When Callie Armstrong wrote her post on Friday about writing groups and whether to join one or not, it brought to mind a day-long, pre-convention writing workshop I attended in March before the Left Coast Crime Conference. You might want to re-read her post before going further.
Oh, boy! At the workshop, there was quite a reaction to the adamant directive that we should not be in writing critique groups. (I work with three throughout the year, so my ears perked up!)
This mandate came from Jan Burke (workshop leader) and Sue Grafton (guest author). Jerrilyn Farmer (co-leader of the workshop) moderated her response by saying it might be okay with the right people, for a short time as she had done.
And to clarify, none of the three expressed the concern with pirating of their manuscripts as a reason to avoid groups. We do know that’s a concern many authors have had to deal with. Nope. The only issue they raised dealt with your responsibility as a writer. Not one of the three highly-successful writers thought that staying with a writing group helped make you a better writer.
In fact, the opposite.
Though none of them used the term, I connected their message with “learned helplessness” from my educator days. Learned helplessness is a condition that occurs when the student is given so much support to succeed that she cannot continue learning without the support. In fact, she abrogates her responsibility for learning, knowing she won’t be allowed to fail. She doesn’t know how to learn on her own.
Some have equated learned helplessness to generational welfare. People don’t know how to make it because they have no role models other than subsisting on welfare. It’s hard to imagine another way of living as model-making, as opposed to model-replication, is harder to do. Thus, learned helplessness has been alternatively called “learning welfare.”
How does that relate to writing groups? My understanding of the views of Burke, Farmer, and Grafton is that they believe that writing groups hold authors back from being the best they can be. And, in fact, a writing group is the resort of the “lazy author” (my words as I interpreted theirs).
Sue Grafton said words to this effect: Why would you listen to other people who may write the same or less well than you? How does that make you better? It is YOUR job to know when something isn’t working in your manuscript, and you shouldn’t expect other people to do your job. Do the work. Put in the time. Brutally evaluate your own output. That’s your job if you call yourself a professional writer.
But maybe there is a bit of disingenuousness going on? After all, these multi-published authors have editors and agents who no doubt function as a de facto critique partner, right? So is there truly no outside input? Not likely, but I suspect they would counter that these are publishing professionals giving feedback, not the friend who always wanted to write a book and is thrilled to be in a writing group.
I can see both sides to the argument. (Of course I can. I’m a wishy-washy Libran.)
I realized that I do depend too much on my writing group colleagues to find and help fix my manuscripts. I expect them to challenge my assumptions, question my direction, identify anomalies, and suspect my characters motives. Oh, and it’s certainly nice when they pick up all that passive voice and overwrought language I am given to.
I am lazy. Or I was. I am a recovering shirker, because I’ve changed. Sort of.
I am taking more responsibility for being the professional I need to be. I’m fortunate that I have multiple manuscripts going at a time. So I have divvied them up. I take some manuscripts to my groups for their help. Some manuscripts I am doing on my own.
It is very hard to do on my own. Decades of writing group interactions have led to a mild form of learned helplessness that I recognize now. By the same token, I believe my developing ability to be more independent of my groups was aided by the smart probing modeled for me and by examples of what works in their writing. So maybe I can eventually get to the Farmer/Burke/Grafton level of not needing any outside help. Or maybe not.
My future involvement, if any, with writing groups will also depend upon the group composition and disposition. There are archetypes in writing groups, too.
Each member is a unique character. Each is different and each contributes (or not) to my growth as a writer. I learn nothing from someone who finds my misplaced commas, and that’s all that person is capable of. Even on a modest day, I know I am a better writer than she is so who is she to tell me what to do. And when another one needs to humiliate writers to show she is superior in her understanding of writing craft, it is no wonder that an author might shut down and not find the gold nuggets among the rocks tossed at her. Group dynamics matter a lot. And I’ve been in the whole range of groups at some point.
A part of me thinks that critique groups also represent my potential readers. So isn’t that input helpful? To know what works or doesn’t? What is left out or extraneous? Where is it confusing?
“Nah”, Sue Grafton, Jan Burke, and Jerrilyn Farmer would say. “That’s your job.”