my stories’ claims in submissions. Accolades from those who know and love us don’t have any validity in the cut-throat world of publishing, for there are many husbands or lovers who will happily lie, heaping praise even when the story sucks. Agents often send rejection letters (famously to Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling) advising unsuccessful applicants to ‘join a writers’ group.’ Hilarious perhaps for JK, but good advice for those starting out on a magnum opus. Professional editing or tuition courses are expensive if your writing isn’t earning any cash, so joining an enthusiastic group without vested interest in bolstering egos can make a huge difference to realistic assessment of a work in progress. Such groups usually contain many people with experience, like published novelists, or those who’ve had higher education tuition in creative writing who will generously share tips. Most also have invited programmes of speakers e.g. authors, agents or screenplay writers, offering additional help and inspiration. Plus, most clubs run competitions. I recall the shock and delight of winning my first short story competition which prompted me to start submitting my debut novel. Our local group also runs regular editing sessions for member’s work with the critique mantras: Be kind. Be constructive. What was good? What could be better? Another membership benefit is encouragement to write or critique on genres (or even non-fiction) out with comfort zones, teaching new skills, stretching the imagination and fuelling innovation for your own work.
Finding a group may be as easy as consulting a local library, the press, or of course the internet. In many countries, writing clubs have over-arching organisations who can be contacted. My Greenock Group was a founder member of The Scottish Association of Writers 51 years ago. Their annual conference is an energetic and invigorating weekend with both neophytes and experienced authors enjoying a wide range of activities and learning experiences. And with websites like LiteraryGlobe listing writers clubs now too, soon it will be possible to move anywhere in the world and instantly find like-minded people- the internet at its best!
In my experience, following educational courses and retreats, many writers continue regularly meeting together in informal groups. I belong to one such monthly group in the big city, which prompts me to produce something for perusal and comment. The varied ages, backgrounds, professions and experience of the participants offer a range of useful tastes and points of view. It is also a terrific resource since we have ex-police officers, engineers, scientists, lawyers, medics and several teachers as well as a University tutor. An afternoon of stimulation and encouragement purely on our own work is invaluable and fun. There are so many amazing unsung writers out there.
So, you may not find a Dymock Poets Group with Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke, nor a Bloomsbury Group with Virginia Woolf, nor an Inkling Group with Lewis and Tolkien, but if you are writing it helps to find other writers. And there is always the pub. Tolkien’s lot met in Oxford’s ‘Eagle and Child’ where I enjoyed many a G & T during a sabbatical), Hemingway hung out with acolytes in El Floridita in Havana where I raised a Mojito in reverence. The Stratford Odeon group with Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald, met in a book shop in Paris where I have yet to browse. My groups meet in a bowling Club and an inter-faith community centre. The place doesn’t matter. The people and ideas do. With one man’s meat being another man’s poison in terms of literary merit, we need as much objectivity as we can get!