“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” said Ernest Hemingway, whose idea of a great social life involved a remote cabin, dead animals, and the bottom of a brandy glass. “Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.”
Isaac Asimov – a self-confessed claustrophile whose greatest childhood wish, according to his autobiography, was to live in a magazine stand in the New York subway so that he could listen to the trains and read – agreed. “Writing is a lonely job”, he wrote. “Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his typewriter or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.”
The writer as maverick loner, doomed to exhaust their emotional energy in the dazzling salon of make-believe inside their brain, has become a romantic cliché; and it is one that writers themselves particularly love. Certainly, to write well, we must, well, write, which requires hermit-like stretches of solo graft. But we’re also prone to using our creative introversion as an excuse for perfectionism and pride. In our day jobs we evangelise teamwork, but at night we obsess over our manuscripts like a host of literary Gollums, snarling at the idea of ‘feedback’.
By we, of course, I mean me. As a child of social media, I have long been a vocal champion of open mental API. But up until two years ago, while I over-shared in every other area of my life, I couldn’t bring myself to expose a single sentence of my fiction to someone else’s scrutiny. ‘Writing groups’ were herds of passive-aggressive women firing off thinly veiled invective about each other’s historical murder mysteries in community centres, and if I couldn’t pour out the prose with the sole support of a Moleskine and a martini, I simply wasn’t fit to write.
Everything changed one balmy August day in 2010, when my mother emailed me a link to (the pre-S.J. Watson, little-known) Faber Academy. “I don’t need a bloody course.” I snapped, contemplating the glittering string of adjectives occasionally bumping into a plot on my laptop. “I just need to write. I certainly don’t need the bastardised highlights of Steven King’s On Writing flogged to me by some consumptive publishing house reduced to whoring out its name to would-be soft-porn self-published housewives with more money than sense.”
At the other end of the phone, there was a dignified pause. “Darling,” my mother said, “It was just a thought.”
But it was a thought that lingered. Perhaps I was being a little rigid. Perhaps writing was more of a craft than a trait. Perhaps, just perhaps, a tiny bit of mentorship might not go amiss. In any case, it would be a good excuse to buy new stationary. So, two days later, I sent out the first ever extract of my book, and two months later, found myself in a room in Bloomsbury with fourteen other tense-looking weirdos who had obliterated their ISAs in order to secure a place on a six-month novel-writing course.
There are many reasons why I am now grateful for that decision, from the warmth, wisdom and wit of our brilliant tutor, Richard Skinner, to the generous guidance of guest speakers such as Helen Dunmore. But the fourteen most important reasons were undoubtedly those fourteen fellow weirdos. I didn’t know it on that first day, but thanks to Faber, I’d found my writing group.
Now, over two years later, ten people from our original class still meet every month. A fortnight before each session, two of us still email round 5,000 words for the others to discuss – just like Richard taught us – with a chairman to keep conversations on track. This spring, we even organised a four-day writing holiday in Italy, complete with exercises, readings, one-to-ones and private writing time.
We are friends now, proper friends. We meet each other’s partners, we cook each other dinner, we sing awful karaoke while drunk on cheap wine. But, in that room above a pub, our shared commitment to getting those damned novels finished comes first. It’s a unique relationship, necessarily different from those we have with our families and our regular mates.
Our group is the place where we can bang on about the stuff that would quite rightly be esoteric and irritating to anyone who has never tried to write a book. Did I get away with that exposition? Do my semi-colons drive you nuts? Have you discovered the snapshots on Scrivener? These people care. More importantly, they understand. They might not always have the answers, but you can be sure that their questions will force you to face up to all those sneaky little obfuscations and evasions that you’ve been trying to repress.
So what makes a good writing group? Without a doubt, diversity. We are recent graduates, we are working mothers, we are globetrotting businessmen, we are retired. We even, God forbid, live outside London. We all share a certain ballpark of skill, but it would be difficult to imagine a more eclectic mix of personalities and writing styles. Our collective life experiences and expertise (including that of a lawyer, a doctor and a wonderfully pedantic architect) help inject fresh perspectives, catch factual anomalies, and prevent any whiff of echo-chamber. Somewhere in the class, each one of us has our natural first reader, but we also have our natural critic, too. And reading others’ work is just as valuable as having yours read.
“To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light,” explains Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer. “Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.”
What else matters? Commitment – you have to be willing to consistently put in the time if you expect others to do the same for you. Kindness – you’re dealing with the raw underbelly of our identity and dreams, and it is easily flayed. Honesty – because a true desire to help each other succeed sometimes requires harsh truths, albeit tactfully delivered. And humility – fighting your corner can help you understand what you’re trying to write, but learning to shut up, sit back and listen is even better.
There’s a lot of luck involved in corralling a compatible group. But now I’ve experienced the benefits – benefits which have helped turn my novel from an egotistical outpouring into a almost-better-than-rubbish third draft – I would urge every aspiring writer out there to trawl writing courses, networking events, bookshops, libraries, social media and friends of friends until, by trial and error, they build their own magic circle of trust. And finally, remember that one old cliché still works; unfortunately, your mother is always right.