A couple of posts ago I told you that I was going to a Writers’ Group. In fact I have been to two in the last week, they were both kind of amazing but quite different in their own way.
The first was the Boroondara Writers Group who meet once a month in Balwyn. This group has about 30 active members, of whom 10-15 come to each meeting. When I arrived I was struck by the fact that the group was composed entirely of women, the average age of whom would be about 65.
The group operates such that each writer reads something aloud that they’ve written, you read along with a paper copy provided by the writer, and you are then given a minute or two to write comments or impressions on your copy. Following that is a discussion and critique of the work.
The critique for this group (in fact both groups) was fairly gentle; there is quite a lot of that was lovely, and you’re such a great writer but there are nuggets of true criticism in there. For me I usually made comments like ‘this part didn’t feel the same as the rest’ or ‘this sentence is awkward’. Sometimes I made suggestions for changes, but largely I left it to the author to make changes to bring it back in line with the rest of the piece.
I had brought along a piece to read but I wasn’t confident to put it on the table to start with. As we went around the group it became clear that the other women had wildly different styles and contents to my work. They all wrote short pieces each of which stands alone; short stories and pseudo-journalism. Some of them were very good writers, not a paragraph was wasted, their phrases were beautiful and their stories were completely engrossing. Others had good stories but didn’t really have the same flair in their words and on the other hand one woman had a great flair for words but the content didn’t grab me.
When it came to the end of everyone else’s readings a woman to my left, Mary, who would have been 85 at least, said that I had to read out my work. I said I wasn’t sure about it but in the end I was very glad she made me read my work. I didn’t get very much in the way of constructive criticism, but I did get a very warm response from the group. It made me pleased for having gone.
The second group I went to was the Caulfield Writers’ Group who meet fortnightly in Bentleigh. This group was quite different, there were only five including me, there were three men, and the average age would have been about 35.
This group also works on the reading aloud followed by criticism principle but because it is a smaller group, you are allowed to bring longer pieces than the Boroondara group.
Again I went last but the thing I noticed about this group is that everyone is writing novels or long pieces and they bring an excerpt to each meeting. These people have been working on their projects for some time and are able to talk more about character development and other stuff that becomes more obvious in longer work than in shorter works.
I tried to give useful criticism, if I found a paragraph problematic I tried to tell them why I felt it didn’t fit without saying ‘this bit is crap’. Some of the works I just couldn’t get into and I felt bad that these people had spent so long developing artwork that didn’t speak to me, but then again I don’t write so that people will like it, I write because I have to.
I read out a short story that I’d written, a group of diary entries by a highschool girl. I’d started it as a bit of fun with words, teenagers have quite a unique lexicon and it’s fun to write like that.
After I’d read my work we discussed a few really helpful things, one of the elements was not clear enough, there were a few peculiar phrases that needed refining, but generally it was well received. One person came up to me later and said she envied my use of language, that it had a lightness that she couldn’t get in her own work. I felt for her because I’d really enjoyed her work, but I agreed that because English was not her native tongue there was a simplicity to her language that there may not have been otherwise.
I’ve had a few friends caution me that people in writer’s groups and creative writing courses will often give you criticism that tries to make your work more like theirs and to take everything with a grain of salt. I feel like it is important for where I am at the moment to have people who don’t know me hear what I have written and comment on it.
Especially stuff that was important for me to write but which is not necessarily ready for public consumption or to show to people who know me. I will keep in mind that I have to be authentic to myself in my writing, but if it doesn’t make sense or changes tone abruptly that it might be easier for someone else to see that than me.
I really enjoyed my experiences so far with these two groups and I will definitely be making a regular habit of going to both groups. If nothing else it makes me feel good to know that there are other amateur writers out there with very varied amounts of talent. I know I shouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself with others but it’s reassuring to have a different point of comparison.