Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why and how writing groups make all the difference

Why and how writing groups make all the difference
...because it’s such isolated work, staring at blank pages, or computer screens, summoning up the chutzpah to invent whole worlds not to mention banishing judgmental crows with their claws digging into my head, forming a community with other writers is an emotional and practical necessity.
I attempted to write fiction in physical and virtual isolation for three years before signing up for a writing program, David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, B.C. in 1983/84. I’d published in magazines and newspapers- non-fiction, a few poems and travel articles- but not fiction, and the synthesis of memory and imagination that is fiction, was the form I was most interested in writing.
At DTUC, we were taught by published, working writers, not academics. Our writing classes were most often conducted as workshops, moderated by the instructor, where we learned to give and take constructive criticism.  The goal was clarity; improving the writing to make it as good as it could possibly be. The tone in the workshops was civil, respectful and often generous in spirit and we learned as much about editing as we did about writing. Most of us blossomed and went on to work with the musicians, actors and visual artists on campus, producing collaborations for public viewing. I learned there that artists whose egos hamper their intellects and who will not work or play well with others, who refuse to have a word changed in their stage monologues or magazine submissions or who will not take direction from anyone, professional or fellow student, will not progress very far in their art form. Happily, most of the students were mature (average age: 28 in the writing program though age is never a sure-fire guarantee of maturity) and very bright and a good number of us are working in the arts to this day.
When this amazingly productive and creative post-secondary art school was closed by the Bill Bennett Socreds of that unfortunate era, all I could do was be grateful I’d had one glorious year and to carry on. About nine people, led by Fred Wah and Pauline Butling, former instructors, and a number of former students, formed the Kootenay School of Writing in Nelson in 1984/5 with a counterpart ‘school’ in Vancouver. As of today, 2010, both groups are still active although the Nelson group is in the midst of reconsidering its focus and mission, after 25 years of strictly volunteer effort. We brought in writers in all genres except children’s literature, which was the only genre not taught at DTUC, with the support of the Canada Council. We organized tours in the Kootenays for the guest writers, sending them up to Kaslo, Nakusp, Silverton and the Slocan Valley as well as Nelson and sometimes Castlegar. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when I volunteered for 9 years, we brought in David Adams Richards, Sylvia Fraser, Joan MacLeod, Michael Ondaatje, Frank Moher, Carol Bolt, Rosemary Sullivan and a great number of other poets, playwrights, fiction and non-fiction writers. We feted and fed them, loaned them winter boots, coddled their colds and learned from them in the workshops we asked them to lead in Nelson. We also organized the best book launches for each other and seasonal group readings for the public that were very well-attended.
A number of us organized and hosted Starving Artist Dinner Parties, potlucks with a culinary and spiritual purpose, to feed bodies as well as souls. One day in the year that Paulette Jiles won the Governor-General’s Award, the Pat Lowther Award and the Gerald Lampert Award for her book of poems, Celestial Navigation (M&S), she found her cupboard bare except for bulgur and onions, so we determined to do something good and creative with that sad fact: thus the S.A.D.P. tradition was born to nourish us all.
Informally, I formed writing retreat groups with a number of other writers, notably Rita Moir and Vi Plotnikoff, and we’d hole up somewhere pleasant and cheap with food, wine and lap-tops, reading to each other from our new works-in-progress in the evenings. Sometimes, giving or getting out to dinner parties with other writers is as much as we can do, with our busy lives and deadlines, to support each other with good conversation, good food and good wishes. Practically speaking, we, former students and instructors, all friends and fans, often help each other out by organizing book launches and tour publicity and book sales. Linda Crosfield (Google for her great blog) has a Roving Book Table that she brings to many Kootenay literary events.  She also makes and hand-binds beautiful books and publishes her poetry internationally.
Which brings me to the present era of writers’ support groups, given my life as a light-keeper, which is that of internet writing buddies, linked by email. Not as much fun as dinner parties but it helps me stay on track, stay focused on writing, and to feel, even when things are not going well, that I am a ‘real’ writer and must keep going. With one group, I formed a publishing collective, wherein we read and edited each other’s work, organized each other’s book launches and sold our books to stores and at writing festivals. With others, I exchange writing for critiques or discuss strategies for events or writing contracts or submission tactics; with one, I exchange vows on the first of every month as to writing goals, share the triumphs of the preceding month and temporary setbacks, all rants and raves for confidential and understanding ears. What it means is that every time a writing buddy anywhere I’ve lived gets a book published or is nominated for an award or is asked to tour elsewhere, we all get to celebrate because we all know how long and hard that friend has worked to get the story/book/script right and written. We toast the great joy of creative work seeing the light of day and we all shine our lights on the creator and the work. We know this is temporary, too, because we must all return to the blank page and the empty screen but in the meantime, we send a flurry of congratulatory emails and nice cards and if possible, celebrate in person, with joyful gusto.
So, odd as it may seem, writing is an intensely solitary as well as generously communal act, in my experience, which may be utterly atypical. I enjoy being a semi-hermit and getting the imaginative work and the hard work of writing done and I also enjoy being very sociable and meeting other writers and readers. I need a balance of both worlds to support my inner life as a writer and this works for me so I am grateful!