It may be virtual. It may be your SheWrites connection. It may be a real-live flesh-and-blood meet-where-you-live writers group. Whatever form it takes, whether you read each other’s work, or coach each other through the finding-an-agent, dealing-with-your-editor, marketing-your-book end of things, if you’re going to be a writer, and a daring writer at that, you need pals. You need allies. You need a writers group.
Here are four reasons why:
1. When you deal with the publishing industry, you always have to pitch. You have to be your best self, your publishable, marketable self (note to as-yet-unpublished writers, all I can say is cherish what you have now). All that good behavior can be distracting. You need somewhere to be your real writerly self. That’s what your writers group is for. It’s where you are just you: creative you, grumpy you, vulnerable you, distressed you, idealistic you, take-on-the-world you, whatever. It’s where you get to be your artist self, not your best-foot-forward public self. You need this because it’s real, and because it feeds your writing and nourishes your soul.
2. Writing is solitary. Writing is lonely. It is easy to feel defeated, to lose sight of whether your vision and writing are any good, and to wonder whether it’s worth the time, devotion, and angst, let alone all that lost income, to tell stories and tales. We need writing pals to assure us that we are not insane, that we are not alone. That even though an artistic, creative life may feel out if sync with late capitalism’s unrelenting corporate drive, it has it’s own inspired history, and it is a journey that matters and makes sense. We need to be with others who are similarly out of sync, so that we can feel less lonely, feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
3. We need to see other writers in process. So much of our writing time is spent in the middle of something that feels long and unmanageable. The moments where we start a new project or have the reward of finishing are infinitesimal compared to the long slog of actually writing. Writing can be frustrating and hard and slow. Our world is quick. Seeing others in process helps make some sense of this confusing time warp.
4. We need a relatively safe place to learn good ways of managing the competitive feelings that everyone -- everyone -- has. How can you not? Competition is the unspoken of writers’ relationships with each other. It’s also the mostly unspoken ground of female relationships. As writers and authors, it’s hard not to be felled by a sense of scarcity. Hard not to think that someone else’s success infringes on your own. You want to feel truly happy for a friend who scored a caring agent, or a book contract, or a write up in the NYT Book Review, who sold tons of books, wrote the most amazing novel you read that month, or whatever the goodie is that she got and you didn’t. It can be hard to believe there’s enough space for everyone.
One of the legacies of female culture is that as a cohort, we haven’t yet developed good ways of managing the confusingly twined reactions of jealousy and scarcity. Doing so will create the possibility of helping each other more generously, of giving each other a hand up, and of being helped by each other.
Being in relation with other women writers is a chance to experience these very real and understandable competitive feelings, and find some sliver of a positive way to deal with them. To let them inspire you to work harder, make more connections and feel calm about your own timeline and pace. Whatever the competitive reaction is, you can decide just to recognize it as such, breathe it back out into the world, and be truly happy for your writing friend, grounded in believing that her success does not diminish the chances for your own.
True, it’s not an easy thing to do.
The friendships, the real relationships, the sense of shared goodness in a healthy writers group can give you a compelling reason to turn the negative competitive feelings into more positive competition, something that inspires you instead of dragging you down. That’s when another’s success increases the chances of our own. Believe me, you want to have successful writer friends, you really do, so you can be bolstered by everyone else’s publishing world contacts and writerly insight. Consider that vision!
I’ll end with three ground rules I’ve learned from being part of a writers group that’s somehow kept me from throwing in the towel.
1. Always tell the truth to your writers group. When something’s bad, tell it like it is. When something great happens, rave about it (and bring the goodies and champagne that day). Don’t apologize for your success, and don’t understate when things are crappy. Your writers group needs to know both. When one or two people stop telling the truth, then everyone stops, and then the whole group turns useless. It is a daring act to be yourself and tell the truth. Whether the news is good or bad, be straightforward and honest and keep it real.
2. Ask for what you need, because you won’t get help unless you ask for it. And then ask others what they need.
3 No behind-the-scenes backtalk and backstabbing. At least, very minimal, and only when you absolutely have to (I’m trying to keep it real here). That’s the stereotype of female culture and what women tend to do in groups. Here’s the thing: It is daring to be truly collaborative, to see the goodness and creative spirit in others and to experience that as amazing, as something that lifts us up, and not as something that makes us feel lesser in comparison. By resisting the temptation to be bitchy and backtalky, we stand a chance to create a piece of utopia, right now, and be part of a group that is truly supportive and sharing, and can help our writing soar.
She-writers, take it away and tell us what you know.