If it's flattery you're looking for, don't join a writing group.
A few ladies and I have formed an "accidentally Commonwealth" writing group (together, we hail from the UK, Australia and New Zealand). We meet once a month and have had two meetings so far. This post is about our second meeting, which took place at the home of one of the members.
All in all, I feel safe in the group because I know these are people who have similar interests, goals and motivations when it comes to writing. Yet there's a definite sense of vulnerability, too; I know that sooner or later, parts of me that even I have trouble accepting are going to be exposed to the group via the medium of my writing.
I had very quickly written a piece clocking up at roughly 2,000 words about an ongoing experience that had unleashed my opinionated wrath. I sent it round on our home-grown submission system (replying all on email, with a document attached).
Honestly, I felt uneasy as I did so. I hated my piece. It's the first time I have really hated something I've written that I then let other people take a look at (academic essays don't count here). In fact, I was dreading the feedback.
That evening, before the feedback part began, everyone was treating me normally. Okay, so at least I didn't piss anyone off with my writing, I thought. We chatted over our potluck meal, featuring tasty dishes ranging from a sweet potato ratatouille to peanut butter triangles with salted chocolate. Then it was time to go over our pieces.
'I liked it,' started the first person, when it came to mine. She then went on to give her reservations about what I had written, while I listened diligently and made notes that I hoped would make sense when I later looked over them during the revision process. This question, though, is what really stood out to me:
'So I now know your situation. But what's the story?'
What I learnt at this month's session is that it's simply not enough to describe your truth. You have to put a twist on it, too, whether that means making it anecdotal, making aspects of the experience into stories themselves or focusing on two or three aspects of the experience rather than the collective thing.
Even if there is the pleasant side-effect of your own catharsis - that is, simply getting it all out on the page - that still doesn't mean much. People find throwing plates at a wall cathartic, or screaming. If your writing is hollow, you're just screaming. Maybe someone out there will relate to your experience because they went through something similar, but again: that's not enough. You may as well just get together and chat about your mutual experience over a beer. Relatability isn't enough because if you're writing about a topic that millions of people go through, what makes your take on it special?
The remarks on my piece were generally unanimous within the group. On this occasion, the point for me wasn't that I had hated my piece yet submitted it anyway, but that I had thrown it out into the air to be hung, drawn and quartered. (Alright, that did sound unnecessarily violent, since we formed this group out of goodwill.)
As the evening's focus shifted to other people's work, I moved on too: I enjoyed giving feedback, I loved hearing different things that had stood out to different people, I was intrigued to learn about the background or inspiration for each piece.
When I got home, though, I didn't want to look at my piece ever again. This was a couple of nights ago now and that feeling has thankfully dissipated (although I don't doubt that it is a totally normal and natural feeling). I do have other writing priorities at the moment, ones that I've already been toiling over for a while, and so I am going to forget it for the time being. Besides, the nature of that particular piece is such that its direction is going to become much clearer with the benefit of hindsight. Then I'll add, delete and rewrite parts, I'll let someone look over it again.
I'll make myself vulnerable again because I want to, because the essence of a writing group is tough love.