The do’s and don’ts of running a writers’ circle

It’s been mentioned by one of my members this week that the writers’ circle I founded and run is much loved and must “never change”. Intrigued by this seemingly random display of affection via a public tweet, I asked what had brought all this on. What I discovered didn’t surprise me that much, but it did anger me enough to write this blog post.

I am not going to mention any names: it’s not fair and it’s not my style. I am not a vicious, vindictive person. However, it needs to be said, and so I am saying it. Here goes.

I started my writers’ circle after participating in NaNoWriMo at the end of 2009. At first, it was little more than an idea. A few of us would get together, once a month, to get year-round feedback on our writing. The MLs [municipal liaisons, voluntary organisers of NaNo meets and write-ins] appeared to take it upon themselves to make some of the decisions regarding the (my) group, and I felt rather affronted by this, considering the whole thing was my idea in the first place, but didn’t have the gumption, at that time, to say anything. (Things would, I can assure you, be very different, now.) However, after a couple of meetings where quite a number turned up, it soon tailed off to just a few.

Shortly afterwards, those of us who were left decided that, if we were to draw in more people, we needed a name for our group and our soon-to-be-built website. It had to be a name that would attract the right kind of people, and so we brainstormed and had a vote and came up with what has become something of a local institution (albeit a small one): Brighton Plot Bunnies. That done, we got to work on the website, and from that point on, it was easier to promote the group. We had a name and we were a proper, legitimate Thing.

And so, four and a half years after first starting to meet (at some point, we started to meet twice monthly), we have become a well-established, and well-known, writers’ circle, and it’s something of which I am intensely proud.

Our group is not inclusive – we fully reserve the right to refuse membership (and it has happened a few times). The person might make a remark that upsets someone; they may be arrogant and egotistical; they may have a problem with the group being run by (gasp!) a woman (and a small one, at that – I am 5’ 3”); all traits which are not welcome at Brighton Plot Bunnies. It might even be something seemingly simple, such as not fitting in, or changing the atmosphere in the room, making everyone uncomfortable. I won’t have that. I can’t. All our members need to be able to relax and trust one another in order to get the best out of the group. As far as I am aware, everyone does.

When I heard that one of the Brighton region NaNo people was starting their own group, I would have been fine with that, but for one thing. This person, in my opinion (and that of a few others), is the embodiment of all the character traits that are unwelcome at Plot Bunnies. A giant ego being the main one. I said to our webmaster, when I found out she was doing this, that if she turned up to our group (unlikely in the extreme, as she “couldn’t stand” our venue, it was cold and dark and the food was crap, all of which she said loudly enough for me to hear and none of which was true), that she and I would end up having a stand-off within one or two meetings at most. More likely, within less than an hour.

And it seems my feelings were well founded. This week, a couple of my members went along to this other group. A few go anyway, which is fine, I have no gripe with that. They can, after all, go where they wish. I am not their keeper. I do, however, feel a certain level of responsibility towards our members, not only at meetings but outside of them, as well. In my view, that’s how it works. I have only their best interests at heart, as well as, yes, my own, and if someone new comes into a meeting and upsets the balance, believe me when I tell you that they do not come twice.

So, this week… I hear two of my members who don’t usually attend these meetings went, for something to do, to have fun and to unwind. Our next meeting was not for another week, and this was going on, so they popped in. However, the person who runs these meetings, so I am told (and I have no reason to disbelieve this, knowing well the person who told me), came dangerously close to severely upsetting one of my girls. I won’t go into detail, here. It was extremely personal, and something I wouldn’t dream of sharing unless I knew I was free to do so. (Again, that’s how it works.) It started off as a flippant conversation about a TV programme and quickly slid towards something about which this particular member of ours is deeply sensitive. The person who runs the group had to be forcibly told not to say anything else about it. A short while later, the person who told me, and the other person involved, wisely decided to leave.

Apparently, a few of the people there had laptops so they could write in a social setting, rather like the NaNoWriMo write-ins. That’s fair enough, though knowing what the November meetings can be like, especially when this (to put it politely) larger-than-life person is involved, I can’t imagine it’s the ideal setting for encouraging creativity. But that aside, the reason I’m angry is that, not only did this person have to be stopped from making a wildly insensitive remark, she also told another one of ours that she was so nice she wanted to stab her. This woman’s behaviour, in other words, was simply appalling.

So, in response (OK, so I’ve got a thousand words of response already, but no matter), here are my do’s and don’ts for how to run a writers’ circle:

***

DO: Make sure your group is a comfortable, friendly environment. Members need to be able to relax in each other’s company.

DON’T: Lord it over everyone because you think your way is the only way. But this is my group, I hear you cry, my group, my rules! Well, yes. And no. Everyone gets to speak, not just you.

DO: Give as many people as possible the space to talk. You may be restricted in terms of time, but you are a writers’ group, and communication is everything.

DON’T: Shout members down if you disagree with what they say. Yes, their opinion may differ from yours, but it is their opinion and they are entitled to express it.

DO: Encourage members to write. This is, after all, the reason you meet.

DON’T: Put members down if they haven’t written anything for a while. No one is forcing them. Least of all you. Writers are all different. Sometimes, if they feel pressured, they will write less, not more. They may stop coming to meetings altogether if all you do is make them feel shit about themselves.

DO: Encourage members to read their work aloud. Not only is this a great way to get immediate feedback, it builds confidence to a level you seriously won’t believe until you’ve tried it.

DON’T: Tell anyone their work is crap. It may need work. In fact, it probably does. You may not engage with it personally. This does not mean it’s no good. Do not get above yourself. You are not the Buddha.

DO: Laugh a lot. Laughing is healthy and it does all sorts of wonderful things to the creative brain. (But don’t ask me what they are. Ask a scientist who knows about these things.)

DON’T: Laugh at anyone. Laughing at someone is not the same as laughing with them.

DO: Remember most writers lean more towards introvert than extrovert. So you don’t? You’re not shy? Doesn’t matter. Adapt. Engage. Allow for differences. Diversity is what makes a group special.

DON’T: Engage in mutual appreciation. So you like the piece? Great. All to the good. But why? Saying something is good and you like it helps no one, least of all the person who wrote it.

DO: Ask for feedback yourself. You may run the group, but that does not make you a better writer than your members. They may (in fact, I can guarantee they will) have some valuable advice to give. So listen. Be humble. And remember to say thank you.

***

I could go on with this, but as you can see, it’s really very simple. Be nice. Be helpful. Be someone members can trust. If you’re not all three of these things, then you ought to ask yourself why you want to run a writers’ circle in the first place. Because it’s not a power game. Don’t get drunk on power. Get drunk on words. (And maybe beer, as well. But definitely words.)

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