Why I Quit My Writers’ Group

About our guest blogger:

Peter Crowe’s stories have been rejected by publications as diverse as Versal and the official newsletter of the school he works at as an English Teacher. The same stories have inhabited the attachments of emails ignored by some of his best friends. He lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and has a wife and a young son.

Why I Quit My Writers’ Group

In the ultimate scene of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the protagonist-playwright David Shayne finally faces a truth dodged throughout the tortuous efforts to stage his latest production. “I’m not a writer. There, I said it, and I’m free.” He walks off into the night with his fiancé Ellen, having cast off the vestiges of artistic vanity in order to live a life of humility. It’s a scene within whose shadow I’ve been weeping ever since.

I first saw the film when I was fourteen-years-old, an age when every cultural encounter becomes a burdensome piece of mental furniture. To this day Cheech, the mob hit man with an untutored flair for drama, and David, the conceited, erudite artist who can create nothing but stilted artifice, are gathering dust in my drafty mental attic. A writer of non-fiction might disregard the term ‘furniture’ in favor of ‘paradigms’, which I’ve heard are even harder to shift.  The question all writers have to address is: am I a Cheech, a born artist, or am I a David, more taken with the idea of being an artist than the mechanics of producing good work? And if I’m a David, should I give up now?

The issue is complicated for me because I’m English and saddled by right of primogeniture with a class-consciousness so heavy my owners are considering turning me into glue (as if the mental furniture weren’t burdensome enough!). A certain process of reasoning follows from this. If I’m of working-class stock (depending on whether you determine class by the level of parents’ education, their jobs or the individual’s), went to a comprehensive school (if you don’t know much about the British education system, insert ironic quotation marks around ‘comprehensive’), and can’t rely on the persuasive force of an old school tie (because I burned it on the last day), I must be a Cheech! It’s a miracle I can write legibly and with so few spelling and grammatical errors, having been comprehensively schooled (a private education might even have addressed my irritating parenthesis-habit).

Unfortunately, the analysis does not end there. I’ve been to university. I’ve studied English literature and teaching at three of Europe’s most prestigious institutions. I’ve never even held a real gun, let alone used it to pistol-whip anyone. And do I try hard? Yes, I do try hard.  There’s no doubt about it: I’m a David, caught in a web of sterile self-reflection. I wouldn’t know an engaging story if it came along and shat in my mental toilet.

So far, so abstract. In practice, what does it matter if I’m a Cheech or a David? Can’t I just continue writing and pretend no one has noticed? I suppose it depends on why you want to write. All over the internet you can find blog posts from aspiring writers entitled things like, ‘I AM a writer!’ containing bold admissions along the lines of: ‘There, I said it: I’m a writer. A person who writes’ (find your own examples – they’re too tedious for me to revisit). These people are David Shayne before the fall, not hungry enough even to stretch out a hand for an apple from the tree of self-knowledge. Because writing is the means to an end, or so it should be, and the word ‘writer’ is more than a rusting halo to be worn to impress all the other would-be angels.

In other words, I’ve quit my writers group because I’m not a writer. I’m a writer of no-fiction. Quitting was necessary to address the vain enjoyment I derived from telling people I was in a writer’s group, the orgasmic thrill of having something concrete to write on Facebook next to ‘Activities’ (‘Writing’), the _________ of __________ on _____________ (fill in the blanks for a tricolon). It’s a shame because I liked the group, the critique was useful and they could cook. Boy, could they cook. But when you’re thirty years old with a kid and a job and a wife and you spend two nights of a busy week reading and talking about other people’s stories and the other five telling people what you do on the other two nights and hoping beyond hope that it is enough to be involved in the activities surrounding writing to call yourself a ‘writer’, you know it’s time to stop pretending and grow up. I’m not a writer. There, I said it, and I’m free.

Peter Crowe

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14 thoughts on “Why I Quit My Writers’ Group

  1. I love my critique partner but we live on different sides of the country. We don’t meet up for dinner. We swap 50-100 pages and give detailed comments in a Word document every 1-2 weeks.We have a wonderful on-line connection and plan to meet up at conferences, but we are writers first and foremost. I think some writer’s groups become more about the social aspect and less about the actual writing.

    1. On behalf of Peter:
      Hi Kourtney,

      Sounds like an ideal situation, if you can find somebody willing to put in the hours. But the social aspect of a writers’ group is nice, too, as is the electrifying fear you have to face the first time you sit face-to-face with a group and hear them critique something you’ve written. I also find that reading written commentary differs from being able to hear the tone of voice it’s offered in.

      Peter

  2. Awesome post. I appreciate Peter’s input.

    The coincidence of this is I recently posted on my blog about the exact same thing. In fact, I wrote “I am a writer.” This tickled me pink to read, and I had quite a gutteral reaction to it. Perhaps this post comes from the other side of my mirror.

    I originally didn’t want to deal with a writing group. In the end, though, I learned to hone my skills through critiquing others. The circle-jerk of someone critiquing my work was just a potential “aah” moment at the end of a long, tedious day at my regular job. Plus I had some terrible habits I couldn’t remove on my own. After the “writing group” step, I move forward. The group is not an end of itself, unless you find some long-lasting relationship with a jewel of a writer (which I have).

    In fact, one of the best writers I have met in the past five years isn’t published. He wrote about his college days (like a diary, I guess), and he buried his book in the annals of a dying computer. The work is brilliant, but he’s never studied anything remotely English-related. All computer science, all politics. Furthermore, he probably won’t ever be published. Is that a shame? Perhaps. He doesn’t even presume to call himself a writer.

    I’m a social person, too, and until I can make enough money to enroll in a writing workshop, this po’ boy’s gotta get what he can. Too little writing input in a podunk town in the midwest.

    1. On behalf of Peter:
      Cheisserer, glad you took the post in the way it was intended. I myself have indulged in the whole ‘I’m a writer’ shtick, though in private diaries rather than on the web. Inspiring to read about your computer scientist friend’s work – but why do you think he won’t ever be published? If you think his work is that good, wouldn’t other readers? (I also admire the fact he doesn’t call himself a writer – humility is a rare virtue these days).

      Also, why do you feel the need to enroll in a writing workshop? In Europe we don’t have the same culture of going to writing school. I think the US writing cliques are making a mint out of keeping a closed shop, leaning heavily towards writers schooled within an inch of their life to produce something polished and mannered. I get depressed reading a lot of contemporary American writers – apart from Jennifer Egan, who is fantastic.

      The thing I want to guard against is ‘Frank Wheeler’ syndrome. Frank is the main character in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, who sustains himself through apparent social conformity – house in suburbia, wife, kids, job in advertising – with the memory of something his wife told him during their courtship: that he is the most interesting person she’s ever met. Buoyed by this confirmation of his vain belief in his own uniqueness, he gets through his mundane life on the lie that he is somehow better than the existence he leads – that some potentially great destiny awaits him. When his wife challenges him to actually move to Paris and try and fulfill his destiny, his self-deceptions are exposed for what they are.

      I worry the same thing will happen to me – I can sustain myself for months on any casually-offered morsel of praise.

      Peter

      1. I agree about fighting conformity, and it’s currently the bane of my existence. Do I fight for a wide range of the populace, or do I find a hard, core audience? They both take a similar amount of time and work: I have to actually know something for the latter, and I have to remain relatively mundane for the former.

        I’m editing my friend’s work right now. I’m really pushing him to get it polished, and he’s actually working pretty hard on it. You might see it on shelves someday. Autobiographical works with humor and flair are a different genre than what I’m used to, so I don’t know how it’ll work.

        Writing groups, while they can be money sinks, are, for me, more about shaking hands with the people who read 5000 queries a year. It’s not jumping to the front of the line, but it is helping me get attention.

        I like praise, but I’m too critical to linger on anything positive. Maybe I drink a little too much Nietzsche in my coffee.

        1. On behalf of Peter:
          I have a friend who is very creative with internet-based self-promotion. He makes professional-looking book and story ‘trailers’, with images and a voice-over of him reading the book, for example. I think that stuff shows more initiative than traditional networking, and when the people who read 5,000 queries a year see it, they know the writer is willing to put the legwork into marketing as well as writing.

          Good luck with the struggle.

          Peter

  3. Hi Samir. I have to admit that I cook and clean to get ready for company, but it means that my family will eat well that night. And we talk for a few minutes in the beginning, to check in with each other and state personal goals for the work session, but mostly we work. LIke toddlers at parallel play. I also think it is also great modeling for my teen daughter, who is a peer in this group and works hard, and takes her own writing seriously.

  4. I think that part of the problem is that too many “wanna-be” writers today are not willing to do — or are oblivious to — the heavy lifting required to enable oneself to be called “a writer”, i.e., a working professional, they think that they can just cut in the front of the line via a work-shopped novel or two, a self-published work here and there, a byline or three or four in an online journal and — poof! — you’re a writer. Not so.

    In my 25-plus years as a working writer I have labored for trade magazines (business-to-business and business-to-consumer), arts magazines, ‘men’s lifestyle’ periodicals, screenwriter for educational/public TV documentaries and for exploitation flicks that show up on cable TV at three in the morning, book reviews, etc., and I have written my share of successful and not-so successful plays, films, books, and too many other projects too mention. A writer, to be honorably called a professional, is a lifestyle that one becomes committed to, a hunger to do nothing more or less than trade your talent with a word for a living, and quite often not a good one at that. Charles Bukowski was one of the rare few who could sling words in his off-time while working his day job (at the post office) and finally have someone (John Martin at Black Sparrow Press) urge him to quit his job to commit himself fully to writing.

    Naomi has it right above: Don’t talk about it, just do it. Writing workshops are nothing more than mutual … well, I don’t need to use the word, you know what I’m saying.

    1. On behalf of Peter:

      Rodger, I agree with a big part of your sentiments, but is it really a ‘problem’ for anyone other than the ‘vanity writers’? They aren’t hurting anyone, after all, unless living what Henrik Ibsen called a ‘life lie’ is inherently damaging to a person. Some people are able to carve out a niche of mutually masturbatory self-congratulation in journals run by their peers – fair play to them. A big part of contemporary art is ‘getting away with it’, as Damien Hirst has said, so if they can take their ‘cool’ pissing contests to the next level and gain recognition and income doing it, bully for them.
      But it’s not for me, which is why I’m going to bow out until I either have something to say or can believe my own delusions enough to try and trick a mass public.

  5. I’ve never belonged to a writing group and my introverted personality would never be comfortable in one, so reading your post has made me extremely happy but it’s also made me happy for you because your writing is sublime and I enjoy it more each time. You’re not a writer, there I said it and if you continue to write so well, I shall continue to say it.

    1. On behalf of Peter:

      Thanks for the kind comment! For me, though, the issue is that I have nothing to write about (besides writing/not writing). In the words of a good friend of mine – “I’m not one of those people who needs to write. I don’t wake up hungering for it.” At a certain point one has to devote those fruitless hours of trying to something more constructive.
      Being in a writing group has a lot of plusses – the discipline of deadlines, seeing how people react to your words, discovering your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and as a person, the social aspect – but I found that I began anticipating how they would react to what I wrote. I’d write for them rather than for myself.
      If you can find a supportive group which gives everyone enough space to share, you’ll be surprised how quickly introversion falls away. But I need space from the process for a while to find out whether I’m going to persist on this lonely path.

  6. I sometimes find that when I am with the writing group that reads, critiques and talks about each other’s writing, I just want to go home and write. So I started a group that meets to write in good company, where there is tea and coffee available and plug-ins for the lap tops. But we don’t talk about it. We just do it. I hope that, if you WANT to keep writing, you will do so. Maybe without the time-consuming meetings, perhaps you will find the time to simply WRITE. Best of luck to you.

    1. On behalf of Peter:

      I like the idea behind your group. Does it work, though? Can you actually produce stuff surrounded by other people? (I’d never fit into your group – I’d keep interrupting you to ask stupid questions and make small talk and offer to make fresh coffee at fifteen minute intervals and show you every youtube film sharing a keyword with the title of your story).

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