Unlike science or engineering or finance, writing is amorphous, with infinite possibilities, with no clear rules as to what makes a great book, although people have tried.
So how do writers produce great works in total isolation?
They do not. Virginia Wolf had the Bloomsbury Circle. Dorothy Parker had the Algonquin Round Table. Thoreau had his Concord quartet with Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Perhaps this is why Amy Tan famously advised budding writers to find the “meanest, harshest group of b***s to share your work with.”
She had a point.
With a qualifier. Finding mean critics might improve your work but might also kill your creativity in its infancy. Besides, it is hard to find a group of writers who are at the same level as you, who have empathy and interest in your material, who can offer constructive, caring criticism. Chemistry is everything when it comes to a writers’ group. In that sense it is no different from a marriage.
I should know. I had been trying to find the perfect writing group for a long time, with no luck.
Until recently, when I went to a gathering of alumni of Hedgebrook Farm, a women writers’ residency I attended a few years ago. There I met three women who changed my life.
The planets must have been aligned in their orbits that day, for the women who showed up at my door a few weeks later could not have had more interesting backgrounds.
One was a Canadian-Indian, born and raised in British Columbia and writing a memoir of her coming-of-age with a domineering father. Another was a child actress from Hollywood who was writing a novel about a woman warrior in Tibet. The third was a young Japanese American writing the story of a relationship with a Vietnamese drug dealer in Oakland. And then there was me, a first generation Indian, writing a memoir about growing up with my mentally ill mother.
We got together that evening, and over snacks, read out excerpts from our works. The result was electric. Something clicked. We loved one another’s books.
That I think is the key to a successful writing group.
I had met other writers before. I remember one in particular, who said to me, “If I were you, I would be writing about a woman who doesn’t give a damn, who doesn’t succumb to society, who battles on.”
I should not share my work with this person, I thought, for she had pre-conceived ideas about what I should write about.
A writers’ group should support the author’s material and try to make it better. This is easier said than done.
For it is human to think, “What would I do in such a situation?” But it is not what you would do that is important but what the character would do.
I once took a community college class in fiction. When it came my turn to workshop my material, a woman exclaimed, “Oh, so that was what happened to your husband and children!” I turned purple with embarrassment, for she had assumed that everything in the story had actually happened. But the golden rule is to assume the opposite.
In my current group, even when we discuss a memoir, we talk of the character in the third person so as to provide the writer some distance and objectivity.
Moreover, we never mix the character’s life with the author’s life.
Years ago, I had started a South Asian writers’ group called Awaaz. We would meet in my house on a Sunday afternoon, and over yummy Indian dishes, discuss the latest intellectual movements. Then we would sit in a circle and read aloud excerpts from our works. I would be so energized afterwards, that I could not wait to write. Unfortunately, a housewife came along one day, and decided that our meetings should be more business-like, perhaps because she longed for business meetings she never had a chance to attend. The result, sadly, was that the group lost its intimacy and disbanded.
Intimacy is everything when it comes to a writers’ group. It does not come about overnight of course, but can grow with trust and mutual admiration.
We have quickly graduated from weekday meetings to weekend dinners over wine and desserts, conducted till the wee hours sometimes, even though we still time discussions of our manuscripts. We have begun celebrating birthdays. We even went to the hospital, and cooked for one of the women when she had surgery.
Today I honestly cannot remember a time when I was not in my writing group. Occasionally, I do wonder, “Are they sending me on the right path? Should I rely so much on their criticism?”
That is the kind of healthy skepticism that you need to always keep at the back of your mind.
Still, never for a moment have we judged one another with our preconceived notions of morality, sexuality, or humanity.
Quite the contrary.
One day, after the group had reviewed one my most gut-wrenching excerpts, I was so moved by its praise that I burst into tears. My friends put their arms around me and said, “You are healing from all that craziness.”
That evening I got years’ worth of therapy.
Which brings me to the most important criteria of all.
You should not be in a writers’ group if you do not enjoy the process of reading and critiquing, if you don’t relish the regular interactions with your fellow artists.
I am sure all of us will get our books published one day.
But for me, the journey has been more enjoyable than the destination.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com