Thursday, January 29, 2009

how to start a writers' group

If you've ever written anything at all, and thought to yourself that you like it, this act of using words to create images and stories, or represent facts and ideas, you would benefit from being part of a writers' group.

I wasn't sure about that, six years ago, but I thought that it might be neat to try it. I was living in Whistler, British Columbia, which is a major ski resort, and I was eighteen. I didn't ski or snowboard, but I did like to write; I had notebooks full of poems starting from about age fifteen, and I had been journalling since I was twelve. I forget exactly how I heard about the writers' group; it could have been a newspaper ad in The Pique, it could have been my boss Laurie, also a writer, who told me about it. I emailed the group coordinator, Stella, and asked if I could come for a meeting. She said, "Of course!"

The group met in her home, and I remember that she had tiles that were warmed from underneath. I took off my shoes and went, "Oooh!" Maybe this is why I kept coming back. But more likely it was because I felt like I'd stumbled into a hidden cave that held something wonderful: eight to ten writers meeting once a month, gathering somewhere comfortable, sharing pieces of writing and talking about them for two to three hours!

I'd had a few friends who liked to write, when I was growing up, but this was something new for me. After three meetings I screwed up my courage and submitted a poem. The next time I submitted a short story. It was scary to do it, not knowing what responses would come back to me, and knowing that I was making myself vulnerable. But each time, it was worth it. We would discuss my work for about a half hour, then I would get back the printed copies of my work from all the other group members, covered with their written comments. I would take the little stack home, and pore over them at my kitchen table, reading comments and taking notes.

I left Whistler, and went on to other things, other travels. I continued to write, but kept it mostly to myself (the exception being this blog). I went to university, and writing essays took most of my creative skills, and then I got pretty tired of it. When I came home last year, I knew one thing I had to do was clean out the gunk that had clogged up my creative river, and provide new notebooks for collecting what might come flowing. I wanted to start a writers' group, but I was pretty scared of it, too. I was scared that I would get it started, and then not have the energy to follow through. I was scared that no-one would join it. I was scared of all those things that someone prone to anxiety gets scared of, things which usually don't come to pass, but are incredibly real beforehand.

By last summer I thought, "I think I have the energy for this. I'm not sure. But I might." I went to my librarian friend Kate, and said, "I have an idea." Kate said, "I like ideas!"

By September, I had posters that I had put up all over town. They began, "Are you a writer? Do you like to write, even if you don't think of yourself as a writer?"

And by late October, and our first meeting, I had somewhere between fifteen and twenty interested people. I was gobsmacked! And now, we've had three meetings, and we're going strong. Our meetings are great, we all talk easily and strike the balance between being supportive of each others' work, and being critical of the pieces. And sometimes we eat rum balls and chocolate squares, and stay late talking about writing. I still deal with my anxiety, before each meeting, but as time goes by I worry less and less about how the meetings will go.

So here are my tips for starting a writers' group.

1. Make a poster and put it up. Write a piece for your local newspaper. Put ads in local writers' publications, in book stores. Get the word out!

2. Find a place to meet that's private, and comfortable. We meet in the library on a night when it's closed, and sit in comfortable chairs. You could also meet in someone's home. Privacy is important for helping people feel at ease.

3. Spend the first meeting deciding how you want to run things, as a group. However, begin with how YOU want it to work, the structure already laid out. I based our group on the Whistler group format, but other groups like to write together, and then share their work at the meetings.

4. Even if you're feeling worried about how things are going to go, put on a happy front when you're talking to your group members. I don't always agree with "Fake it til you make it," but sometimes it works. Eventually you won't be faking it.

5. Work on having faith. Faith in - people coming out of the woodwork, people being courageous enough to submit their work, people enjoying themselves.

Two more things to remember:

a. If you don't think you're up to starting a whole group, or even joining a pre-existing group, I still encourage you to support your creative impulses somehow. Find a writing buddy, or take a writing workshop. Buy a blank notebook and write down random sentences when they strike you. Soon enough those sentences will build up into a collection of sentences, of ideas, and you will realize you do have an active, creative life.

b. No matter what you decide to do, let me assure you, it will be more than worth it! The energy and support you receive for your writing and your creative life will be above and beyond what you expected. I'm pretty sure of it.

PS: The Whistler group is still meeting, and they have a snazzy website with good information on starting a writers' group. Check it out!

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