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Writer's Groups

Jars of tapeworms.

By Stephanie Van OrmanPublished about a month ago 7 min read
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Writer's Groups
Photo by Carlos Felipe Ramírez Mesa on Unsplash

One time, I read a quote from Hemingway describing literary New York as a jar of tapeworms trying to eat each other and I thought, 'Yep.' Except, I don't think of literary New York specifically. Instead, I think of in-person writer's groups.

Before I begin, I would like to say that I wish all this wasn't true. I wish that writers could exist in a community where they share accomplishments, where everyone is valued the same, where knowledge would be shared freely, and where someone could truly be motivated. It's too bad.

Every Big Worm Was Once A Little Worm

My fear is that a more experienced writer might use their knowledge to make someone who is just starting out feel even smaller than they are so that the big worm can feel even bigger. They might belittle and criticize the little writer so that they think their small contribution is no contribution. If they have nothing to contribute, why write? It may even be in the mind of the big writer to bully them into quitting. Being jealous of the craft is not uncommon.

There are a few tactics in my mind that stand out to protect the fledgling writer. The first one is that if you want to find something to criticize about a piece of writing, you can find it. You don't need a group of writers to point out what's wrong. It's not rocket science. It's not even hard. You can pick out a classic novel that has endured the test of time and still find dozens of mistakes. Thus, if you want to know how to improve your writing, you do not need someone to tell you what is wrong with it. Read your own writing and figure out (not how to improve it to someone else's standard), but how to bring it closer to your original vision. Read it and make a wish list of what you would do if you were doing it all over again. The wish list is what you should work on.

Also, assuming that the big worm knows what they're talking about is a huge mistake. Just because they're experienced, just because they've found their own path forward, just because they sound smart, just because they've succeeded in some way, or because everyone in the writer's group listens to them DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM. You can CHOOSE. I have had times when I had to swallow bitter pills regarding my writing. It's not like that never happens. I'm suggesting that little worms take a minute to analyze what is being said. Maybe the criticism is gold. Maybe it's poo. The long and short of it is that perhaps the path the big worm took as a writer was only available to them. Maybe no one else can take that exact path. That's especially true now when there are so many paths forward and not just the traditional publishing path. Make your own path, little worm.

Surprisingly, this hierarchy in the writer's group does not just make the little worm suffer. It's also bad for the big worm. More than anything, if they're attending a writer's group and they have a bunch of little worms paying homage to them, they might have an utterly misplaced idea of their own skill. If someone thinks they've made it as a writer, if they're getting sunshine blown over them all the time, they might not realize how inadequate they are. Remove them from that jar of tapeworms and throw them into another jar, and they may suddenly become the little worm in the jar. Self-analysis is always a stronger tool than group analysis. If the big writer was using the wish list technique instead of trusting other writers to check them, they'd still be growing, even without a bunch of little worms to eat.

Worm Count... I mean Word Count

Writing for an in-person writer's group might mean that a writer only writes what they need to prepare in order to present at their writer's group. So, let's say there's time for them to present 15 minutes of material without being too greedy to the other members of the group. That means that they need to write approximately 3,000 words. If they have their writer's group once a week, that's 156,000 words a year (if they don't miss any weeks and if they're allowed to present at every meeting). If they have their writer's group once a month, that drags the word count down to 36,000. Please remember that a novel is 40,000 words at the least. Now let's compare these numbers. Writing 3,000 words a week is a perfectly healthy amount of writing, especially when a writer is also working full-time. However, only having a writer's group once a month (which is the more likely timetable for busy adults) pulls the production of the writer down so low... are they still writers if they produce such little material?

Let's talk about the National Novel Writing Month. It's November. The goal is to crack out a novel in a month. For the writers who have trained themselves to write 3,000 of acceptable material for a once-a-month writer's group, the idea of cracking out at least 40,000 in a month is going to be a serious challenge. They don't write that much in a year.

However, if you can write 2,000 words a day for 30 days, you'll have a 60,000-word manuscript at the end of the month. If you can write 3,000, you'll have a 90,000-word manuscript. Comparing that 90,000 in a month to that 156,000 in a year (for the weekly writer) really drags things into the light, doesn't it?

I'm suggesting that writers who write every day and challenge themselves rather than relying on the motivation of a group grow faster at any level than those who limit themselves to what they're going to present at their writer's group.

The Audience Inside the Jar

I highly disapprove of classes in creative writing if the teacher presenting the lectures is the same person who is grading the assignments because I don't think it's difficult to write something that will impress someone I know. When you start writing a new piece and you know who your audience is, it's pretty easy to write something that will please that audience. Knowing how to do that doesn't make you a good writer. For example:

Man on a date: "I just don't think I've ever been with a woman who understood me. I just want to be a man, go to work, pay the bills, take care of my wife and family. All the women I've dated want me to be something I'm not."

Politician on the stand: "We don't need more money in taxes to have a better country. We need to rid ourselves of outdated policies that are costing taxpayers' money. We need to rewrite our policy books to give real change to this country."

Writer in a creative writing class: "I felt as if another chamber in my heart was suddenly thrown open, and there was a whole other part of me that I had yet to explore. It was full of words and feelings, feelings as fragile and elegant as an insect wing reflecting the morning light."

Those things are all lies, but they're what the audience wants to hear. If you know what your writer's group likes, you can write what they will like and, predictably, they'll shower you with praise. However, training yourself to pander to these people does not make you a good writer. It makes you an expert liar.

Another odd quirk is that people who are interested in writing are not the largest consumers of books, so writing what will please them is quite unlikely to turn you into a marketable writer.

Worm Feedback

One of the strongest reasons for attending a writer's group is that if you can share your writing with someone, you can get feedback right away. This is not the writer's way. When you write, you don't usually get to see a live reaction to your work. Normally, it's words on a page. They're read when you're not present, far away from you, perhaps even long after you're dead. Getting addicted to seeing your audience is the last thing you need. Will you still write if there's no one to enjoy it with you?

I've also witnessed a phenomenon where wannabe writers like to share ideas for novels and once they're shared, the idea never gets written.

Conclusion

One time, I was invited to join a writer's group. The person inviting me was a big worm in the tapeworm jar (he was also old enough to be my father). It was cute. He thought he could guide me to becoming a better writer. He also thought that I would love his writing and become a little worm who would praise him for his creativity and intellect. He had published one book, but that was more than most of the other writers in his writer's group. When he realized that I had written over 20 books and had a thick handful of those books in print, his offer was quietly rescinded. After all, I wasn't just a more prolific author than him, I was decades younger, and I knew a lot more about publishing than him. For a big worm in a jar, the last thing he wanted to do was bring in a worm large enough to eat him up.

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About the Creator

Stephanie Van Orman

I write novels like I am part-printer, part book factory, and a little girl running away with a balloon. I'm here as an experiment and I'm unsure if this is a place where I can fit in. We'll see.

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