Writers’ Groups: The Good, the Bad and the Nasty

020My friend M is working on her first novel. She’s making good progress and enjoying the process, but her mom is pushing her to join a writers’ group.

A writers’ group is somewhat like a marriage. When it’s good, it’s amazingly good. When it’s bad, it can suck the creative life out of you.

I once belonged to what I thought was a good group. We met monthly and handed out copies of work to be critiqued and discussed. One member, Kathy, admitted she was working on a novel, but she never brought sections of her book to the meetings. Clearly she didn’t feel supported and safe within the group. Kathy eventually dropped out to devote more time to her novel.

She sent a couple of emails afterwards. Nothing too heavy–just saying hi and checking in. I was happy to discuss my writing journey and hear about hers. Not so our fellow gang, er, group members.

Julia, the defacto leader and the one I thought was the nicest of the bunch, announced that Kathy had the nerve to email her. “I refuse to acknowledge her since she left our group. She’s dead to me. Dead!” Okay, Julia may not have used those exact words, but you get the idea.

Yikes, I thought, that’s pretty harsh, but Kathy never really fit in with the group. Not like me. I was one of the popular girls. Everyone liked me and always complemented my writing.

Flash forward about a year to when I’d begun seriously working on my first novel.

I’m a busy person. I have a fulltime job, a family, an emotionally needy Chihuahua and a husband who disappears for months at a time. Something told me not to tell the group I was trying to write a novel. Maybe it was the way they criticized books written by local authors, even bringing them to meetings to gloat over typos or cheap bindings.

I continued writing short stories and essays for the group while working on my novel on the sly. That extra writing, as well as the meetings and critiquing their work began to take its toll. It pulled me away from what I wanted to concentrate on–my novel.

I’d learned from Kathy’s mistake. I didn’t tell them about my book. Instead I said I couldn’t make the meetings anymore because of a scheduling clash with my boy’s Tae Kwon Do. Darn it all–it was the same night, same time! No, there was no way my sailor or even a friend could take him. It had to me. Sigh–a mother’s work is never done.

Whew! I extricated myself from the gang with no hard feelings. I was quite proud of myself.

Pride was about to goeth before a fall.

A little later I emailed Julia. (What was I thinking???) She has an impressive website and I wanted to talk about website design. She didn’t respond. Worse, I’m certain she slagged me at numerous subsequent meetings. They’re probably still talking about me. “Did I tell you Nanette emailed me? She wanted to ask me about designing a website! I have no interest in communicating with her! Ever! She left the group!”

I’ve achieved a Kathy-like level of exile.

So back to M: Choose carefully when you join a writers’ group. Some of them take their membership commitments very seriously.