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Writing Groups, why bother?

There are two types of writers. The writers who are rarely seen. Who cancel social arrangements. Who are elusive. Who lock themselves away and get frustrated when real people intrude, but populate the room with imaginary others.

And the writers who love to socialise, who avoid time on their own. The last one at the party, talking about life and literature into the bottom of a glass. And then when they finally are alone, the silence is resounding. . . and they populate the room with imaginary others.

Writers are lonely people.

Maybe I'm dealing with extremes here. But I do think most of us fit into one of these camps - even if we swing between them. Because writing is, let's face it, a lonely business.

So. writers groups. You elect to be there. You meet real people. You talk about writing. Other writers can help you with that writing niggle. You can set one up simply in your front room. What's not to like?

A word of caution.

The thing is, writers are ... writers. Which means, they want to write - and if they want to write your story, they will give you all sorts of ideas. They will get carried away about what it's about, what could happen, who the characters really are. Which could all be very exciting, but it's not your story. There's always a tightrope to be walked between useful advice, and ideas that take you in another direction from the one your story actually wants to go in. The only person who can know that, is you. Keep that in mind and writers groups can be an amazing source of support and encouragement. They can give you a deadline, and keep you focussed on a project. They can see a project through with you to the bitter end, and come out the other side.

I've just set up a Writers Group in Brixton, which has reminded me of the joy of meeting new writers and hearing about their work. It doesn't have to be complicated. Buy a few flowers to make the place look nice. Have some tea and coffee to hand. Then all you need are the pens, paper. . . and the writers. Advertising online has never been easier. I was overwhelmed with responses. Our first cosy, very lovely Sunday afternoon session happened yesterday. Which goes to show it is possible to do things simply.

But all this has made me think about what exactly you need to consider when setting up or joining a writing group.

Firstly, what is the group for? Is it a group where you share and critique writing, or is it a group where you share the joys and tribulations of the work? Or is it a bit of both? What are your expectations? What would most benefit you? And does the group match these, or would you be better off starting your own?

Finding some kind of framework is important. Are you going to work through structured writing exercises, or the sharing of existing work, or both? How can you be inclusive of everyone? Or do you want to appeal to certain kinds of writers? How does it work? Does someone provide the structure and bring the conversation back when it wanders? Have you made sure everyone has time to explore their own writing if they want to, at whatever stage it's at? Is there a time limit to ensure everyone who wants to can be heard? And perhaps most importantly of all, what kind of atmosphere are you setting up? Do people feel safe to share ideas, and how can you foster this safe space?

At their best, writing groups can become friendship groups. You can share things no-one else in your life understands, and feel heard. This can't be overrated. I have come away from one writer's group I'm a part of feeling the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. (You can read more about this particular writing group here on Phillip Shelley's brilliant writing blog )

In groups like these you can share your writing as it evolves, and gain an insight into the imaginary worlds of other writers as their ideas go from concept to page, week by week. It's so inspiring to see this process, and this can generate energy for your own projects.

You can share your writing frustrations, and commiserate with those of others. You can share successes too - however tiny they seem, other writers will appreciate them. And you can share in the excitement when another writer gets their work published for the first time, or hears back from an agent.

It's about finding your community, your tribe. It's a lonely world out there, and sometimes it takes another writer to understand.

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