My partner asked me a question yesterday that I couldn’t answer:
“Isn’t it a tad ironic,” he said, “for writers to join writing clubs?”
I had no idea what he meant.
“Well,” he continued, “clubs seem to be the antithesis of what being a writer is about. Writing is all about creativity and self-expression, while clubs tend to be filled with people who want to belong and do the same thing.”
He explained that he wasn’t advocating the lonely writer scratching away in a garret. Rather, he just thought that clubs, with their membership lists and monthly meetings and raffles and fund-raising, just don’t seem to reflect the ethos of the great literary mind. He preferred the image of the writer gathering in the pub with fellow writer friends to shout and debate and discuss deep matters.
Was he right?
From the 1930s through the 1940s, a small group of literary figures met at a local Oxford pub (at first the Eagle and Child, later the Lamb and Flag) to read aloud their works in progress, toss back a pint, and have a laugh.
Among them were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. They called themselves the Inklings, and oh! to be a spy on the wall when The Lord of the Rings was shared with an audience for the first time.
Just a decade earlier, in the 1920s, the Bloomsbury Group was blossoming.
Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and other artistic giants of their day met, talked, and influenced each other’s work. They didn’t meet at specific times or in specific places, but their close relationships left us a distinct artistic legacy.
Then there were the Beats of the 1950s (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al)…
The Lost Generation living in Paris at the end of World War II…
Endless literary movements traceable to a collection of extraordinary people who happened to come together at a certain moment in time and cross-pollinate.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his examination of the science of success, Outliers, discusses the importance of being in the right place at the right time among the right group of people.
Great minds, he found, cannot work alone. They need mentors, collaborators, and supporters. They need inspiration, the kind that only can come from bouncing ideas back and forth between equally smart, quick, and tuned-in minds.
Groups of writers have been a powerful force in history. But can modern-day writing clubs harness the same power?
When I was in college, I had the great fortune of meeting a fellow student and writer who encouraged me along my path. We met every Tuesday for lunch at Coffee Cantata. She had a mocha and a bagel, and I had filter coffee (because it was cheaper). We talked about life, what we were going to do after college, and our thoughts and feelings about writing.
If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have considered becoming a writer.
Student writing groups are often vibrant, exciting, inspiring environments to explore in. Many are spontaneously created among a group of friends who find that they share an interest in writing. I was a part of several other informal groups during my postgraduate years, and I benefited from each one.
Outside of university, however, my experience of fellowship with fellow writers has been a mixed bag.
In my twenties, I often found myself in one-way relationships where I sent my writing off to friends and family, hoping they’d read it, but never got much response in return.
Every so often, I’d meet someone who also fancied themselves a writer, and we’d meet to share our work. But with jobs, family, and a life to live, it was difficult to find the time and to relate to someone whose writing was so different from my own. I began to yearn for someone my own age who was doing the same kind of writing I was.
Around 2005, I decided to get serious with my writing, and I looked around for proper writers’ groups to join.
My first experience was a disaster. I met an ex-pat who wrote fantasy novels, and he invited me along to his writers’ group. We met in the house of an elegant patrician descended from the first people to have arrived in the country, and she served us tea in china cups and biscuits on silver plates. The only other person present was a shy, plump, curly-brown-haired romance writer. I felt like a freak.
Later that year, I booked tickets to an international writers’ festival, putting on my brightest face in hopes of networking with other writers. Unfortunately, at every single event, I was the youngest person in the room. A room full of white-haired people wasn’t the best vote of confidence in the literary future of a city. Where were all the young writers?
When I moved, I tried again to get involved in the local writers community. I attended a meeting of the local writers’ society only to discover that most members were retired folk writing whimsical poems about butterflies and cats and hedgerows. The only other person my age present was a guest, like me, and she was in the area on holiday.
I’d learned my lesson. My partner was right. Formal writers’ clubs just weren’t for me.
My best experiences had always been with informal groups of friends who spontaneously came together. These writers’ groups never lasted long, but they always left me with open eyes and an expanded sense of what was possible.
Regardless of whether informal writing groups are better than formal ones, one thing is certain:
Writers DO need the company of other writers.
Writing is a lonely craft. Sure, you’ve got the company of your characters, but they’re no substitute for living, breathing human beings who can interact with you.
I have no doubt that writers who regularly meet up with other like-minded writers get further than those of us who tackle it alone. Literary history demonstrates clearly that it takes more than one writer to create a literary movement.
And that’s what many of us secretly crave…
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be part of one of those writers’ groups that goes down in history? To have been a Beat or a Bloomsburian before those terms were even coined?
Let do it!