When I was fifteen I imagined myself living all alone on a beautiful Greek island with blue sea and white houses (I had never been to Greece), writing books and hardly ever speaking to anyone. In those days I was so shy and awkward, so afraid of becoming dependent on others, that avoiding people seemed the best option. The idea of a community – any sort of community – horrified me. ‘Working with people’ (which I’ve done for a good many years now) seemed to be what people did who couldn’t make it intellectually or artistically – and who, mysteriously, had a grasp of the social skills I lacked.
Of course my real life has turned out very differently. I’ve always lived in towns and cities – though in London it’s perfectly possible not to connect with anyone – and, willingly or not, I’ve always found myself participating in different communities: churches in the days when I tried to be a Christian, meditation groups, folk dance groups, choirs, personal development groups, training groups, professional groups and associations. Even if I haven’t felt wholly comfortable in them or accepted by them, I would find it hard to imagine my life without them. In my early days I was drawn to the notion that ‘there is no society; there are only individuals’, but really I’ve always known that we’re all in it together.
The only groups I steered clear of for a long time were writing groups. What stopped me was the same mixture of fear and snobbery. My writing was mine alone and I didn’t want it interfered with; I didn’t want my work shown up to be as clumsy and inept as I feared it was; I knew I would find any criticism devastating; and at the same time I didn’t want to find myself among people who couldn’t really write and didn’t know good from bad.
I’m not sure how I got myself out of the impasse, but slowly (and sometimes, I have to admit, devastatingly) I did start going to groups and classes. I was certainly far from the best but I realised I wasn’t always the worst, and sometimes people said encouraging things. For a few years before I did the MA I was part of a monthly poetry and prose class run by a fairly distinguished poet, admission to which was by audition only (as it were). I could see clearly that my work wasn’t up to the standard of most people’s there, but nevertheless I stuck it out and was able to learn a lot from the others. It wasn’t until I did the MA that I began to get the kind of encouragement I had always longed for. The spirit in the classes was very much one of mutual help, and the tutors knew how to pick out what was best in someone’s work without losing sight of what needed improvement. We were all writers together, and it was wonderful. Nobody wanted it to stop.
Since the end of the course a group of us have continued to meet monthly and send each other work. The group are all talented writers – several have agents and one now has a publisher – and I was honoured that they asked me to join them. As a psychotherapist I’m used to being part of a peer supervision group, whose role is to offer consultation and mutual support. I never expected to find something equally sustaining as a writer. Our group celebrates people’s achievements, commiserates with their difficulties and rejections and is a source of first-class editorial advice. Before I sent out my novel again I ran it past two of my friends from the group. The careful, constructive edits I got back have made it, I think, a much better piece of work, pinpointing things that I knew weren’t quite right and suggesting ways of changing them.
When I told a friend of mine about all the help and constructive criticism I’d had, she said she now understood why authors needed to thank so many people in their acknowledgements. A piece of published writing (or would-be published writing) is a collective effort. In the end the author is responsible for it, but along the way friends and fellow writers, not to mention the agent and the editor, will all have had a hand in shaping it. How different, as my friend said, from an artist making a painting. Perhaps it does happen, but it’s much harder to imagine an artist’s friends saying things like ‘I don’t think that top right-hand bit quite works. You need more yellow there,” or “If I were you I’d rearrange the composition and put that curve over here.” An artist would most probably tell them to f*** off and stop interfering. Perhaps the difference is that it’s easier for a painter to step back and see the work as a whole, whereas writers are often so caught up in the detail of scene and character, or line and image, that they lose the wider view.
I don’t know now what I would do without my writing group. Writing may be a solitary activity but none of the writers I know are completely solitary as people. I’m certainly not; while the Greek island might be wonderful for a certain amount of time, sooner or later I’d want to come back and share my work with others. And I can now see – thank goodness – that acknowledging you can’t do it all on your own isn’t an admission of defeat but a sign of health and balance. Thank you, lovely group and all my other lovely writer friends.