Shirley Wright

Writing groups – who needs them?

Our first blog post is from poet and novelist  Shirley Wright. As Shirley says, ‘It’s all about the words.’

Cautiously I placed a hand either side of the skull, reaching along the threads of memory. Dry beneath my touch, it began to pulse and murmur.
But the words had no meaning. They spoke a language of lost time,
singing of dreams beyond imagination…”
Shirley Wright, ‘How Old Dreams Are Read’, Unchained, Tangent Books 2013

Shirley WrightWhen I left teaching after more than thirty years, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do next, though I had absolutely no idea how or where to begin. But as a teacher, I had no doubts about the best route to follow, because I do believe in collaborative learning. I believe almost anyone can be taught, guided or encouraged towards almost anything if they want it badly enough. So I signed up for evening classes at my local uni, which led to my being recommended day- or week-long courses all over the country. As a result I met lots more enthusiastic individuals who pointed me towards writing groups of various kinds, and to competitions, magazines and events where I could submit my work. Yes, there were huge numbers of rejections and failures, but eventually a few tiny successes came along, then a few bigger ones. The end result? A first novel published last year and now a  poetry collection on its way.

For us scribblers, there’s been an explosion of writing groups, evening classes and weekend workshops in recent years. Certain members of the literati still look down their noses at such things, asserting in their rather snooty way that writers are ‘born’ and can’t be taught, though I suspect Ian McEwan might disagree. He got an MA in Creative Writing from UEA on a course founded by writing luminaries Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Clearly, not everyone scoffs.

I’m a great believer in help, as well as self-help. I’m not an ivory-tower writer who battles away in splendid isolation, never daring to breathe a word about my current WIP for fear the muse might desert me or the idea waft onto the ether to be grabbed by someone else who’ll do it better. And ‘help’ isn’t exactly what I mean either. It’s more about interacting with like-minded people who offer suggestions and criticism (yes, that is actually a good word, not a scary or a negative one), provide a sounding-board to bounce ideas off, bring enthusiasm, a different perspective, reassurance when needed, a kick up the backside (ditto) and excellent coffee and cakes. Creative geniuses like Leonardo and Mozart probably were born that way – the rest of us have to work at it and can benefit hugely from support.

I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have achieved any of what I have done so far without the various groups I’ve joined and the amazing individuals I’ve  met who were willing to share with me their passion for words. I’m never going to be famous or make a fortune; but I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve nine years ago, I’ve learnt huge amounts along the way and I’ve formed inspirational new friendships. Like most things, it’s horses for courses, and you need to experiment a bit, dip in and out until you find what suits. But I promise you, writing groups do work.

Who needs them? We do!

lastgreenfieldShirley’s first poetry collection The Last Green Field  is published this autumn by Indigo Dreams .

Time out of Mind

Her Cornish mystery novel, Time Out of Mind is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon, 

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  1. Hi Shirley
    Thanks for submitting this piece. I’ve also been in more than one writing group and find it fascinating that they all work in slightly different ways. Just wondering as I read your post how many are ‘single sex’ and how many mixed? I have tried both, by the way! Ali B

  2. Hi Shirley,

    Great post and I entirely agree – attending writing groups and meeting more like-minded people is the key to success. I joined my first writing group in March and as a direct consequence, I have increased my output and developed my craft immeasurably. Not to mention the fact it has allowed me to meet a fantastic bunch of encouraging and talented writers.

    Kelly’s Eye – Writing, Music, Life

  3. Hi Alison! Yes, like you I’ve tried mixed groups as well, though ‘mixed’ is a bit of an exaggeration. Every group I’ve ever attended has had a marked predominance of women – I do wonder why? And I wonder if this is people’s experience in general? Anyone else out there, it would be interesting if you would let us know.

  4. Hi Shirley – just been chatting on Twitter to Maria Smith of Frist Draft Cafe who is in a group of 20 with about 14 meeting each time (weekly for them!) They start with a quick writing challenge (which is read out but not critiqued – nice idea I thought to have a bit of writing on the night) then go on to critique rather as we do. Her replies are at @MariaASmith if you would like the details. Always worth hearing other ideas. Ali B

  5. I’ve been told the original founders of Bristol Women Writers chose to make it women-only because they were tired of being in mixed groups where the men (even though fewer in number) did nearly all the talking. But that was 20+ years ago and maybe it wouldn’t happen today. Numbers change the dynamic, too – for me, somewhere around 10 is ideal, assuming that most meetings will have 1 or 2 members who can’t make it. But 14 to 20 members would certainly offer a good range of views!

    1. I am also a member of Phoenix Writers, along with Maria. I think us chaps are outnumbered 3-1 and can honestly say no one person (regardless of gender) is allowed to dominate proceedings. We take it in turns to chair the group, which changes on a monthly basis. Feedback must be specific and shouldn’t repeat comments made by others and, due to the size of the group, readings are 1500 words or less but longer pieces can be circulated by email to the group for feedback if critique is requested for submission etc.

      There is indeed a very wide range of views and it’s great to get a male and female perspective on your work. The overall tone of the group is encouraging and supportive and we also have a Subs Club offshoot, which meets on a monthly basis. I think it really helps to have a good spread of age, gender and background in a group and feel that my own writing has developed greatly since I joined.

      I wish you continuing success with your group too.

      Kelly’s Eye – Writing, Music, Life

      1. Hi Wayne – how interesting you are in the same group as Maria – sounds very effective. Sorry hadn’t read your comment before my last reply – 🙁 Ali B

    2. Hi Jane

      For a while I was in a small group of mostly men., Not a problem as I recall until I came to submitting a sex scene (!) – but we all dealt with it fine and it was good to get their take on it. I agree 14 sounds a lot to us. I think they meet on a Saturday morning, so maybe they have more time? Ali B

  6. Hi,

    I love being part of a writers group, mainly the interacting with other like minded individuals, who speak the same language when it comes to chapters, and verse. I consider myself very lucky to be amongst so many enthusiastic writers regularly. In fact I actively encourage writers networking.

    I wasn’t sure meeting weekly was the way forward when we formed our Saturday group, but actually, it keeps everyone writing. We are mixed across age and gender, we have novelists, short story writers, poets, playwrights, songwriters as well as folks writing memoirs and articles.

    I’ve been in several groups, and looking back, I believe this one works well because we stick to a plan during the meeting, and very rarely wander off topic. Chatter can be done beforehand in the coffee lounge, or afterwards elsewhere, the meetings are sacred as we have two hours to get everyone read and critiqued. If we don’t get through the list, it carries over to the next week.
    We also have a maximum word count.

    If you’re reading this and you aren’t part of a group, I’d recommend and encourage trying one out, or even starting one if there isn’t anything in your area.

    1. Thanks Maria, I certainly couldn’t function without being in a group. Ours has been together for quite a while so we are all friends too. We had our first meeting of the autumn last night and going on from your remarks decided it might be time to reimpose a bit of discipline – ! So easy to veer off into discussion rather sticking to structured critique. Thanks again for contributing. Ali B.

  7. Hi everyone, it’s been interesting to read these varied comments. I imagine the bigger the group, the more there has to be strict discipline and timing for it to work. At BWW we find it all too easy to chatter and socialise and not stick to the point. At one stage we introduced a kitchen egg-timer to control things but seem to have dropped that recently. I think it was, maybe, a little too draconian! I also think it’s a good idea to encourage everyone to say something in response to every piece of writing. That way, the author gets more rounded and varied feed-back, and group members get used to sharpening their critiquing skills. We email the evening’s work out in advance so that, in theory, everyone has a chance to read through it before the meeting and think about what they want to say. Reacting ‘off the cuff’ to something you’ve only heard (and not read) is very difficult. A special skill in itself!

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