A good writing group can be crucial to a writer. We might prefer the more heroic image of the writer building an empire with his/her own hands. But the act of writing is one of the most fundamentally communal processes a person can involve themselves in.
If you’ve ever read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol or Chekhov, you’ll know there’s a constant reference to what it means to be Russian, and that there’s a dialogue between all of these writers regarding that idea. If they were looking to understand what a modern national character might mean for them in their day, they were also asking each other for better ways to understand the human experience. All of these men were of that empire building heroic tradition, but from Pushkin onwards, this communal sense of a greater literary project fuelled them. It’s amazing how little was accomplished before Pushkin and this sense of a literary community.
The Beats are another example of a group of writers who took upon themselves a set of literary/social values and crafted a new literary movement. It’s easy to get caught up in the mythology that arose afterwards, but I love the early black & whites of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg, captured in the midst of talking about what they were doing. Workshopping their ideas before they turned into social artefacts like Junkie, On the Road, and Howl.
I can’t say I see any comparable movements in Australian literature, but as much as what we do is composed of singular acts, there is a communal environment within which they are collected and shared. These communal spheres open up in various ways throughout the literary landscape. Much of it will find connections on the internet through blogs and blogging forums, and will continue to stretch out, in any and all available directions. Connecting and disconnecting, generating communal clusters ceaselessly.
I was recently a part of the reviewing team for the Overload festival and it was interesting to see how the poets of Melbourne had created their own connections. Well respected poets, who’d headlined the night before, climbed the stage on another night, among the many unknown poets of the open section. Poetry found its final drafts on stage before peers. A slam might encourage heckling. Feedback could come over glasses of wine later, or as a response on a stage, a week afterwards. The purest example of communication and response you’re likely to come across, and the most dynamic community I’ve ever seen.
The most basic communal unit is the writing group. You might not be able to find a Chekhov or Ginsberg to share your work with, but there’s still this crucial aspect of communication we need to be involved with. Of course it need not be formalised as an official group, but then there’s something to be said for presenting your writing to readers who aren’t your friends. Who will only know you in the way a reader will.
That might sound basic, but how often do you read a convoluted piece of prose that seems to have no justification for its existence outside of proving the author can string together a few lovely images? How often does the message get presented as a lifeless specimen of logic, functioning to inform us that the required research has been done? Even with established writers, you might feel a gradual disconnect, as their work becomes less aware of the reader; more and more self involved and self referential. There are so many ways for writing to drift away from its target, there’s a need for constant calibration that comes only through getting a variety of responses to your writing.
Robert Giroux wrote of Flannery O’Connor, that when he first met her, he couldn’t understand her Georgian accent, so he got her to write down what she’d just said. It read, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s workshop?” Giroux described this giant of American short story writers in those early days: ‘Flannery always had a flexible and objective view of her own writing, constantly revising, and in every case improving. The will to be a writer was adamant; nothing could resist it, not even her own sensibility about her own work. Cut, alter, try it again…’
Not all writing groups are the same of course. In their most basic form, they are support groups for people who don’t really have the time or energy to rigorously practise the craft at a high level. Whatever their ambitions, sharing words can be rewarding, even if it doesn’t lead to publication. Other writing groups can form vanity gatherings in which writers primp and preen each other’s delicate word embroidered egos. Solid working groups of writers do exist of course, and sometimes bring unbelievable commitment and care to each other’s work. It’s about as difficult to find one of those as a great band if you’re a musician, but it’s worth the search.
I attended the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards on Thursday night, and was a little surprised to find that among the shortlisted writers, there were two other writers of a writing group I was a part of a little while ago. I began thinking that perhaps it was something about the group we had formed, but actually, I think that the most important factor in the development of writers is simply this willingness to commit your work to the thoughts and feelings of other writers. This innate understanding of the communal nature of literature and the responsiveness that comes from genuinely listening to our readers.