Friday, 6 May 2016

Writer's Groups - 'Is the Squeeze Worth the Juice?'

I'm doing a synopsis this month on Writer's Groups after an expression I overheard a short while ago: 'Is the Squeeze Worth the Juice?'  In other words, for tremendous effort, do you gain much from it?

Make no mistake, if a Writer's Group is properly organized the organizer won't have much time for anything else viz:  arranging meetings, setting up venues, updates to members (including those not on e-mail so envelopes and stamps are needed), advertising competitions, marshalling the slots at the regular meetings - not to mention producing coffee and biscuits from thin air!  Well - great fun if writing is the passion for you but after a few years, the novelty can wear off and you can be left exhausted.  It is even worse if you are the only one who hasn't read out your work at a meeting because everyone else has used up the allotted time.  I grew pretty cheesed off with that one.

There is a lot to take into consideration as to whether a Writer's Group is for you.  I knew little about how they operated until I joined the St Budeaux Library Writer's Group in 2007.  It ran well but due to various restructuring of Plymouth Library Services, it was closed down, much against the will of the attendees.  At that time I was a member of Plymouth Proprietary Library so asked if I could start a Writer's Group there.  By 2012 we had some 35 members on the books and were struggling at meetings to accommodate everyone.  We even ran out of chairs on one occasion.

Elements of 'life getting in the way' then certainly got in the way.  My father died, my mother immediately fell ill, passing away eighteen months later, I was tied into the library committee which had passed me a Poisoned Chalice of responsibility and my full time day job became more demanding.  Throw that in with running a house plus family life and creative writing went out the window.  You will be pleased to know though, that the group still thrives but is now located elsewhere in Plymouth and known simply as the Plymouth Writers Group.  I'm delighted it has continued so successfully.

What did I get out of it? (Apart from hours spent e-mailing members, co-ordinating meetings, representing the library at various literary events etc), well, it gave me writing confidence.  Reading your work aloud to a group of people brings interesting reactions.  Some are complementary, others more analytical but in the end - all critique helps.  You also have to gauge the personality of the other members: some stick with a preferred genre i.e. You know that George will always read a horror story or that Jenny will always read a romance. There are also a small number who only want to be heard but not really concentrate on the work of others.

Writing groups are increasing in popularity.  Why so?  Well, with reliable jobs in such short supply, people can find themselves unemployed and spare time doodling on a writing pad or keyboard can turn into something creative.  Many retired people always wanted to write but 'never had the time'.  With self-publishing now so accessible, others hope they can produce a block buster or a seismic collection of poetry which will set the world on fire.  There are also - dare I say it - more insidious reasons.  When it was realised I had a popular group where writer's paid the modest sum of £3:00 per session to a charity (the library), others saw a viable outlet for setting up their own money making venture. (And think of the Arts Grants that can follow ...)

Enter the journalists.  I don't like journalists that much as they tend to be like a Rubic Cube to everyone should they need them at some point in the future.  They are also a forest fire of gossip.  By levering themselves in with a charity of similar objectives (i.e. another private library), they are eyeing up opportunities for Arts Grants and other substantial financial hand outs.  That of course will give them publicity and they can then get invited along to the swankiest black tie dinners where - well I never - they can be nominated for awards and secure more cyclic employment opportunities for themselves.  Why?  Writing Groups are hotbeds of creativity.  From the most pedestrian mind can burst the most sparkling idea.  But remember, you can copyright a document but you cannot copyright an idea.  So, journalists, who are always looking for a scoop may not find some famous footballer with his trousers down on Royal Parade but will be gathering the brainstorming gems of some very ordinary folk for their own ends.

So, is the squeeze worth the juice? Is the juice worth the squeeze? For a novice writer, a good writing group with some friendly faces is great fun.  If you have a public venue (i.e. a room in a library, pub or church hall) then control access strictly.  If you find your ideas have wandered out the door and appear in a newspaper or magazine under someone else's name then that business of not being able to copyright an idea will haunt you for a long time to come.  Don't think it doesn't happen because it has happened to me.
Do you want to write on a set theme each month/each meeting or do you want to read the next instalment of your novel?  Some Writer's Groups uphold rules and regulations where bringing your novel along may either be encouraged or unwelcome.  You need to find out in advance.

You could test the water by collecting a few friends together around your kitchen table and reading out your work.  This is often the best way to operate as it is totally private and you aren't having to marshal about members of the general public who have wandered in the door.  You can also recruit by word of mouth and if you are in your or someone else's home, the rules of respect are far more enforced by osmosis.  One vital problem to watch out for are the 'poachers'; the people who turn up to scout for the best writer's to take to their group so they can built up their reputation.  I had this happen to me (both as a victim of losing people from my group and being approached several times to go to other groups).  There may also come a time when, due to 'life getting in the way', you need to drop out for a while.  Illness can certainly give you a different perspective on life.  Priorities change.

Good luck with whatever you go for.  I trust that you will gain a sufficient amount of juice to drink plentifully and won't expend too much energy on the squeeze.  It can be exhausting. Trust me.

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