As a member of a writing group, and having helped deliver a panel on managing a writers group at the Montgomery Community College Writers Conference, it's no surprise that I have a lot to say on the advantages and disadvantages of a writers group. Today I'm going to launch a series on writers groups that will encompass topics such as why we have them, how to form and maintain one, dangers of the writers group, and whatever else I can think of before I decide to write about something else. For today, let's just discuss if writers groups are even something to be considered as legitimate tools for writers.
There are two types of views towards writing groups in the writing world. Or should I say, there are two types of views towards letting other people help you write your work.
On the one side is that legendary image of the isolated writer alone in one's room, creating masterpieces untouched by others hands, the purest of art.
On the other hand is the group of writers helping each other go above and beyond their individual abilities in order to create art. It is my perspective that this is the type of writing which truly works, and that the amount of writers who never let anyone help them write are few and far between.
But don't take my word for it. Let's look at a few examples. I'll only go back to Romanticism.
Coleridge had Taylor, which set off an entirely new type of writing that revolutionized perceptions of what writing should aim to achieve. Through correspondence, other Romantic writers formed relationships with each other that certainly influenced their works, if not editing back and forth.
In Victorian times, Dickens had Wilkie Collins, both working together. The Bronte sisters must surely have relied on each other, else why bother having sisters at all? Emily Dickenson, though a classic example of the isolated writer, also sent poetry around through correspondence valuing the input and opinions of several mentors and other poets.
When we get to Modernism we have the Algonquin round table. Pound, Eliot, Doolittle, Joyce, Hemingway, etc. These writers edited together. They published together (often taking advantage of the magazine that Pound ran.) They wined and dined together. They were not only a group of writers, they were a group of friends (and in some cases such as Pound and Doolittle, more than that.) And they were unafraid to edit each others works, some of which we consider some of the pinnacle of art from the 20th century.
If you get the chance, find a copy of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot that contains the edits that went into it becoming the poem we know today. Originally it was to be titled He Do the Police in Different Voices to which I can only say...why? Eliot certainly did a lot of editing his own, but the poem that we know and love (or hate) would not have been possible without Ezra Pound. Through the influence of Pound the poem has become a standard part of English curriculum as opposed to what it could have been, which would have been nothing.
This raises the question of who wrote The Waste Land, Pound or Eliot? I'll leave that decision up to you.
From Modernism we see the Beats, who did much the same as the Modernists except with drugs. From there we see various schools of writing (schools in the sense of styles, not actual schools) that write in similar styles and generally have writing groups in order to encourage those styles to flourish.
Long story short, writers groups are not some sort of recent development threatening the sanctity of art. They have existed a long while and have influenced some of the greatest writers of their times. Are they a threat to the sanctity of art? That all depends on your views. But they're certainly not something dirty to the writing world as a whole.
Next week I'll discuss something a little closer to our concerns as future writers. Is a writing group right for you, whether you've been part of one for years, or have never considered one before today.
David is one of the founders and editors of Obsession Literary Magazine and the maintainer of Obsession's blog.