I personally don’t have much experience with writing groups. I’ve never officially joined one and find the idea of doing so unappealing and intimidating. It’s hard enough for me to share portions of my work with close friends, let alone near-strangers, especially since I am not good at summaries. I’m sure a few readers will think, “Well, if you don’t try to get to know them, of course they’ll remain near-strangers and you’ll never feel comfortable sharing your work.” True. But I would rather gravitate towards friends who already like to talk about writing and slowly create a group that way.
The success or failure of a writing group really depends on the people in it. If you are in a group that has people you trust who will give you honest, solid feedback, then I think you’ll have fun and improve your writing. But if the others in your group don’t give good feedback and are not decent writers themselves, then neither you nor your writing will have much fun. Some writing groups do weekly or monthly writing assignments or exercises for their members to participate in, and if that’s something you and your fellow writers are interested in, go for it. However, don’t get so bogged down in exercises and “being a writer” that you forget to have fun.
Pens in Space, the writing group I belong to, was originally created by David Greenshell when MySpace was the major social network on the web. It was essentially a forum where anyone in the group could ask questions, share experiences, and post samples of their work. For a while there were close to ten members, but the only ones who commented regularly were David, Foxglove Zayuri, and myself. Others would post occasionally, and perhaps they read the other entries, but, with no way of knowing who was really interested beyond the chronic posters, the group gradually whittled down to just the three of us. Over the past five years, we’ve developed such a repartee, sympathetic dynamic, and understanding of one anothers’ stories and habits that our conversation is most likely rendered nigh-incomprehensible. If Foxglove starts talking about the relationships between some of her characters, we can follow along (for the most part; she has so many of them!) If David mentions one of his short stories or story ideas, we have a rough idea of what the story was about without needed a detailed summary. We don’t need to do much back-tracking because we are so familiar with the worlds and characters we’ve created, making it easy to jump right to the heart of our writing questions or concerns.
I think part of the reason Pens in Space has worked so well for us is because we were good friends before the group ever officially formed. Fox and I have been friends since we were babies, then I met David in college and then when Fox and David met, they hit it off really well. When we got together or talked online, it was usually about writing, and so Pens in Space grew out of that. And, since we are such good friends, we can talk about sensitive issues with our writing, or worries, and fears, and little neurosis that make being artistic so much fun. (I’m not sure if that last bit was sarcastic or not. ^_^;;) I can’t speak for Fox and David, but I know that I don’t feel…lessened for bringing up my personal fears and concerns regarding writing, or life in general for that matter. We actually spend a good portion of meetings working out personal problems, feelings of helplessness, confusion, fears about the future, and watching funny YouTube videos. Very little time is spent writing.
You might think that is strange. A writing group that doesn’t write? How can that be helpful? Well, we do write…just usually not at the meeting. Writing is a very solitary activity, so it makes more sense, to me at least, to bring the fruit of your labors to the meetings and talk about it rather than spending the meetings trying to grow the fruit. Once in a while we’ll get a wild hair and just plop down at the kitchen table or curl up on the couch and write, but it doesn’t happen too often. Talking until stupid-o’-clock in the morning is much more fun. There is no set agenda; we just do or talk about whatever we feel like. And, once we’ve worked out whatever issue is bothering us, we generally feel better about ourselves and our writing, so that once we go home, we actually get some work done. It seems like there is never enough time to do everything we want to do, but we sure try. And the online forum is a place we can still interact and keep up with each others’ projects and state of mind in between meetings.
The downside of this (or at least, what some people might consider a downside) is that, because we are so close-knit, it makes it very, very hard to integrate new members. We’ve tried once or twice to add new people to the group, but, while we enjoyed their company, it didn’t quite gel right, so we’ve remained just three. I don’t consider this to be a bad thing; I’d much rather have a small group of people I really trust than a huge group of fellow “writers” who I don’t feel close to at all outside the writing group.
Like so many other aspects of the craft, writing groups can be a double-edged sword. They can help you develop, hone, and refine your craft while giving you a wonderful atmosphere to work in, or they can stunt your growth and trap you in an endless loop of talking about writing without ever actually doing so.