A couple of years ago, I met Indian author, Shashi Tharoor, at the Dalkey Book Festival.
My opening words to him were, ‘I’ve hated you since I was 14!’
‘Why?’ he laughed.
‘Because you got your articles published in the Junior Statesman almost every weekend and I only ever got one.’
That was more than 50 years ago in India. All the same, I was chuffed to get my poem on The Beatles published in the weekend mag. Thus began my love of writing.
Writing is a solitary occupation and it is hard to gauge your standard with no one to compare your work against. This is where writing groups come in.
Over the years, I have attended workshops run by three Writers-in-Residence appointed by DunLaoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The first two produced anthologies of our work and the third resulted in a blog that I regularly post on a military website.
At the end of my second workshop, the group of poets and prose writers decided to continue writing together. We rotated the position of facilitator who sent out a brief ahead of the meeting. Similarly, work to be presented at the meeting was circulated in advance to allow plenty of time and thought to each piece.
A good writing group provides a safe structure within which the less confident writer can share work without fear of ridicule. Given the varying levels of experience, support is important in developing our writing and a healthy group will facilitate this. Appreciating and complimenting a writer on an excellent piece is not the same as patting each other on the back – that would defeat the very purpose of the writing group. Constructive criticism is an important aspect of the meeting if we are to hone our writing skills. Critiques by fellow members, if done in a fair and pleasant manner, will bring our subject back into focus if we have digressed from it. When I was writing my mother’s biography, I was repeatedly admonished because my voice was coming through too strongly – it had to be my mother’s voice, not mine.
Feedback will also encourage us to experiment and dip our pens into uncharted inks. I am no poet (despite my Beatles poem) but the poets in our group ably guided me to discover a latent talent and I managed to produce fairly respectable poems as a result. Exhilarated by my newly-acquired knowledge of Terza Rimas, Setsinas and Rondels, I introduced the group to lesser known (in this part of the world) forms of poetry such as Raga – Sanskrit poems/music composed for a particular season or time of day (Dawn Raga, Monsoon Raga etc); Ruba’i – Persian quatrains (a la Omar Khayyam); and Kavya – classical devotional poetry of India. The anticipation of unusual briefs builds up excitement and results in the stretching of minds.
Allotment of time is vital if every member is to be given a chance of equal participation. A stop-watch or a firm facilitator will ensure the smooth running of a meeting. Cliques have no place in a writing group nor do strong personalities who try to control or dominate. A pleasant, informative and instructive atmosphere is the objective of every group. Newcomers, if welcomed and nurtured, will quickly integrate and contribute enthusiastically.
There is nothing better than a short, on-the-spot exercise to focus the mind and produce a piece in a sprint against the clock. Such products tend to be sharp and spontaneous – qualities we all hope to achieve in our writing.
A writing group is useful in pruning over-writing. Editing advice is invaluable when the writing bug does not know when to stop biting. Thus the deadwood is removed from an otherwise fine script and it’s back to focus, focus, focus.
The interaction between writers is crucial to a creative group. The discovery of amazing talents, the nurturing of emerging talents and the appreciation of established talents all contribute to a successful workshop. In our group we were once asked to respond to a painting of our choice. I chose a painting by a fellow member. This explored hidden talents among members and added another creative dimension to the meetings.
The knowledge and experience gained from a good writing group has given many a diffident writer the confidence to offer up work for publication. Successful publications are all the sweeter when celebrated by our fellow-writers who have brought us to this point.
That’s what a good writing group is all about.
(c) Shabnam Vasisht
About ANU The Celtic Years:
Anu was 74 years old when she crossed deep water to settle on the other side of the world.
Embracing Ireland’s ‘One hundred thousand welcomes’, she quickly built an interesting life for herself, adapted to the weather and assembled a large circle of friends, most of them younger than her.
Her insatiable curiosity attracted her to many new situations, all of which were carefully recorded in her writings. She kept her brilliant mind well-oiled until the very end.
Anu’s story came to an end when she was 93 years old. She left me a wonderful legacy of friends, some of whom I have visited in their homes abroad.
Anu’s vibrant spirit is everywhere.
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