There has been something special about nearly every writing group I’ve been part of, or indeed led. Often I won’t even know the ‘normal’ facts about the other writers – whether they are married, what job they do, how many children, if any, they have – BUT by the end of the session I may probably know something about them – and they will know something about me – that very few people do. This isn’t to say that writing groups are therapy groups, or confessionals, but the very act of writing together can feel special. In fact, the best writing groups generate their own energy so you end up writing something that surprises even you.
So I have counted myself very lucky this year to meet some extraordinary writers in the groups I have run – whether it be for the University of Kent at Tonbridge, in my own house, and even outside as much as I can (luckily mostly in the sunshine)!
We have written haikus, sonnets, novels (or parts of). We’ve shared knowledge about volcanoes, silences, photo-journalism, architecture, continuity, bees. We’ve written letters we’ll never send and letters to people we admire that we do send (and get replies from). We’ve written about food, places we’ve never been to, adventures, wishes, regrets. We’ve pretended to do things we’d never want to do and happily told lies about ourselves, some of us have committed murder (on paper) and others have turned innocent bystanders into people you would never ever want to meet in real life. It’s exhausting, fun and surprisingly brave to get words down on paper. Sometimes we’ve even told them out loud.
I’ve been teaching writing for some years now but I still can’t tell you how much it means to get comments like this one (as I did this morning): “This year, therefore, I shall cherish forever.” Or to be told that the writing group has changed someone’s life.
Sometimes I think it’s easy as writing tutors to take what happens in a group for granted BUT that’s because we all know is that it isn’t really us, standing or sitting at the front talking about poems or setting topics for writing (really it’s a hard life) but the group that takes off and makes magic happen. All we need to do is let it go and marvel at what happens.
I’ve been thinking about this because of this wonderful post from a writer I very much admire, Anthony Wilson, and also because I’m still crumbling a little inside at having to send an email about my writing classes next year FOUR TIMES because I kept getting it wrong. I almost gave up third time thinking that no one would ever trust me to lead any group ever again, but then I got this kind reply straight away from one of the writers: “Please do not cry, it’s only numbers. You are awesome at words!!!!!!”
It’s only numbers. Yes! And this is exactly the kind of support I value from other writers – knowing just what to say and when to say it. Because it’s the words that matter. So here’s a poem from one of the writers I’ve written alongside this year, always admiring her grace and determination to really get across what she wants to say. It sums up writing groups – not just mine but many – much better than I can, not just the phrase, ‘we will not be judging you’, but also the fun, skill and comradeship of all those involved.
Here’s Yasmin Khan Murgai’s poem. Enjoy!
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch
If you arrive on a Tuesday with your cashmere slightly askew
or your hair escaping unbrushed, we will not be judging you.
Between ten and twelve we search for words
to take us from heart to page and brain,
words which will then take the journey back again.
we say to readings from a book
or new writing from the group
“I’ve had something published,” says one.
“But it isn’t any good.”
Elegant women will write how this Christmas
they wish to find a white horse
tethered to a tree,
and with the next moment smile and ask
“Would you like coffee?”
We struggle to see the meaning of what it is to write.
Our teacher suggests “You could try this …”
and even more gently “You might …”
We work like spies on a mission
sharing confidences like this is our last night alive,
and yet, like bounty hunters, we keep a cold eye on the prize.
“My novel is a movie playing
in an abandoned cinema
in a forgotten town.”
I announce when suddenly I see.
my smiling group agrees.
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch.
“I am an expert orienteer”, our factual expert offers,
“in case you lose your way”.
“And I have a specialism in volcanoes”, the clever lady says,
“they’re very important day to day.”
“And I am a scarf!” says the writer opposite. We smile because
All so difficult I suggest, with work and family.
Someone gives me a sideways look
and I sigh.
And that evening work on a writing plan
so I can finish my book.
Note: The writing classes I run from my home on in Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening are – despite my lack of admin skills – full, but I do keep a waiting list so let me know if you would like to be on it. Realistically, there probably won’t be a place until summer though so I’d be happy to suggest other local options for you. I’d really advise anyone wanting to write to join a group, and let the magic happen!