It’s a lonely business sometimes, this writing malarkey. Sitting there day after day, struggling to make characters that seem to have developed minds of their own follow the damned plot; plodding away for ages, typing, then deleting, then typing again; checking on the word count and discovering the tragic truth that, whilst you haven’t even looked at Twitter all morning, you’ve still only managed 200 words. Keeping going on your own – especially if, like me, you’ve been used to working in an office surrounded by busy colleagues – can be a bit of a challenge. So I was both excited and intrigued when I met a former colleague for drinks recently and he told me about the London Writers’ Café.
This, it transpires, is a group for unpublished writers that meets regularly to discuss each other’s work. It turns out there are a lot of these groups – you probably know this already but this is still a whole new world to me, my friend – but, unlike many of the others, the LWC requires would-be members to complete a short questionnaire before they’re admitted to the group. The questions aren’t difficult – tell us about your current writing projects, what you’d like to get out of the group, and so on – but the message is clear: this is for people who are serious about writing and prepared to make a real contribution to the discussion.
I dutifully filled in the questionnaire and waited anxiously for the response. A day later, it came: I’d passed! (I’m not sure anyone actually fails, to be honest, but I’m not dwelling on that.) I felt inordinately pleased as I added the details of the next meeting to my diary: look! A real, honest-to-goodness appointment for me-as-writer!
Well, the meeting took place yesterday and I can say it was inspirational – genuinely inspirational. I’d been a bit nervous about it, to tell you the truth: I mean, these were clearly serious people and I’m a complete novice; but there was that appointment in my diary, and I’d been so proud of myself when I wrote it in – there was no way I wasn’t going. I did my homework in advance, of course – there’s still quite enough of the civil servant in me to make sure of that – looking at the summaries of each of the members attending, checking out their blogs and tweets. And, despite telling myself not to be ridiculous, I did spend ever such a little bit of time trying to decide on the perfect I’m-very-serious-about-writing-but-that-doesn’t-mean-I-take-myself-too-seriously-and-I-really-really-know-how-much-I-have-to-learn-whilst-at-the-same-time-hoping-I-have-something-helpful-to-contribute outfit.
I only got changed twice.
But to the meeting: in a nutshell, it was two hours spent listening to group members who’d volunteered to read their work, following by a discussion full of insightful, constructive criticism. It was the kind of experience I’m pretty sure I’ll go on learning from for some time, but here’s what I think I’ve taken from it so far:
- yes, there are a lot of writers out there who are really serious about what they’re doing…
- …but that doesn’t mean you’re all fishing in the same pool. The five pieces I heard read out yesterday were completely different from each other;
- some of the points of criticism were the kinds of technical things from which I know I’ll really benefit – thoughtful comments on structure, voice and tone. I’ll be reflecting on those as I go through my own editing process;
- others were matters of taste – and even in a group of twenty or so people, the kinds of things some people took issue with were exactly those that appealed to others. That’s helped me realise that expecting everyone who reads my writing to like it, or even to see good qualities in it, is an exercise in futility – it’s just not going to happen. That’s not to say it isn’t valuable to hear what people like and what they don’t, just that I don’t necessarily need to take every comment as gospel;
- literary criticism is a skill and it’s one that I’m very rusty on. I need to brush up if I’m going to be more useful to other people.
Finally, what I’ve learned is that I really, really love identifying myself as a writer and being surrounded by people doing the same.
The next meeting is on Monday and I can’t wait. I’m not ready to read at that one – which is just as well, because the reading slots get taken up a long time in advance – but I’ve put myself down for a slot at the September meeting, i.e. the one that’s sufficiently far off not to feel too real or scary just yet. Watch this space for signs of nerves as the date gets closer…